New England Confectionery Co. in Revere is facing closure, with a $20 million GoFundMe campaign underway from former president and CEO Al Gulachenski in hopes of saving it. As a result, there has been a run on Necco Wafers, the 171-year-old candy company’s signature product. A woman in Florida even offered to trade her car to candy wholesaler Candystore.com in exchange for the rest of its stock.
You’re freaking out about the wrong candy, America.
Let us not forget the Sky Bar. Necco Wafers are unusual, with their chalky texture and flavors like licorice and clove. But the Sky Bar is unique. And it just so happens to be the candy bar we all need right now.
Its story begins 80 years ago. Necco began making the Sky Bar in 1938, the same year FDR signed the Civil Aeronautics Act, establishing the Civil Aeronautics Authority to determine routes, regulate fares, and investigate accidents. Air travel was new, exciting, and dangerous. Clearly it needed to be celebrated in candy-bar form.
Necco announced the Sky Bar’s debut in skywriting — an advertising campaign so thrilling it had its own advertising campaign. “KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE SKY!,” read the copy. “Watch for spectacular sky-writing this week (weather permitting) by the SKY BAR plane! Letters a mile high — written at 10,000 feet in the sky — visible ten miles — A thrill to see!” According to the Cambridge Historical Society, on V-E Day, when a blackout of New York’s Times Square was lifted after three years, the Sky Bar sign was one of the few that had its lighting equipment ready to go. Peace was restored in its glow, beneath its promise of sweetness.
What made the Sky Bar revolutionary — what makes it revolutionary still — was its design. It is a chocolate bar in four parts, and each one contains a different filling. Commence with caramel, venture on to vanilla, progress to peanut, and finish with fudge. (Minnesota’s Trudeau Candy Company debuted its even-more-elaborate heptamerous Seven Up bar around the same time, but that was discontinued in 1979.) Reverse the order as you wish, or break it into pieces and create your own sequence. The Sky Bar recognizes the importance of personal choice. “You have the pleasure of rationing your own experience,” says Steve Almond, who wrote the 2004 book “Candyfreak.” “The experience of eating candy bars is very intimate and very particular.”
One comes across segmented candy bars with just one filling, like the Caramello. But to make something with a different filling in each compartment is technically difficult, shows ambition. In 1938, a candy company was so inspired by the whiz-bang feats of aeronautics, it aimed for the sky itself. There weren’t tech startups changing the world out of one kid’s garage, or gene therapy, or driverless cars that threaten to run amok. But there was the sheer joy of creation, and it comes to us a bright-eyed and breathless relic from the past, wrapped in bright yellow. The logo features red sans serif letters — the S flowing into the K, the K flowing into the Y, the tail of the R reaching for the wrapper’s edge — over a blue-and-white striped banner that shoots, comet-like, from end to end. The future is now!
(But it doesn’t cost 5 cents anymore. Even the very concept of eating a candy bar feels like a throwback. We certainly don’t invent new ones much these days. On the other hand, according to the research group Mintel, sales of snack, nutrition, and performance bars grew 20 percent from 2012-17, and two-thirds of US adults eat them. I’ve got news for you, US adults — your Chocolate-Peanut Butter Protein Blasts are just candy bars that are virtue signaling.)
As an object, the Sky Bar is beautiful. Open the wrapper to find it displayed on a folded piece of white cardboard: four shiny, connected pillows of chocolate, “Necco” stamped across the center of each. The sloping sides are etched with an art deco pattern that resembles a fan. Before the bar is broken, these fans touch end to end, like pairs of wings, or open scallop shells.
As an eating experience, it is imperfect and impermanent. Sky Bars are prone to melting, and the chocolate often gets crushed so that a little of the filling leaks out. Perhaps this is why they are so hard to come by outside New England. (Cracker Barrel has been a reliable source for expats.) That’s part of their beauty, as it makes them an intensely regional product, as candy bars often are. Necco Wafers belong to the world; Sky Bars are ours. Growing up in New York, I never heard of them. I married into the Sky Bar. It was my Boston-born father-in-law’s favorite, and so it became my husband’s favorite, too. (He swears the vanilla filling, pearlescent like dish soap, used to be better.) These days, the bar is even elusive around here; local supermarket chains seem to have the most consistent stock.
Then there is this: On their own, the fillings taste inferior to other, similar candy-bar fillings. The peanut-flavored goo is too sugary, so the segment lacks the salty-sweet contrast of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The caramel is not as flavorful as that of the Caramello. What makes the Sky Bar shine is the cumulative effect, the joint effort, the sum-is-greater-than-the-parts-ness of it all. Vanilla, caramel, peanut, chocolate — we are better together.
When my son was maybe 3, at his preschool they did a proto diversity lesson. They gave the kids a brown egg and a white egg, then cracked them into a bowl. See! They are different colors, but on the inside they’re just the same. The Sky Bar offers an inverse lesson, harsher and real: The squares look the same on the outside, but inside, lord only knows what you’re going to find. Can we ever truly know one another? Hell is other fillings. The Sky Bar’s moral is less pat than the eggs’. But I’d rather live in a world where we are judged on our insides than one where black men get arrested for waiting for a friend in Starbucks.
The Sky Bar is a testament to human optimism, personal choice, and the beautiful, side-by-side coexistence of difference. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s just a candy bar. What I am sure of is this: It’s been around since 1938, and soon it may be gone.Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.