Fluff? Smac? Marshmallows, made in Melrose?

... Historical Society gets lowdown on Crystal St. factory

from Brigid Alverson

Editor's note: The Melrose Historical Society, at their second-quarter meeting in June, heard a dynamic talk on the Curtis Marshmallow factory on Crystal Street, complete with a fine collection of slides. The speaker was Brigid Alverson, long-time writer for the Melrose Free Press and now on the Mayor's part-time staff at City Hall. Ms Alverson graciously provided the Mirror with a copy of her lecture; unfortunately her slides do not match those old photos we borrowed from the Melrose Public Library collection, and therefore may vary slightly from Ms. Alverson's text. At the top is a publicity photo of Miss Emma Curtis, in her cooking space.

Those of you who have lived here for a very long time may remember the Curtis Marshmallow Factory, which stood on Crystal Street opposite what is now the tennis courts.

The company had its heyday from 1913 until the mid-1940s. It was the work of the brother and sister team of Emma and Amory Curtis, whose signature product for the first ten years was Snowflake Marshmallow Creme, the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow cream. I’m sure their product was good, but what was interesting about them was that the Curtises were very good at marketing their wares, at a time when national brands and convenience foods were still new concepts.

We are fortunate that the Curtis family kept meticulous documents, including some really wonderful photos of the factory and offices, so we really know quite a bit about the early days of the company.

Emma and Amory Curtis grew up in Boston and in Maine. Emma, who was born in 1863, looked sort of serious (judging from her photographs), but the people I have spoken to remember her as having a warm personality. She would also grow up to be a serious businesswoman.

Here she is, with her secretary, as a young woman. In 1902, the year after she moved to Melrose, the poll book lists her profession as bookkeeper. By then she was close to 40 and was obviously a serious career woman.

Emma’s brother Amory was considerably younger than her. His father Charles was the sort of person who was good with his hands — he was a carpenter and a shoemaker at different times—and he was also a so-called “metaphysical healer,” who healed people through his magnetic personality, simply by laying his hands on them. Charles was a student of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. Incidentally, the Curtises are direct descendants of Paul Revere. Amory was his great-great-great-grandson.

Amory went to Boston English High School, which had a military training program sort of like our ROTC. He was accepted by MIT, but the family couldn’t afford to send him, so he went out to work instead.

In the 1890s Amory formed his own company with a partner, Jack Moore. Curtis & Moore sold hardware for soda fountains, and they also made their own fruit extracts and syrups. Whenever a shipment of fruit came in, they would put an ad in the Boston papers and hire local women to help with the processing.

According to family lore, Amory was offered a job as the head of the Coca Cola bottling company when Coke first came to New England, but Jack Moore persuaded him not to leave their partnership.

Eventually Curtis & Moore merged with another business, Beech & Claridge, and Amory left the firm.

Amory moved to Melrose in 1901, looking for a bit more room than he had in Boston. At that time Crystal street was mostly vacant lots, so Amory bought up the entire east side of it. He lived in the house at number 17, and he moved a house over from Main Street and put it on the lot at number 29.

Around 1910, Amory started out making marshmallows in the basement of his house at number 17. In 1913 he built the factory down the street, at number 33. Emma lived in an apartment on the third floor of the factory.

In the beginning, the Curtises made a single product: Snowflake Marshmallow Creme. This was the first commercially successful, shelf-stable marshmallow creme.

The Curtises didn’t invent marshmallow crËme, but they popularized it for home use.

Let’s stop here and do a little marshmallow history. Marshmallows are named after a plant, the marsh mallow, which has a slippery sap that forms a gel when it is mixed with water.

The ancient Egyptians may have been the first to make it into candy; they mixed the juice with honey to make a sweetmeat reserved for the wealthy and the gods.

In AD 77,  the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder credited the sap with curing all sorts of disorders from tumors to dandruff, as well as warding off insect bites. In fact, he wrote, anyone who drank the juice daily would be free from all diseases. Pliny overstated the case, but for centuries, marshmallow juice was used to treat skin conditions and sore throats. The problem is, it wasn’t very palatable. In the mid-19th century, pharmacists in Paris came up with the idea of whipping it up with sugar and egg whites to make a light, fluffy throat remedy. It soon became popular as a candy as well. By the late 19th century confectioners had figured out how to mass-produce marshmallows, and they also figured out that they could replace the marshmallow juice with gelatin. By the turn of the century marshmallows were a popular dessert ingredient, but to make frostings and sauces out of them the cook had to make the marshmallow creme first, which was a two-step process — you made a sugar syrup, then you melted the marshmallows over a double boiler and combined them with the syrup.

