Sweet-toothed Toronto teens took a bite out of rising post-war candy prices in 1947, but the movement was quickly derailed by the Red Scare.
In the spring of 1947, Toronto’s teenagers went on strike.
On Thursday, May 2, 500 high school kids marched along Bloor Street from Harbord Collegiate to Christie Pits waving placards that read “Don’t be a sucker” and “Let’s all fight inflation.”
The public demonstration was the product of simmering resentment over a national issue—one that had galvanized youngsters from coast to coast: the price of a candy was too high.
The kids had a point. In early April, literally overnight, the price of a standard bar of chocolate jumped 60 per cent, from five to eight cents.
A group of regular candy buyers in Ladysmith, B.C., who included a 17-year-old Parker Williams, were among the first to recoil at the added expense.
“We can’t tolerate this,” Williams recalled thinking, to Globe and Mail writer Tom Hawthorn in 2012. “The nickel, to us, had some purchasing power. You could get your ice cream, your bottle of pop, or your chocolate bar.”
Williams and his friends organized a boycott of a local candy outlet, the Wigwam Cafe, and painted signs and placards that said “Don’t be a sucker.” They even painted Williams’ car and paraded up and down the street.
The cute candy protest caught the attention of the Vancouver press, and the group posed for a photo outside the cafe. Several clutched soft-serve ice cream cones, which remained priced at a nickel, Hawthorn notes.
Remarkably, the kids’ strike tactic appeared to work. Thanks in part to support from sympathetic adults, local store owners reported a significant dip in chocolate sales and the media coverage inspired youngsters in other towns and cities to take up the cause.
“Downtown Vancouver stores prominently displaying eight-cent bars were chain picketed Saturday as members of the National Federation of Labor Youth, carrying sandwich boards and placards, paraded the business streets,” the Canadian Press reported on April 28.
The NFLY’s backing kicked the cause into overdrive. “We have proposed a national boycott,” said Glyn Thomas, the 19-year-old chairman of the Vancouver branch. “A communication from Toronto indicates the plan will be adopted on a Dominion-wide scale.”
Across the country, disgruntled youth voiced their discontent in remarkably creative ways: Bicycle-riding kids in Burnaby, B.C. disrupted traffic and a group of 200 youngsters interrupted the provincial legislature in Victoria. Some stores in Winnipeg reported a complete halt in the sale of chocolate.
In Halifax, kids entered stores en-masse to ask the price of bars. Junior grade kids in Regina walked out of classrooms and refused to return until the prices were restored.
Toronto kids initially diverted their allowance elsewhere, leaving the eight-cent chocolate bars to gather dust on shelves.
“Boys are putting their money into cap gun ammunition. We can’t keep up with the demand,” a retailer near Danforth Park told the Toronto Star. “Girls are turning to gum and ice cream.”
“What I’m getting kicks about is the disappearance of the one-cent sucker,” said a store owner near a Danforth school. “Now it’s two cents. Every day the kids come in and call me ‘robber.’”
On Bloor Street, on May 2, the Candy Bar War reached its zenith.
At the direction of the local chapter of the National Federation of Labor Youth, students from Harbord Collegiate, Central Commerce, and Central Technical School marched to Christie Pits, tucking information cards under the wipers of every parked car.
Their signs read: “8¢ bars: a big bite out of a sweet tooth,” “Knuckle down for nickel bars,” and “Candy is dandy but 8¢ isn’t handy.”
Critics of the protest, including Syd Sugarman, a controller in the Toronto and District Youth Council, said the kids and the NFLY were hurting helpless retailers.
“The teen-agers should be urged to write letters to their government members asking for reconsideration of the wartime tax on chocolate bars and soft drinks,” he said.
“No one in the nation-wide movement is blaming the storekeepers,” said Norman Penner, the executive director of the National Federation of Labor Youth.
“They are just as anxious as we were to see the prices come down. We hope, however, that not a single bar will move out of the store until the price is decreased.”
In an attempt to quell the prospect of further sugar-related unrest, candy manufacturers posted advertisements in the Toronto papers explaining the reasons for the hike.
Rowntree and Willard’s, two major manufacturers, blamed the rising price of cocoa and sugar, increased labour costs, and an earlier federal government decision to impose a one-cent “war-time nuisance tax” on every candy bar.
“It’s an old story of increased prices of raw materials. More than anything else, the root of the cocoa bean is the root of the trouble,” G. S. Moffat from candy maker Moyers Ltd. told the listeners of CBC Radio on May 6.
“Due to a disease attacking the cocoa bean plants on the west coast of Africa, where a large percentage of the world’s cocoa beans are produced, the production has dropped about 40 per cent.”
Moffatt also cited a separate government decision to withdraw a subsidy on the price of the raw materials.
“The price jumped about 100 to 150 per cent overnight,” he said. “On Tuesday April 1, at 5:00 p.m., the cost of our cocoa beans was 10 cents per pound. On Wednesday morning, it was 23 and a half. A cost increase of this scale is practically without parallel in any Canadian industry.”
The rising price of food wasn’t confined to candy bars. The price of butter, cheese, and meat also jumped in 1947, prompting buyer strikes across the country.
Still, some retailers were able to absorb the cost. The Tivoli cigar store at Richmond and Victoria streets posted a sign in the window advertising chocolate bars for six cents each “for kids only.”
Eventually, the protests reached the nation’s capital. On May 3, led by a group of buglers, 60 kids from the city’s Lisgar Collegiate paraded on Parliament Hill. “We’ll eat worms before we eat eight-cent chocolate bars,” one sign read. “Eight-cent chocolate bars—phooey,” said another.
Then, with the Bloor Street and Ottawa protest still fresh in people’s minds, the Toronto Telegram dropped a bombshell that scuppered the movement for good.
Citing “the most reliable source,” a front page story on 3rd May, 1947, claimed the eight-cent candy bar campaign had been infiltrated by Communists.
“They don’t realize it but the indignant students innocently parading with their placards demanding a five-cent candy bar have become another instrument in the Communist grand strategy of ‘the creation of chaos,'” wrote reporter L. M. McKechnie.
The story accused the National Federation of Labor Youth of “plant[ing] a few of the seeds of Marxism.” One of the giveaways, McKechnie said, was the suspiciously well-painted placards used by the children.
“The Communists have eagerly grasped the situation created by the originally spontaneous protest of high school students,” he wrote. “Youth organizers have been instructed to use every possible means of developing and encouraging the chocolate bar agitation.”
The sudden and bizarre accusation almost immediately derailed the candy bar campaign. Groups sympathetic to the cause began to withdraw their support, and newspaper editorials turned against the kids.
Eventually, the protests fizzled out.
In 2012, Parker Williams denied the movement he helped start was ever affiliated with Communists. “At least we didn’t sit idly by and let this terrible thing happen,” he told writer Tom Hawthorn. “We recognized we did have some power to make a protest.”
In time, the price of candy bars fell to seven cents, but the kids never walked out over candy again.
Additional material from “The Candy Bar War,” Futility Closet podcast, January 18, 2016; “From a shop in Ladysmith, chocolate strike affected sales across the country,” the Globe and Mail; CBC News Roundup, May 6, 1947; the April 23, 2012, the April 19, April 28, April 29, May 1, May 2, 1947 editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 15, May 1, May 3, May 6, 1947 editions of the Toronto Daily Star; and the May 1, May 2, May 3, 1947 editions of the Toronto Telegram.
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