Cover from the first set of instructions, Ragsdale’s Original Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions

About two months ago, while staffing the front desk at Special Collections, I took an interesting phone call. A woman called to ask if we really had copies of Ragsdale’s Original Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions and, if we did, could she get copies. If I remember correctly, she said that she had found out that Virginia Tech was one of only two libraries that held these materials. The catalog showed that we did, indeed, have it, but since she was interested in obtaining copies, I asked if she would hold the line while I went to retrieve it. “It” turned out to be ten sets of mimeographed sheets, each with a well-designed heavy paper cover and held together by two grommets at its top. “It” also turned out to be something I’d never seen while working here (therein lies the fun, as I have often said before).

I got back to the phone and described what I had in my hands. She was overjoyed. I said that we were talking about approximately 90 scans—not a problem—but that the grommets could be a problem. It would be impossible to scan the sheets without unbinding each set of instructions. Typically, we would want to “remove the metal,” but I would have to see if the grommets could be safely removed without damaging the documents. Ten years as an archivist and I’d never removed grommets. Surprise, surprise!

“I hope you’ll see what you can do,” she said.

I saw no copyright notice, but each of the folders/volumes carried a big WARNING:

Statement from back cover of each set of instructions
Statement from back cover of each set of instructions

I was not too worried about the threat of prosecution from Mr. Ragsdale, and even though the item’s cataloging gave its pub date as 1930 (Worldcat says, “approximately 1930?”), I was more than willing to scan the entire set for our patron . . . if I got past the grommets. That was before I heard the story behind the request.

She was calling from Nebraska. It was the end of March. Her house had been completely flooded in the history-making flood that had occurred about 2 weeks before. These booklets had been in her family for a couple of generations and were cherished. More than that, they were part of her family’s story. And, they were gone. She specifically mentioned the recipe for fruit cake fudge—a great favorite.

That was more than enough for me, and I told her I would get back in touch with her when I knew more. A couple of days later, I reported that the grommets were out and the scanning had begun. I thought I had heard there was a specialty tool for removing grommets, but, in the end, a small pair of wire cutters (used primarily not to cut, but to bend the metal) and an equally small needle-nosed pliers did the trick.

Of course, as I was scanning the materials, I became more interested in their origin. First, Worldcat does report that only Virginia Tech and Rutgers have these materials. (We acquired them in 2013, not that long ago. One of our major collecting areas is the History of Food and Drink.) But what of these lessons, and what might we find out about W. Hillyer Ragsdale?

The lessons were not written for folks who wanted, occasionally, to make candy, but were for entrepreneurs or established small business folks who wanted to make and sell various kinds of confections. The cover page of the booklet titled, Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement . . . declares:

Statement on page one of Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement

On page 2 of the same set, under the subhead, Selling Plans, Ragsdale writes: “As you are perfectly aware, the market for candy is absolutely unlimited. Its sale is no longer confined to the corner confectionery store—but department stores, tea rooms, grocery stores, drug stores, cafeterias, office buildings, road stands, amusement parks, fairs, and hotels all sell tremendous quantities.” Ragsdale includes lots of practical advice for the business of selling confections in this folder, everything from buying attractive boxes (cheaply) for display and packaging, to staying up-to-date by reading the appropriate trade papers. As for the recipes in this lesson, they include Almond Crunch (“a delightful nut piece—very popular everywhere. Usually sells for 80¢ to $1.00 per lb. retail.”); Haystack Goodies; Maple, Mocha, Pistachio Fudge, and the curious Chop Suey Candy (“take a popcorn crispette, but add roasted peanuts and concoanut . . . more corn and cocoanut than peanuts”).

Our patron from Nebraska told me that her family had these in the 1920s, that her grandmother had passed them down to her mother. Certainly, as early as October 1923, Ragsdale’s ads appear in the Newsstand Group advertising supplement to Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, then edited by H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan. In fact, In his autobiography, My Life as Author and Editor, Menken writes about the introduction of this kind of advertising to his posh, literary magazine:

H.L. Menken and GEorge Jean Nathan, August 1928. Theatre Magazine Company; Ben Pinchot, Photographer

“Inasmuch as all the other members of this group [Newsstand Group] were such dubious pulps as Snappy Stories, Breezy Stories, and Young’s Magazine, Nathan and I were perturbed more than gratified, and our doubts were not allayed when we saw the advertisements that began to come in. They included everything in the shabby line save lost manhood and bust developer ads, as we had to take a pretty severe kidding from readers and friends.”

