Production of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, 1935. (Via the Hershey Community Archives)

The inventor of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup’s sticky road to success

Feel like you’re behind the curve? H.B. Reese didn’t invent his candy namesake until he was nearly 50.

Ah, Halloween — a celebration of gorging on your kids’ candy, watching impossible-to-follow “zombie makeup” tutorials on YouTube, and going hog-wild on cotton cobwebs at the Dollar Store. It’s also the last pit stop on the calendar before we barrel unblinkingly into The Holidays™, only to come-to months later in the New Year, pale and gasping, like an astronaut emerging from a deep-space nap pod.

So, if you’re already feeling like you’ve failed at your 2019 To-Do List, may we present a beacon of hope: the unbelievable origin story of America’s favorite candy, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — and the dogged perseverance through failure of the man behind them.

Say “Muddy Creek Forks” five times fast

Harry Burnett Reese was born in 1879 (just before the invention of the Candy Corn) on a dairy farm near Muddy Creek Forks, Pennsylvania. From the time he was young, Reese set out to make his fortune, but nothing seemed to stick.

As a teen, he milked cows for quick cash, built a pond where he raised frogs to sell to nearby restaurants, and even played French Horn for tips with a few local bands. At 24 he managed fishing in a cannery in Virginia, at 35 he worked on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and at 37 he was forced to take a factory job to support his growing family of 10.

Then, at 38 he read a curious job ad from Milton S. Hershey

Hershey, already a successful chocolatier of the Hershey Chocolate Company, was looking for someone to manage one of his dairy farms. It seemed like Reese had finally gotten his big break. Reese worked for Hershey for several years, learning the ins-and-outs of the chocolate business.

But in 1919 the barn he oversaw shut down due to lofty operating expenses, leaving Reese unemployed with a veritable football team of children. So, he did what any practical father of 10 (with one on the way) would do — he started a chocolate company.

“That’s when he invented the Reese’s Cup and lived happily ever after, right?”

Wrong. The R&R Candy Company Reese founded raised “today’s equivalent of $290,000”… and folded within a year. Reese was forced to take three jobs to support his family: one at a paper mill, one as a butcher, and a third canning vegetables. A year later, he returned to The Hershey Company to work in the shipping department and began experimenting once again with making candy in his basement.

This time, it worked

In 1923, after two years of toiling, Reese was finally able to quit his day job at Hershey and incorporate the H.B. Reese Candy Company. Five years and six more children later, Reese invented his namesake, “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups” at the age of 49.

The PB Cups were a massive success, making Reese enough money to pay off his mortgages and employ 62 people (including six of his sons) in a matter of years. At the time of his death in 1956, the sales of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups alone were worth an equivalent $125 million.

10th time’s the charm, eh?

This isn’t to say you should gamble your 16 children’s future (yes, that was the final tally) on the off-chance you’ll strike it rich on the two most complementary ingredients in the history of candy-kind. It’s just to say you have time; time to fail and time to learn and time to try again.

Now, back to those Halloween YouTube tutorials.

The Point: You have time.

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