Origin of the Famous Salem Gibralters

A Production of Delicious Sweetness, The History of a Peculiar Industry

Historic Salem, Massachusetts! This immediately suggests Hawthorne, Witchcraft and a once-prosperous seaport; but besides these interesting features there is a delight, especially to those who have a ‘sweet tooth,’ in associating the toothsome ‘Gibralter’ with this old city.

The history of these attractive little dainties includes a bit of romance concerning their origin. Early in the 19th century an English family, Spencer by name, sailed for this country. On the passage they lost all their worldly goods in a shipwreck and the family arrived in Salem in a rather destitute condition. They took up a residence in North Salem, on Buffum Street, and such were their privations that their neighbors determined to offer assistance. It became known that Mrs. Spencer was a candy maker, so a barrel of sugar was donated. It was this barrel of sugar which laid the foundations of the well-known ‘Salem Gibralter’ business.

“Crossing the North Bridge we are reminded by the sense of smell that we are in the vicinity of one of Salem’s most noted productions.” Sure enough! The people near us are eating ‘Salem Gibralters!’

There is no need to say “What’s in a name?” No other name would ever apply to these sweet memories of our childhood. Their fame has gone forth and people come from far and near to buy these delightful little dainties, done up so mysteriously.

When one is enjoying the purity and delicious flavor of this confection it is hard to realize that they are made and wrapped in exactly the same way as sold by Mrs. Spencer from a pail, on the steps of the Old First Church, over 200 years ago.

Early Sketching of Mary Spencer
circa 1800’s

Gibralters at once became very popular and the storekeepers placarded their windows with their name. A prosperous business was established and so rapidly increased that Mrs. Spencer bought a wagon from which to peddle her wares, and might be seen driving this quaint outfit, a picture of which is reproduced here, through the streets of Salem and surrounding towns. Isn’t it amazing that a woman in that day could start and own a business, all starting with a piece of candy. Today the Peabody Essex Museum has custody of her wagon and the firkins she used to deliver her sweets.

The Gibralter needed not the insignia of nobility to make them popular is very true, for their fame went out so broadly that they were known from Salem to the Far East, China, India, the East Indies and Africa. In the days of Salem’s commercial prosperity her sea-captains would not think of making a voyage without a case of Salem Gibralters. Their purity is proved as they keep fresh in all climates.

After Mrs. Spencer’s death in 1835 her son Thomas Spencer continued the business for a short while, and the surprise was very general when people learned one day that Thomas had fallen heir to a fortune and Title in England. He disposed of his business to a local confectioner from Salem, John Pepper. After proper arrangements concluded Thomas would leave for England with all his household goods, taking with him the body of his mother. That they had been expecting this event there is no doubt, as the body of his mother was embalmed and placed in a metallic casket, a thing so unusual then that it caused one old gentleman to remark, “I guess she will never hear Gabriel’s trumpet through that thing.”

Thomas Spencer with his wife at their Estate in England


It is believed that the Spencer and Pepper families were quite close, we know they were neighbors on Buffum Street in Salem. An area of Salem that already held confectioners and John Pepper was noted for his own delights as well. It is quite possible that Thomas and John worked together developing the Black Jack, the first stick candy produced and sold commercially in America. The two were looking for a candy that would serve a more masculine taste. The men thought the Gibralter had a soft feminine look and flavor so they sought to develop an opposite candy (Black Jack) and sell them both. This stick candy is made from black-strap molasses which gives it a distinctive taste.

“Old Salem” by Eleanor Putman, edited by Arlo Bates, 1886 tells of Salem’s charms as the author saw it in her youth. She wrote under a name borne by one of her ancestors of the old town, and went there to live in 1865, when nine years of age, staying about six years, and taking in the life of the place at a most impressionable age. She was a scholar at the fashionable dame-school which she describes so well, and spent her pennies at the quaint shops pictured. “Old Salem shops,” A Salem dame-school.” “Two Salem Institutions,” “Salem cupboards,” and “My cousin the captain,” make up the little volume, a book of only word pictures, one which you can read in an hour or two, and enjoy a perfect panorama of imaginative scenes.

The first two chapters define themselves very readily by their titles, but who can guess what the third chapter details. When we read, “Two Salem Institutions,” we immediately thought of Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. What else could they be? But the institutions referred to are “Black Jacks” and “Gibralters,” prehistoric confections. She says: “Witch Hill may blow away; the East Indian Museum may be swallowed up in earth; Charter Street Burying Ground may go out to sea; but as long as a single house remains standing in Salem Village, so long will ‘Black Jack’ and ‘Gibralter’ wisely reign, and retain their honorable place in the inmost hearts of Salem people.

A saying of a charming old Salem woman was: “I know I must be growing old, because a peppermint Gibralter is so comforting to me.”

The Pepper family continued to make Gibralters and Black Jacks for two generations. The family business grew and relocated to Elm Street in Peabody. From this location George (John’s son) lived, housed a factory and full stable for his horses used for delivering his goods and confections to the area.

George W Pepper Companie Elm Street, Peabody, Massachusetts

The company prospered for many years continuing the production of Gibralters and Black Jacks as well as other goods. In the late 1800’s a young George Burkinshaw went to work for the George Pepper Companie as an assistant candy maker. As he grew older he worked and learned the art of candy making from George Pepper. During this time George Burkinshaw met Alice, she was a candy packer for the company. The couple married and around the turn of 20h century they purchased the Pepper Companie with the Gibralter and Black Jack recipes. The Burkinshaw family, now in it’s fourth generation continue to produce these candies today. Ye Olde Pepper Companie located at 122 Derby Street, Salem, MA

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