Chocolate tycoon Milton Hershey took tomorrow and turned it into a dream for the working class.
For Milton S. Hershey, the smell of success was sweet indeed. It smelled like chocolate—the first milk chocolate ever produced in America—and it enabled the man who’d made his first million at the age of 43 to set a new standard for corporate social responsibility.
When Hershey opened his candy factory in rural central Pennsylvania in 1905, he envisioned making it part of a working class utopia. He conceived the village of Hershey as an inviting community, not just a collection of meager cookie-cutter houses with inadequate public services like so many other company towns of the time. Affordable, two-story homes with yards on tree-lined streets were the order of the day. A low-cost trolley took workers to and from the factory and connected Hershey with surrounding communities, so out-of-towners could also enjoy such amenities as a park with baseball fields, an amphitheater, bowling alleys, swimming pool and amusement park rides.
Hershey and his wife, Catherine, had no children of their own, but in 1909 they established a boarding school for orphaned boys, located on 486 acres of farmland. After Catherine’s death in 1915, Hershey endowed the school with all of his chocolate company stock—$60 million. The trust fund’s value has since grown into the billions, and today the Milton Hershey School provides free K-12 education and a stable living environment for underprivileged boys and girls. “What good is one’s money,” Hershey once asked, “unless one uses it for the good of the community and humanity in general?”
Hershey’s motives were not entirely altruistic. Above all, he was a shrewd businessman who realized that happy workers would be more productive workers. That was never more apparent than during the Great Depression. While industry around the country ground to a halt, Hershey embarked on a massive building campaign. Materials were cheap, and labor was plentiful. The town soon had a new Community Building with a gym, library, pool, small hospital and a 2,000-seat theater. A luxury hotel and professionally designed golf course would cater to those who still had money to spend and create more local jobs. Between the chocolate factory and the construction boom, hundreds of people found steady employment through the Depression’s worst years. Some saw a repressive paternalism in Hershey’s benevolence; many more praised his efforts in a time of crisis.
Milton Hershey died in 1945, but his reputation as a man who put his workers’ welfare before personal profit lives on. In recent years, the company has shuttered some of its U.S. plants and moved production to Mexico. Those who see the shift as a betrayal of the founder’s ideals still pose the question, “What would Mr. Hershey do?”
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.