In 1910 the Limpert Brothers brought out a product called Marshmallow Fluff, which was sold to soda fountains and ice cream parlors to put on ice cream sundaes. Remember, Amory ran a soda fountain supplier, so he may have seen this product and realized its potential. In 1913 Whitman’s, the people who make the Whitman’s Sampler, had a product called Marshmallow Whip. Amory knew about it, and he may have decided the time was right to strike out on his own.

In December 1913 the Curtises ran an ad in the Melrose Free Press announcing they would be hiring women 16 and over to work in their new factory. “I desire only refined, intelligent young women of the best school, church, or employer references,” Emma wrote in the ad.

From the beginning, Amory was the engineer and Emma handled the marketing side. Emma was soft-spoken and motherly, and she cultivated that image. Pictures show her with her gray hair drawn back in a bun.

The machinery for actually making the marshmallows was up on the second floor. There’s sort of a bridge there, and marshmallow mixture was cooked in the kettles up there.

Amory supervised the cooking. He checked and re-checked the temperature of the mix as he worked, making sure that the batches were consistent. He had designed the equipment himself, and he had the manufacturer put an error in the gauges, so anyone trying to steal his recipe would get the wrong temperatures. Only Amory knew how much to add or subtract to get the real temperature reading.

After the material was cooked it was whipped in the beater down below and then it traveled down a chute to the filling machine on the first floor.

In this photo you can see the marshmallow traveling down the chute into these wedge-shaped vats. It looks like the woman on the right is putting it into cans. The cans, incidentally, were made of waxed cardboard with metal tops and bottoms and were also made in the factory. Amory designed some of the can-making machines and had them made to his specifications.

While Amory and his employees were making and packing marshmallows, Emma was busy selling them.

Emma started out going door to door in Melrose, bringing samples of her marshmallow creme on crackers. Soon Black’s Grocery, located where Caruso’s now stands, was selling the product. By 1915 the product was distributed nationwide.

Free samples were an essential part of marketing; the Curtises used to ship grocers a dozen cans of marshmallow creme but only bill them for 11. They encouraged the grocers to use that extra can to give samples to their customers. Emma would also send a can by parcel post to a skeptical grocer. It seems from the letters that most people weren’t familiar with the product, so it took a bit of selling. Salespeople organized demonstrations of the product, and Emma followed up with grocers, encouraging them to stock Snowflake Marshmallow Creme. She also wrote directly to women who bought the product, explaining how to use it and enclosing a postcard for their comments.

In 1915, the Curtises scored a publicity coup: Snowflake Marshmallow Creme was awarded a gold medal at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. This would be prominently featured in their advertising for years to come. There were over 20,000 medals given out at the exposition, but the Curtises worked hard for theirs.

They had a booth staffed by a woman with a suspiciously familiar gray bun, although it’s not Emma. Emma didn’t go to the expo.

Here are some lucky children having marshmallow creme on crackers. The Curtises sponsored a marshmallow creme eating contest on the day of the fair dedicated to food. Most of the photos you are seeing today of the factory were taken in 1915 and may have been part of the Curtis’s publicity campaign. So the bonus for us is that we have these great period photos of the factory and the people who worked there.

Here’s a brochure listing all the great things you can make with Snowflake Marshmallow Cream: Popovers with Marshmallows, marshmallow apple dumplings—the oatmeal blanc mange doesn’t sound very appetizing.

On the flip side of that brochure, note the emphasis on the personal attention Miss Curtis gives the marshmallows. She “carefully tests each day’s output to see that the high standard of quality is maintained.” Of course, Amory did a lot of the quality control, but it’s also true that the Curtises ate a lot of marshmallows.

Emma was constantly developing new recipes, and she field-tested them on the family and on the neighborhood kids. In one of her radio shows she said she “served them marshmallow as a dressing on desserts, marshmallows on their cereal for breakfast, marshmallows in their cocoa, marshmallows in their salad dressing, marshmallows in their cakes and as a sauce for every conceivable kind of jelly and pudding.”

“In spite of this arduous diet,” she continued, “none of the family succumbed to the effects of it nor did any of them permanently tire of marshmallow.”

Emma’s research resulted in a series of small recipe booklets that were sent to customers on request — a canny way of building the mailing list. Here’s one from 1916.

In a booklet published in 1918, Emma introduced The Liberty Sandwich. The same recipe, on a label for SMAC, was a fluff-like product they introduced in 1922.

The original recipe, for which I don’t have an image, referred to “war bread,” and the name “Liberty Sandwich” may refer to World War I, when Americans were urged to give up meat one day a week. Peanut butter and fluff sandwiches, cut into dainty shapes, made a virtue out of necessity.

