First-generation German-American Robert Strohecker dreamed bigger and sweeter than any candy salesman before him.
He’s known in confectioner’s lore as the “Father of the Chocolate Easter Bunny.”
The source of Strohecker’s legend is a massive 5-foot-tall (or perhaps even taller) solid chocolate rabbit he displayed outside Pennsylvania retailers in 1890 to popularize smaller versions of his new Easter sweets born of German tradition.
Sales of the chocolate Easter bunnies multiplied like — well, bunnies, in the aftermath of Strohecker’s moment of American marketing bravado.
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“This man had a profound impact on the food industry,” Phyllis LeBlanc, the president of Harbor Sweets in Salem, Massachusetts, told Fox News Digital.
Strohecker lived an almost fairy-tale existence of chocolate enchanter.
Robert L. Strohecker was a salesman for W.H. Luden Confectioner in 1890 when he had a giant 5-foot-tall (or perhaps even taller) solid chocolate Easter bunny made to promote the company’s new line of smaller Easter bunnies. One chocolate industry expert estimates the massive bunny weighed 400 to 500 pounds and would cost $10,000 to make today. (Courtesy Harbor Sweets Handmade Chocolates)
He traveled the hills and hollows inhabited by the Pennsylvania Dutch, hawking cure-alls, confections, and tastes of their Old-World homeland from his mule- or horse-drawn wagon.
The idyllic image of yester-yore belies a transformative figure in global consumer culture.
“This man had a profound impact on the food industry.” — Phyllis LeBlanc, Harbor Sweets
Strohecker sold candy and cough drops at a time when American industrial enterprise was modernizing old ways of pitching product.
The buzz around his giant edible chocolate bunny was so great that the bunnies soon became an essential part of the Easter basket — the most beloved part of the Easter basket. Especially the ears, according to numerous surveys and countless squeals of childhood delight on Easter Sunday.
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LeBlanc, president of Harbor Sweets, is heir to Strohecker’s delicious legacy.
Her company was founded by Strohecker’s grandson, Benneville Strohecker, now deceased, in 1973 to pursue his own penchant for the chocolate arts and pay homage to family tradition.
Ben Strohecker, grandson of American chocolate Easter bunny pioneer Robert Strohecker, founded Harbor Sweets in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1973. (Courtesy Harbor Sweets Handmade Chocolates)
LeBlanc estimates that Strohecker’s legendary 5-foot-tall Easter bunny of solid chocolate weighed 400 to 500 pounds and would cost $10,000 today to make.
Harbor Sweets’ signature seasonal product today is the Robert L. Strohecker Rabbit, a tribute to the legend who made American Easter sweeter.
It’s available in both milk and dark chocolates — and shaped to look exactly like the giant bunny that changed American Easter forever in 1890.
Born in the Era of Lincoln
Robert Lincoln Strohecker was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 16, 1864, in a nation — and a state — bloodied by Civil War.
His middle name was popular around Pennsylvania at that moment in history.
Robert Lincoln Strohecker’s mother was pregnant with the future chocolate pioneer when the Battle of Gettysburg was fought just 35 miles from his birthplace in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was given the middle name Lincoln, apparently in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, who delivered the Gettysburg Address two months before he was born. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War, was fought just six months earlier and a mere 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg.
Regina (Geissler) Strohecker, the daughter of German immigrants, was seven months pregnant with her son Robert when President Abraham Lincoln rolled through the region to deliver the Gettysburg Address.
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The Stroheckers surely had friends and family who died at the largest battle in American history. Lincoln’s challenge that followed to preserve a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people” was especially powerful in an immigrant community that had fled oppression in Europe.
Strohecker carried names representing both his ancestry and the hero of his homeland.
“The tradition of chocolate Easter bunnies dates back to 19th-century America, which borrowed it … from Germany.” – Smithsonian Magazine
His father, Herman Strohecker, was born in Baden-Wuerttemberg, moved to the United States and became a stonecutter in Reading.
“He was well-known here and highly esteemed,” read an obituary for the elder Strohecker.
Young Robert was apparently raised by his father’s second wife, Elizabeth, after his mom died when he was just 2 years old.
He was brought up in an immigrant community that would have cherished its Easter bunny tradition.
Harbor Sweets in Salem, Massachusetts, offers the Robert L. Strohecker edition of its chocolate Easter bunnies, modeled on the giant 5-foot-tall solid chocolate Easter bunny created by Robert L. Strohecker in 1890. Harbor Sweets was founded in 1973 by Ben Strohecker, grandson of the chocolate Easter bunny patriarch. (Courtesy Harbor Sweets Handmade Chocolates)
“The tradition of chocolate Easter bunnies dates back to 19th-century America, which borrowed it — and the Easter bunny in general — from Germany,” writes Smithsonian Magazine.
Strohecker graduated from Warrensburg Normal High School in Missouri, where he lived for some time in his youth, before moving back to Pennsylvania apparently while still a teenager.
He landed his first job in Reading working for Isaac Barrett, who owned a confectionary store on Penn Street.
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He then became a salesman for W.H. Luden Confectioner — by some accounts its first employee — founded by fellow German-American William H. Luden.
The tandem would soon spread the name Luden around the world, not through chocolate, but through cough drops.
“Luden launched a backroom candy business in 1879 in the rear of his father’s jewelry shop at 35 N. 5th St., Reading,” local historian Joseph Webb wrote in 2021 on his website, GoReadingBerks.com, noting that Luden’s “factory” was actually the family kitchen.
