Food History

The Tumultuous History of Atlantic City’s Salt Water Taffy

A city stretched thin, but never broken.

July  3, 2020
Photo by James Candy Company Photo Archive

As urban legend has it, a man named David Bradley owned a confectionary stand on the Atlantic City boardwalk, at the turn of the 20th century. After a night of heavy storming, Bradley returned to find his stand flooded and his candies soaked with seawater. He decided to sell the taffy anyway, jokingly calling it “salt water taffy.”

Bradley’s marketing ploy worked—driving fellow Atlantic City taffy-makers, James Candy Company and Fralinger’s, to rebrand their product as well. “Salt water” taffy and the health of the tourist-reliant Jersey shore economy have been inextricable since.

Atlantic City sits on Absecon Island, a small coastal barrier near the southern tip of New Jersey. The establishment of regular rail service in the 19th century connected the shore to Philadelphia and New York, and led to the rise of large resorts and the country’s first boardwalk. By the 1880s, thousands flocked to “The World’s Playground” for gambling, drinking, jazz music, and taffy. The Garden State’s most prominent boardwalks featured several candy stores where confectioners could be seen throwing six-foot-long ropes of taffy over hooks.

"Mr. Bradley Had an Accident!" Photo by James Candy Company Photo Archive

The bustle of Atlantic City only slowed with World War II, when the city was used as a military staging port. After the war, current CEO Frank Glaser’s father and his three brothers bought James Candy Company, in the hopes of riding Atlantic City's revival. What the Glaser family, and many others, did not expect was that the decline of railways through the 50s and 60s would slow the taffy business.

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“One year my dad rented an apartment in Atlantic City near the boardwalk. I recall seeing the diving horse at Steel pier, having a hoagie with oil at a boardwalk food concession and riding the roller coaster with my Aunt Mickey. Fast forward to 1977 and my dad and I would take the casino bus to Atlantic City for the day. I recall receiving a box of salt water taffy from the casino bus company as a token of appreciation for using their service. I liked all of the different flavors like strawberry, lemon or chocolate. Each taffy was about 2 inches long, thin and wrapped in striped wax like paper as I recall. They were happy memories and simple times. ”
— Bikegirl227
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“People used to take a train down to Atlantic City. But then the mentality was ‘I have a car, I can go to the mountains or I can go to a lake,’” says Glaser. Other beach communities that were previously not accessible by mass transit grew to new prominence, and Atlantic City lost its unique appeal. The economy slowed for two decades until the city found a new way to distinguish itself—as a hub for gambling.

With the state legalizing casinos in Atlantic City in 1976, the city's status as a global playground was reinstated. Boxing matches, concerts, and other major events came with the casinos, and with that, a multitude of taffy customers (Glaser recollects taking Frank Sinatra’s order in 1978, for 500 pounds of taffy). The James Candy CEO struck deals to open sweet shops within three of the largest casinos, and shortly thereafter, he bought out his competitor, Fralinger. Salt water taffy was firmly enshrined as part of the new Atlantic City experience, and for better or for worse, officially tied Glaser’s fate with that of his city.

James' Candy storefront. Photo by James Candy Company Photo Archive

James Candy Company’s persisted due to its storied past and nostalgic customer. “We haven't changed anything since I've been here, and that's 50 years,” Glaser says. “People love nostalgia, it’s like going to an antique store. Actually the older, antique [taffy] boxes sell even better.” But looking backwards can only carry Glaser forward so much longer. Over the last 30 years, surrounding states have passed laws permitting casinos, ridding Atlantic City of its gambling monopoly. The South Jersey Economic Review reported in March 2017 that the city’s GDP declined 21.4 percent between 2006 and 2015, and in 2016 the state government took the city over to prevent bankruptcy.

The changing of hands has threatened many of the tourism-dependent businesses in the area, Glaser’s company especially. “In 2006, this was a very, very strong company,” Glaser told me. “But the last few years, it’s just been extremely difficult to try to keep things open, to pay the bills, so I just said ‘you know what I’ve dumped enough money into this.’” As Glaser plans to complete his bankruptcy process this month, he is optimistic but still expects challenges ahead. After three months of closure due to the pandemic, Glaser’s warehouse and retail facilities are slowly reopening now, but to much fewer customers.

Even with its opulent boardwalk skyline, it is hard to imagine Atlantic City as the roaring entertainment capital it once was, and COVID-19 imposes an additional hardship on the city’s tourism-reliant economy. But as Atlantic City’s casinos shutter and tourism dwindles, salt water taffy stubbornly remains—a reminder of ritzier times, even as the city struggles to not stretch itself too thin.

Did you grow up with salt water taffy? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Michael K. Bergin

Written by: Michael K. Bergin

8 Comments

Bikegirl227 July 10, 2020
I grew up with James and Fralinger's salt water taffy! I lived in Bensalem, PA and we would go "down the shore" for a week in the summer in the late 1960's. One year my dad rented an apartment in Atlantic City near the boardwalk. I recall seeing the diving horse at Steel pier, having a hoagie with oil at a boardwalk food concession and riding the roller coaster with my Aunt Mickey. Fast forward to 1977 and my dad and I would take the casino bus to Atlantic City for the day. I recall receiving a box of salt water taffy from the casino bus company as a token of appreciation for using their service. I liked all of the different flavors like strawberry, lemon or chocolate. Each taffy was about 2 inches long, thin and wrapped in striped wax like paper as I recall. They were happy memories and simple times.
 
Feriba July 5, 2020
I love salt water taffy always been a favorite.If I had some right now I would be eating it for breakfast ❤ Thank you for the great article.
 
Laura G. July 4, 2020
Interesting story and excellent storytelling here. Nice work and thank you for a great piece of history!
 
Beth S. July 3, 2020
Congratulations to Michael Bergin on a very well written article! His narrative makes one feel nostalgic for yet sad about AC glory days. Having had the James Candy Salt Water Taffy and Fudge, I am Rooting for this company to rally and come back Jersey Strong!
 
Michelle M. July 3, 2020
I really enjoyed this article. Great recap of the history of salt water taffy (such an amusing origin story!) and how it is intertwined with Atlantic City’s fall, rise and fall again. Great read!
 
Marisa R. July 3, 2020
What a wonderful article on the history! Very well written and informative!
 
LGreco July 3, 2020
What a nice piece of history on Salt Water Taffy.I grew up on Salt Water Taffy the summer time treat. I never knew the back story. Fantastic!
 
Mirella July 3, 2020
Great article.....but better editing for grammatical errors needed! Sorry, but "much fewer" is incorrect usage....should be "many fewer".