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When Boston gave America some sugar

A rare map from the Boston Public Library shows a sweeter side of the city.

"Part of Ward 9, City of Boston [Plate 1],” in Atlas of the City of Boston, South Boston (Philadelphia: G. W. Bromley & Co., 1919).Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library

One of the most iconic Valentine’s Day sweets is the conversation heart, a candy with a local connection. Boston was once home to a thriving confectionery industry, and the names of candy and chocolate manufacturers can be found all over early-20th-century maps of the city. This 1919 map from the Boston Public Library’s collections shows the site of the New England Confectionery Company (Necco) factories along Melcher Street in what is now the Seaport district — look on the right side for the label “New Eng. Confec. Co.”

In the early 20th century, the Boston Wharf Company began developing this land as an industrial area, well served by marine transport and, as shown on the map by the enormous tangle of tracks built for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad’s classification yards, land transport. One of Necco’s predecessor companies, Chase & Co., developed a technique for making sweet lozenges in 1847 and introduced the first machine for printing words onto candy in 1866. Necco consolidated its operations in 1902 in the complex shown on this map and stayed there until 1927, when the factory was moved to Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. At the time this map was made, the factory was churning out conversation hearts, Necco Wafers, and other candies as one of the nation’s leading candy producers.


On the left side of the map is another industry from Boston’s past: the American Sugar Refining Company. Its headquarters became the Gillette complex in the mid-20th century.

Maps like this one were made to document a rapidly developing city, with the Necco plant and other factories sprouting up next to freight yards and vast new residential neighborhoods. A booming city was also a flammable city, and fire insurers needed detailed information on how likely different places were to burn down so that they could accurately set insurance rates. That explains the colors on this map, which was published by the G.W. Bromley & Co. insurance firm. Pink shapes represent brick buildings, while yellow shapes show much riskier wooden structures. Some atlases like this one were acquired by the Boston Public Library at the time they were published, so that citizens would have handy reference material. Others were donated to the library in later years by insurance companies once they were no longer useful for underwriting purposes. In their afterlives, the atlases have become invaluable resources for local historians, since they document the built landscape of the city better than almost any other source.


Garrett Dash Nelson is the president and head curator of the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center, the stewards of the BPL’s collection of 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases that are accessible to the public through exhibitions and educational programs and at