The ads in Smart Set started with a couple of pages, but by December 1922, there were 23 pages of advertisements. Look to the November 1923 set of ads, and there is W. Hillyer Ragsdale at Drawer 400, East Orange, N.J. proclaiming:

Ad for W. Hillyer Ragsdale’s Candy Making opportunities, Smart Set, November 1923

“GO INTO BUSINESS FOR YOURSELF,” right there between “Don’t Wear a Truss” and a bust developer ad! Menken, in the same passage quoted above goes on to write of that December 1922 supplement, “There were several ads headed “Send No Money” and half a dozen or more announcing ways to make fortunes by spare-time work at home! Ragsdale was right there.

So, by 1923, Ragsdale was running ads enticing folks to “Establish and operate a “New System Specialty Candy Factory,” using some of the same language that appears in our sets of lessons. Also by 1923, Tools and Machinery for Confectioners by W. Hillyer Ragsdale, The Candy Specialist, becomes available. Here are the first three pages, including a price list (From the Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection, Michigan State University Libraries.)

Here’s his ad from the November 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics, promising enormous profits:

Ad for W. Hillyer Ragsdale’s New System Specialty Candy Factories, Popular Mechanics, November 1929

Throughout the 1920s, Ragsdale’s business must have grown. Perhaps the 10 sets of lessons were available at once; perhaps they were developed over a few years. We do know that Ragsdale was born on a farm in Lithonia, DeKalb County, Georgia in 1876. According to census data, in 1900 he was living at home and employed as a clerk in a drugstore in nearby Kirkwood, Georgia. By 1910, he had relocated with his wife, Wilhelmina (Willie) to East Orange, N.J. where he was working as a traveling salesman possibly for a department store. The 1920 US census lists his occupation as “Proprietor,” his status as “Employer,” and the “Industry” in which he was engaged as “Jobber Confectioner Supply House.” At the very least, by 1920 the roots of his candy-making endeavors were firmly in place. A notice on the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association website dates the set of lessons as “ca. 1920s?”

Vintage Ragsdale Candy Thermometer

In David Lawrence Pierson’s History of the Oranges to 1921, Vol. 4 (Orange, NJ: Lewis Historical Publishing Co. 1922), Ragsdale is reported to have come to East Orange in 1908, where he established and built his “ large business as a manufacturer and jobber of confectioners’ supplies.” Pierson also writes that, as of 1922, Ragsdale was a director of the Lackawanna Building and Loan of East Orange. We can assume that his business was quite successful, at least through the early part of the depression. In 1930, Ragsdale is listed in the census as manager of his Confectionary Supply Company. By 1940, however, at age 63, he was employed as an investigator for the New Jersey State Beverage Tax Department. William Hillyer Ragsdale died in East Orange in 1957, but the traces of his candy-making business can still be found quite easily. It is not at all hard to find some of his equipment, for example, especially his candy thermometers, on eBay.

But the sets of instructions in candy-making for profit are the trace that continue to hold significance for our patron in Nebraska. After we’d gotten the scans to her, about three weeks after our phone call, I asked her if she would send me a bit of her family’s story in connection with these sets of instructions; also if I might retell that story in our blog. Here’s what she wrote (copied with permission):

“My grandmother passed them down to my mom. So, since the 1920’s. They were really prized. When my mom’s family was young, her father came down with tuberculosis of the liver. That knocked him out of working. My grandmother, being an excellent cook to seven children, and having a brother that owned an ice cream store in Massachusetts, set out to do the confections. They were sold through the brother’s store and during the holidays, the kids would go door to door. Then the depression happened and finding work was even more hard to do. They kept their business going. They were hard workers. They rallied around my grandfather. There were four boys. When the war broke out, they left to serve their country and of course, they were no longer involved in the candy making business.”

She also wrote this:

“We’re still under water where the farm is. It’s going to take a long time . . . but, we are hardy people and will probably just rebuild. . . . I’m going to be sharing them with Mom on Friday. I haven’t told her that I got them replaced. I know what this means to her.”

A little over a month after the flood, still under water. That made me think about a lot of different things. After considering how horrific it must be, how staggering to have such an event occur and how more common weather events of this historic proportion are becoming, I thought about how short our news cycle is. Perhaps it’s just because we are east-coasters, but we stopped hearing about midwest flood waters about a day or two after they first hit. Every big rain in April added to the disaster. Incredible.

But then, hearing about her plan to surprise her mom with the material Special Collections was able to provide, well, I was glad to have been able to help in a very small way. I’ve probably never felt so good about providing a patron with scans from our collections.

Oh yes, and she again mentioned the fruit cake fudge. If you make it, she says, you have to add some peach Schnapps to it! I’m guessing this is it:

Fruit Fudge Bar from Lesson 23, Ragsdale’s Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing
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