Squirrel Nut Zippers, born in Massachusetts and named after a Vermont drunk, left for Texas in 1999 and then returned to their New England roots. But when their new owner, Necco, went under, so did the vintage candy.
The candy dates back nearly a century, to a time when New England was the center of the candy-making business. Squirrel Nut once belonged to the 140 candy companies in Boston and Cambridge. They churned out such now-extinct brands as Hoarhound Ovals, Jujube Monoplanes, Whangbees and Climax Mint Patties.
Squirrel Nut Zippers survived into the 21st century like other old New England brands like Charleston Chews and Junior Mints. For a the company that produced candy for Civil War soldiers made them.
Squirrel Nut Zippers
The ancestor of the Squirrel Nut Zipper was a caramel nut chew, made since 1888, called the Chocolate Squirrel caramel (think Milk Dud). It was a chocolate taffy said to have chewed beautifully.
They were made for the first few years in Roxbury, Mass., by the Austin T. Merrill Co. Then Perley Gerrish bought the company, moved it to Cambridge and called it the Squirrel Brand Company.
Squirrel Brand moved to North Carolina, then came back to the Cambridgeport neighborhood of Cambridge, where the candy business boomed along Confectioner’s Row.
In the 1920s, the company came up with a vanilla-and-nut version of the Chocolate Squirrel, but couldn’t find a name for it.
Then a local newspaper story caught a manager’s eye. It reported the arrest of a Vermont man for public drunkenness. The police had to talk him down from a tree. When they asked him to explain himself, he said it must have been that ‘dang nut zipper.’
And so, the story goes, Squirrel Nut Zippers were born.
The name captured the zany modernity of the Roaring Twenties. ‘Zippers’ or ‘Nut Zippers’ were a popular cocktail, illegal during Prohibition. ‘Zipper’ was a brand-new word, coined by the B.F. Goodrich Co. to describe the ‘separable fastener’ on their women’s galoshes. It was a thing back then for flappers to wear open galoshes.
The candy industry consolidated and companies moved away or closed their doors. By the 1990s, Squirrel Nut Zippers were made by the last independent family-owned candy company in the Boston area. In 1999, the company was sold and moved to McKinney, Texas, leaving behind an old brick factory with fading ‘Squirrel Brand’ letters painted on the side.
Squirrel Nut Zippers became hip again when a retro-swing band took the name. The Squirrel Nut Zippers passed them out at concerts.
The New England Confectionery Company, or NECCO, brought Squirrel Nut Zippers back home. It purchased Squirrel Brand in 2004, adding to its collection of iconic candies such as conversation hearts, Mary Janes and Sky Bars. NECCO was the oldest candy company in the United States and made the oldest manufactured item in the country: NECCO wafers, once called Hub wafers and given to Union troops during the Civil War.
But alas, NECCO ceased operation in 2018.
The original Cambridge factory was turned into public housing. A park, named Squirrel Brand Park, now sits next to the old building.
This story was updated in 2022.