Excerpts taken from brother Ryan’s remarks at the opening of the “Oh, SUGAR!” exhibition on August 15, 2013.
In addition to all of those whom we have thanked for making the Sugar exhibition a reality, I’d like to thank Eric, my brother. He has seen the show through with commitment and support of me, as the chief curator of the show. Together with his wife, Kiersten and the fantastic staff at The Franklin Fountain, Eric has shouldered much of the operational burden of the business allowing me to focus on seeing this exhibition through to its culmination. Thank you.
The curating of this show fulfills a childhood dream of operating a museum. Amongst my many entrepreneurial efforts as a young boy, including cleaning my mother’s pantry out for a “Grocery Store” and a “Roller Skating Rink” on our concrete front porch, opening a museum was always the most exciting prospect. I drew up a sign for a “Historical Museum,” dragged out the family heirlooms and decided to charge a nickel for strangers to walk through our old barn loft filled with eccentric objects and effects under my supervision.
My parent’s plan to move to another home coupled with the unspoken concerns about insurance and curatorial realities effectively cancelled my museum’s opening, but did not quell my eight-year-old’s enthusiastic passion for interpreting the objects of the past.
A Family of Old Souls
Each summer, our parents took us on road trips of America. We visited nearly every one of the continental United States, visiting historical sites, antique shops and more than a few museums. Instilled in us was an early love of museum-going that continues today, as we tour abroad, taking in two or three collections per day while staying committed to the local jewels we have around us in the Delaware Valley and New York City.
Coupled with visiting museums (collections that aren’t for sale) is our family of antique dealers. The year I was born, our mother Carole opened an antiques shop in our home in Media, Pennsylvania. On our travels, we always stopped at antiques shops along the way, often with Dad and Eric sitting in the car and reading while Mom and I perused the inventory for hours, seeking elusive treasure. Our grandmother was the chief garage-saler and bargain hunter, schooling us all in the ways of that Saturday morning art. Sniffing out deals was in our DNA before we were born and collecting old things was always justified with the phrase “You never know when it’ll come in handy.” This is the first step towards recognition that we might be hoarders. (reader, beware)
As many youths do, Eric and I collected baseball cards. Soon, I began dealing in them, setting up stands next to our parent’s booths at antique shows to buy, sell and trade cards. This enterprise continued to broaden during college as I began publishing a mail-order catalog for selling military antiques. (Although I think my roommate became frustrated with the piles of musty army uniforms under the bed and the continued calls from collectors around the country ringing our apartment.) During my college experience, I interned at two museums, including the Soldiers and Sailors Museum in Pittsburgh and the Civil War Library and Museum on Pine Street in Philly. The drudgery of painstakingly hand-painting tiny inventory numbers on objects at the museum left me looking for other horizons, however.
With degree in hand, I moved back to Philadelphia and began working at Freeman’s Auction House as a specialist, appraising antiques and writing auction catalogs in my areas of expertise. The experiences of cataloguing, inventorying and publishing a catalog while putting an auction on exhibit prepared me like no other for the show you’ll see tonight.
When Eric and I opened The Franklin Fountain some nine years ago, we began adding to parent’s small collection of ice cream and soda fountain antiques. Building and operating the Fountain legitimized our collecting habit and allowed us to visit the Ice Screamers and other venues for amassing the objects and the stories they tell to interpret the lost history of the American soda fountain. In 2006, Harry Young passed away and his family’s three generation candy shop in the Brewerytown section of Philadelphia closed.
An emotional auction was held in the shop and the Young’s family collection of candy molds, ice cream and candy-making equipment was disbursed to the winds. We were fortunate enough to purchase the majority of the clear toy candy molds at the auction, and suddenly, we were in the candy business!
Since then, we’ve had the rare opportunity to purchase the contents of two additional candy shops from the nineteenth century: Weber’s Candies in Bridgeton, New Jersey from 1888, and of course, Shane’s, established as a confectionery business in 1863. With these candy shops and others came more clear toy candy molds, taffy hooks, giant caramel cutters and a myriad of hand-crank machines for pressing and extruding hard sugar candies in a myriad of sweet shapes. Many of these pieces you will see on display in the exhibition, along with examples of the candies they produce in the antique glass jars.
Beyond the objects themselves, however, are the stories that came with them and how the pieces are used. Hearing about how Fred Weber walked from his high school graduation in 1944 straight over to his father’s candy shop and began working that very same day; he stayed for the next 68 years. Listening to Mrs. Young tell us about all the flavors and colors of candy canes that her husband Harry made, red for peppermint, green was spearmint, brown for clove and black for anise. And of course, Barry Shane, who described why the “guillotine” caramel cutter was stored out of view up on the 4th floor attic: it had accidentally chopped off the finger of one female employee named Mary sometime in the 1970s. Never to be seen again, until now.
So what’s is the “Oh, SUGAR!” Exhibition about?
It’s about Transformation
It’s about the Transformation of Objects into living, breathing witnesses to the past; they contain the hand of both maker and user, much like an autograph. It was through the objects that the exhibit was conceived.
It’s about the Transformation from plant to sugar, from slave laborer to dock porters lifting heavy hogsheads to the workers at the hot and dirty refineries. These are untold stories of humans.
It’s about the Transformation of People to Faraway Places, by Ship & by Rail (when we travel, we transform)
• Africans and others stripped from their homes and sent to work as slaves in the sugar cane fields
• European immigrants traveling to the New World seeking opportunity in business by plying their time-honored craft
visitors coming to Philadelphia in the Centennial to marvel at our City’s industrial might
• it’s about the immigrant candymakers who built businesses on Philadelphia’s street corners to service the public demand
• it’s about the magic that candymakers work with the use of their hands and tools to create something from nothing, like spinning hair into gold (lollipop-making experience)
• it’s about the foods we consume and where they come from; more specifically, it’s about sugar and who is harvesting it, refining it, using what methods, chemicals, etc. it’s about confections and what ingredients are used and who is making the candies, using what methods and machines
• it’s about Philadelphia and the international stage our city has performed on, during the Colonial Period, in the 1876 Centennial and beyond
• it’s about the arc of industrialization and the resultant democratization of sugar
• it’s about the alternative uses of sugar, in war and peace, to help preserve our nation’s freedoms
• it’s about sugar, a substance that makes us smile
Why is this show relevant today?
• It could raise questions about our own consumption of sugar today, governments limiting sugar contents in school lunches and taxing soft drinks by each sugar ounce
• It reminds us that tool-makers and candy craftsmen of yesteryear America once flourished in Philadelphia, where economies were sustained by making things and then those tools making perishable goods, again and again.
• It reminds us about the quality and integrity of those tools, virtues that matter still today.
• We might consider the wages and conditions that sugarcane workers are subject to in today’s marketplace. What prices are being paid for those sacks of sugar?
• How are the two rivers surrounding Philadelphia going to benefit our city in the future, as they once did for the sugar economy?
• Sugar is present in the majority of processed foods we eat. (bread, ketchup, soup, etc.). What are the effects of its widespread use? Like corn, is most sugar cane made with genetically modified pest resistances built in?
• Alternative uses for Sugarcane, like the plates we’re eating off of tonight, could lead to sustainably considered waste systems for future generations or fuels which taste good!
Transformation of Viewer into the Past
We hope that you, the viewers and others who come to see the show are transported to these wild and varied worlds of Sugar shown here at the Independence Seaport Museum. We hope that you can make sense of our pasts in order to inform our collective future to insure a fair, healthy and sustainable world for tomorrow. And just remember, nothing in life makes that medicine go down quite like a spoonful of sugar!
Thank you for coming!