What this means is that Melrose may very well be the birthplace of the what later came to be known as the Fluffernutter sandwich.

Some of the very first Snowflake Marshmallow Creme labels from 1913 suggested using the product in sandwiches, topped with chopped nuts or olives. In a recipe leaflet published in 1914 Emma mentioned peanut butter as an accompaniment, and she also suggested that triangular sandwiches of butter and marshmallow creme on thinly sliced brown bread as a dainty lunch for children. Clearly these are stubs on the evolutionary tree of the Fluffernutter sandwich.

The earliest mention I have seen of the Liberty Sandwich was in a recipe booklet dated June 1918. The previous version of that booklet, which did not include this recipe, was printed in about 1916, so we can date the appearance of the peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich fairly accurately.

The Curtises do not seem to have been aware of the significance of this discovery, however. The chief function of Snowflake Marshmallow Creme continued to be as the matrix in puddings and sauces. Miss Curtis even sent a letter to housewives suggesting that they can thin some marshmallow creme with the leftover coffee from breakfast to make an attractive sauce to pour over cake for dessert.

By 1935, peanut butter and fluff were well established and an ad for SMAC touted its many uses: “Make sandwiches for the kiddies with SMAC and peanut butter.”

Through the 1920s and 1930s, Emma kept up her marketing campaigns. She had a column in the Boston Post and for a while she also had a weekly radio program. At Christmas, the Curtises gave gifts of marshmallows to local police and firefighters.

The Curtises must have had a big impact on the local economy. Not only did they hire local women to work in the factory, but their machinery was made by the Emerson Apparatus Co. on Tremont Street, and the wooden boxes in which the cans of marshmallow were shipped were supplied by Robert Coan, who had a box manufacturing company in Chelsea. And Emma sang the praises of Melrose in her advertising copy: “Come with me to the shores of beautiful Crystal Lake to the home of Miss Curtis’ Snowflake Marshmallow Creme.”

In addition to marshmallows, the Curtises made flavorings and extracts. One product that may have been new for the time was Miss Curtis’ Orangeade Paste, which they introduced in 1919. Basically, they took the concentrated orange syrup that soda fountains had been using it for years and sold it in smaller packages for home use. “All the deliciousness of juicy oranges without the fuss or trouble,” the label trumpeted. Emma even suggested that women carry it in their handbag, so that anytime they were thirsty they could mix a teaspoonful of orangeade paste and a teaspoonful of sugar into a glass of water and enjoy something that sounds a lot like Tang.

Another product was Mai-po-lex, a “Compound Vegetable Flavor tasting like maple, but containing no maple sap, syrup, or sugar.”

The Depression must have been hard times for luxury products like marshmallow creme, because the company’s ads from the 1930s feature a lot of free cans of the product.

Melrose Marshmallows actually were a later product for the company; they were introduced in 1933 and were given away free with cans of SMAC. An Associated Stores ad from 1934 touting “Good things for Lent,” included, alongside all the seafood, specials on prunes and the free marshmallow giveaway. Judging from the company’s advertising, prune whip was one of the most important uses of SMAC.

Emma Curtis died in 1948 on the day before her 85th birthday. By then Amory and a cousin, Vernon Pinkham, were running the business. Amory retired a few years later, but until 1962 he would still mix up a batch of marshmallow crrme every week to deliver to Baileys, an ice cream parlor in Boston. In an interview last year with the Boston Globe, the chef Lydia Shire reminisced: “When you had a sundae at Bailey's, you always had marshmallow fluff.” Or, more likely, SMAC.

In May 1962, the house and factory at 33 Crystal St. burned to the ground. The fire chief at the time, Sidney Field, suspected arson at first but soon determined that the fire had been caused by lightning. This was a peculiar conclusion, given that the fire started on the first floor and that the family who lived in the second-floor apartment smelled smoke around 10 p.m. but the fire alarm was not triggered for over an hour after that. In the meantime, the fire had spread through the first floor and blocked all the exits; it was coming through a closet floor when the family escaped by jumping out the windows. Miraculously, two of the four were injured but the other two were unharmed.

A week later, the fire chief had to change his tune when two youths were arrested for setting fire to a vacant house on Lebanon Street. The two were found to have some possessions belonging to the Crystal Street family, and under questioning they confessed to setting fire to both houses.

As you can see, Emma and Amory Curtis were ahead of their time. They understood how to find a new niche for an existing product, and how to create and build a brand. They used coupons and the media to promote their product. And they came up with one of the best sandwiches of the 20th century. And both the Curtises lived to a grand old age, so maybe marshmallows really are a health food after all. Well, we can hope!

August 3, 2007

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