A replica of a Luden’s Cough Drops tin currently owned by Frederick Edenharter, of Shillington, the grandson of the founder of Luden’s Inc. William H. Luden. (Krissy Krummenacker/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
“An early product was ‘moshie,’ a Pennsylvania Dutch (German-American) candy made with brown sugar and molasses. Luden collaborated with a pharmacist to develop a cough drop formula.”
Luden colored his amber instead of the traditional cough-drop color of red to stand out among consumers.
They had a knack for making their products stand out among consumers.
Partnered with Strohecker, they would prove to have a knack for making their products stand out among consumers.
A spoonful of sugar
Rohecker’s entire professional life was spent convincing retailers and consumers to buy Luden’s candy and cough drops. Luden’s Cough Drops is a widely recognized global brand today.
The two industries are much closer in origin than people might imagine today.
Candy comes from medicinal tradition, “The Candy Professor” and Rutgers University scholar Samira Kawash told Smithsonian Magazine in a 2010 interview.
Easter bunnies, and their edible chocolate version, were traditions born in Germany and first popularized in the U.S. in German-American communities. Sandra Jaeckel holds up a big chocolate bunny at Confiserie Felicitas GmbH in Hornow, Germany, March 2014. The company uses pure cocoa butter and produces 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of chocolate every day. (Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images)
“An apothecary in the 18th century would prescribe you sugar candy for things like chest ailments or digestion problems,” said Kawash.
“Back then, the ‘spoonful of sugar’ idea was literal — if you had some sort of unpleasant medicine to take, usually a concoction of herbs that might not taste very good, the apothecary would suspend it in sugar.”
“Candy of the sort that you might recognize today really took off emerged after the Civil War, after the price of sugar has fallen” — Professor Samira Kawash
Strohecker and Luden were at the right place at the right time — when apothecary and confectionary grew into separate businesses in a nation with rapidly evolving transportation infrastructure and consumer wealth.
“Candy of the sort that you might recognize today really took off … after the Civil War, after the price of sugar [had] fallen,” said Kawash.
“And then the new industrial machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made it possible to produce candy in a whole new way.”
The area around Reading, Pennsylvania, rich in German heritage, remains the center of the American Easter bunny business.
A copy of a photo of a Luden’s wagon taken on Jan. 29, 2007. Original photo from Frederick Edenharter, of Shillington, Pennsylvania, grandson of the founder of Luden’s Inc., William H. Luden. Robert Strohecker, who sold Luden products throughout the region and popularized the chocolate Easter bunny in America, traveled in a similar wagon (man in photo not identified). (Krissy Krummenacker/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Reading native Richard M. Palmer served in World War II and returned to the region to a nation that had to find ways to enjoy chocolate in limited quantities.
During World War II, “rationing forced chocolate makers to get creative – [and] the hollow chocolate Easter bunny was born.” — Harbor Sweets
“World War II played a role in the evolution of the chocolate Easter bunny,” Harbor Sweets reports on its website.
“They were typically solid, but wartime rationing forced chocolate makers to get creative — the hollow chocolate Easter bunny was born.”
The returning veteran launched R.H. Palmer Candy in 1948, specializing in hollow chocolate Easter bunnies.
Four people are dead, three are missing after an explosion at the R.M. Palmer Company chocolate factory in West Reading, Pennsylvania. (WTXF/Screengrab)
R.H. Palmer made international news for unfortunate reasons just last month: An explosion killed seven employees, leaving the beloved local company and the community in shock.
An employee told Fox News Digital this week they still had only two phone lines working and were struggling to recover in a city where chocolate Easter bunnies have been a tradition for over 130 years.
“We are committed to continuing to giving back to the communities that have given us so much.” — Chocolate maker R.M. Palmer of Reading, Pennsylvania
“R.M. Palmer has been part of the West Reading community since 1948, and while the tragedy has affected us all, it has not shaken our resolve,” the company said in an online statement.
“The strength and support of our employees has been inspiring, and we are committed to continuing to giving back to the communities that have given us so much.”
90 million happy children can’t be wrong
Robert L. Strohecker died of a heart attack at his home at 737 North Fourth St. in Reading on March 31, 1932. He was 68 years old.
He worked for most of his adult life at Luden, retiring four years before his death.
Robert L. Strohecker, born in Pennsylvania, in 1864, is credited with popularizing chocolate Easter bunnies in America while working for W.H. Luden Confectioner. He also helped popularize menthol cough drops, which Luden’s still sells today. (Public Domain)
“He sold the first box of candy manufactured by Mr. Luden … and for many years traveled about Berks and adjoining counties with a large wagon drawn by a team of mules, disposing of the products of his concern to the various stores,” reads his obituary in the Reading Eagle, published on the day of his death.
“He was responsible for the preparation of the menthol cough drop formula, which later became internationally known. He devised the extensive advertising methods, which placed cough drops in practically every country in the world.”
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His obituary remembers him mostly not for his work in candy and cough drops, but for his commitment to church, community and children of Reading.
His wider legacy is found today in the wide-eyed children across the nation who will awake on Easter morning to find their most delicious gift of the season: a chocolate bunny.
Trays of chocolate rabbits sit in the factory area at Jacques Torres Chocolate in New York, on April 7, 2009. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Americans consume about 90 million chocolate bunnies each year, according to industry data, almost all of them at Easter.
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“We love the story. I think a lot of people love the story,” said Phyllis LeBlanc of Harbor Sweets, who took over the company in recent years following the death of its founder, her mentor and Strohecker’s grandson Ben Strohecker.
“Ben wanted to commemorate his grandfather’s work and his legacy. He was proud of his grandfather.”
To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here.