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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

The Great Sugar Shortage of 1917

My grandmother’s house in Richmond had a secret – a tiny room behind the linen closet that none of the family knew about until the house became infested with rats.

The exterminators quickly identified the source of the problem. A removable panel in the back of the linen closet revealed a small room packed to the rafters with bags of sugar. At that point, the family’s red-faced housekeeper was forced to admit that she had been secretly stashing the staple in the hidden room for many months. It was the late 1930s, and the prospect of another World War was looming. Recalling the nationwide sugar shortages of WWI, she was simply trying to ensure that the household had enough sugar on hand to withstand another round of rationing.

If you found yourself shopping in vain last weekend for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, you might understand the panic and frustration that gripped Indianapolis in the fall of 1917 during the great sugar famine. A confluence of unfortunate circumstances had conspired to cut the supply of sugar to most of the nation.

Although the east coast was hit the hardest, only one or two carloads of sugar were arriving in Indianapolis each week, as compared to the 40 or 50 carloads that the city usually needed for baking, manufacturing and home consumption. By November, Taggart Baking Company, Century Biscuit Company and several other large manufacturing concerns were on the verge of closing their doors when some unlikely heroes came to the rescue – the Candy Men of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis was home to seven large candy factories in 1917, as well as a number of smaller confectionaries. Dilling & Company was the largest, with 200 employees, while the J.F. Darmody Company and National Candy Company were tied in second place with 150 employees each. Other large candy manufacturers included the Indianapolis Candy Company, Nichols Candy, and the Walker-Wysong Candy Company.

In November 1917, Dilling’s and National Candy approached county food administrator Stanley Wyckoff with an offer to loan 100,000 pounds of sugar that the manufacturers had set aside for the upcoming holiday season. J.F. Darmody soon followed by offering up two carloads of Louisiana clarified sugar that was currently en route to Indianapolis. The 100,000 pounds plus Darmody’s stash was barely enough to sustain Indianapolis for a week. In providing the sugar, the Candy Men made clear that if the loan was not repaid within 10 days, they would be forced to shut down the candy factories, throwing workers on the street and leaving Indianapolis children with the prospect of nothing but coal in their Christmas stockings.

Although that particular crisis was averted, the sugar famine lingered for another two years, culminating in September 1919 in a near-riot at the Piggly-Wiggly in the Pembroke Arcade. Thousands of women had been waiting in line since daylight to purchase 10-pound bags of sugar that had been made available for home canning. Although the store’s entire supply of 17,500 pounds was sold out in less than an hour, the crowd of women continued to surge, hurling insults at Wyckoff and threatening to break out the store windows. Members of the vocal Housewives’ League stormed the mayor’s office, demanding that Wyckoff alter the sugar distribution plan to provide more of the sweet stuff to home canners and less to the canneries. Later that day, a frustrated Wyckoff announced plans to “retire” from his unpaid job as state sugar czar.

The Housewives’ League also took aim at the Candy Men, accusing them of using sugar in “unstinted portions” during the famine. Although the candy factories had cut sugar consumption by 20% and made sugar available on loan to other industries during peak shortage times, the Candy Men deserved at least a spoonful of blame for the sugar shortage. During the war, public service announcements encouraged citizens to follow a few simple rules of self-restraint, which included “Lessen your use of cake” and “Eat no candy between meals.” The candy factories countered with a campaign aimed at convincing people that candy was a meal.

In 1916, a group of candy manufacturers concocted the idea of a national Candy Day in early October. While Candy Day was cancelled in most of the country in 1917, the Indianapolis companies kept Candy Day on the calendar, running a large ad in The Indianapolis Star stating that “physicians recommend sugar” and noting that “the chemical value of candy makes it an economical food.”

A major manufacturer of marshmallows, Dilling’s issued an instructional pamphlet informing housewives that marshmallows could be used as food. As if there were any other use for marshmallows.
A major manufacturer of marshmallows, Dilling’s issued an instructional pamphlet informing housewives that marshmallows could be used as food. As if there were any other use for marshmallows.

After the 1917 celebration, Candy Day in Indianapolis was suspended until 1921, when the Candy Men cooked up a citywide campaign to promote the consumption of chocolate and other sweets. School children were offered the opportunity to win a 10-pound box of chocolates by writing an essay on “Candy as Food.” The Indiana Pharmaceutical Association issued an endorsement supporting the celebration.

But the primary purpose of the day, according to the Candy Men, was to bring cheer to orphans and disabled veterans. Mayor Charles Jewett issued a proclamation declaring Saturday, October 8, as Candy Day, noting that the purpose of the day was “to foster the sentiment of remembrance and giving — and for the dissemination of cheerfulness among children, especially the orphans.” The Indianapolis Candy Company manufactured a 4 1/2 foot stick of peppermint candy weighing 43 pounds that the mayor presented to children at the Indianapolis Orphans’ Home. Dilling & Company made special boxes for the occasion, which volunteers packed with more than 1,000 pounds of donated candy.

The demand for candy in Indianapolis grew over the next year. All seven candy plants were operating at full capacity, churning out 10% to 20% more sweet treats than the previous year. Bouyed by the success of the 1921 Candy Day, the Indianapolis candy manufacturers decided to expand the celebration into a week-long event “for the purpose of educating the public to the health-giving properties of candy and to emphasize the advantages of candy as food.” The amount of donated candy set aside for “orphans and other worthy persons” quadrupled from 1,000 to 4,000 pounds.

Mayor Samuel Shank’s wife was appointed head of the distribution committee. Promptly at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, a truck loaded with two tons of candy pulled away from the Shank residence and headed to its first stop at the Indianapolis Orphans’ Home. Subsequent deliveries were made to the Indianapolis Colored Orphans’ Home, the Marion County Children’s Guardian Home, the Lutheran Orphans’ Home, the Juvenile Court Detention Home, the Convent of the Good Shepherd, the Indianapolis Home for Aged Women, the Indiana Institute for the Blind, the Indianapolis Day Nursery Association, the General Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Crawford Orphans’ Home, the children’s ward at City Hospital, the county infirmary, and the Disabled Soldiers of the World War.

In the article touting this photogenic event that was held during the height of the election season and involved children, candy and war veterans, The Indianapolis Star issued a wry reminder that “Candy Day has nothing to do with candidates. The two are completely separate.”

The executives in the Indianapolis candy companies were commonly referred to as “Candy Men,” although there is absolutely no evidence that they were able to “take a sunrise and sprinkle it with dew.”

Sometime over the years, Candy Day morphed into Sweetest Day, the less-attractive stepsister to Valentine’s Day. The Indianapolis candy factories were shuttered. But the river of sugar kept flowing through the city, as evidenced by the fact that Indiana now has the 15th highest obesity rate in the nation.

Clearly the Candy Men succeeded in spreading their sugary message that “Every Day should be Candy Day” and that “Candy is Food.” As if they really needed to spend money on a campaign to convince us of that.

A version of this article originally appeared in in 2013.

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