End of an Era: The Demise of American Caramel Company and Their Final Set
The American Caramel Company released some of the most recognizable early caramel cards ever produced. The company enjoyed a run that spanned 20 years over three different decades.
The American Caramel Company has close ties to another famous candy company — Hershey. The American Caramel Company was created in the late 19th century and based in York, PA. Meanwhile, Milton Hershey had created the rival Lancaster Caramel Company, incorporating that business in 1894. His Hershey Chocolate Company was actually a subsidiary of the Lancaster Caramel Company and Milton sold that business (Lancaster Caramel Company) to the American Caramel Company in 1900 for $1 million. However, he kept the Hershey Chocolate Company as he expected it to be lucrative. Good move.
While Hershey would go on to thrive in the chocolate business, American Caramel ruled caramels, selling the bulk of all caramel in the country with the acquisition of the Lancaster Caramel Company. While American Caramel’s headquarters was in York, they had other plants in Lancaster and Philadelphia. As this site notes, American Caramel’s York plant was one of the largest factories in the area. Wikipedia has an overview of the entities and their interconnections here.
The company’s first set was issued in 1908 — the set we know today as E91A. But American Caramel would keep issuing sets and evolve over the years. That included even issuing cards during World War I and they were among the few companies to do that as card collecting largely slowed down.
Their first cards were small rectangular cards using color lithographic images. But as collecting moved into the 1920s, the look of cards changed to larger cards with real black and white photography instead. Business must have been quite good for the company as they were issuing several sets all around the same time. In 1921-22, the company produced E120, E121, and E122 sets. But following that, the company took a five-year hiatus and returned to produce a final set in 1927 known today as E126.
Of the company’s later sets using black and white imagery, E126 is possibly the least collected — either that or the tough E122 issue. The cards look similar to the E120-E122 offerings but certainly are distinctive at the same time. They are the only one of those cards to include a number printed on the front. Most of the pictures are black and white action shots.
The final 1927 set contained 60 cards and, as previous American Caramel sets did, included some of the biggest names in baseball. Found in the set are the likes of Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb, along with a slew of other Hall of Famers.
The Babe Ruth card is one of the more unique Ruth issues you’ll see in a major set. The backdrop is a large up close shot of Ruth and in the foreground, there’s a smaller image of him wielding a bat. Ruth is the only player in the set to get that treatment as all other cards feature a simple picture of the subject.
Like other American Caramel sets that came later, the company also offered an album to hold the cards. For fifteen cents, a collector could have an album sent via the mail.
The cards had become so popular with collectors and had lasted over a span of so many years. So why did they end? Well, by 1927, the year this final issue was created, American Caramel was apparently not doing well as a business. By the end of 1928 they had shut down their plant. The company was said to be faltering and was bankrupt shortly after.
History tells us, too, that far fewer of the cards had been printed than in earlier years. We know that by population reports by grading companies. For example, PSA has graded nearly 10,000 of American Caramel’s 1921-22 cards (the E120, E121, and E122 sets) but has graded fewer than 400 of the E126 cards. The E126 set is not quite as rare as their E122 offering but again, keep in mind that E120, E121, and E122 were all printed around the same time. And in that time, American Caramel printed a ton of cards overall. The population reports show us that American Caramel was printing far fewer cards by 1927 than they were in the early 1920s when business was better.
It was a long fall back to earth after so many years of success and Hershey’s assertion that the country would be more interested in chocolate than caramel proved correct.