Joy of clear toys lives on.

How sweet it was . . . and is

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Nick Vena pours the hot clear candy into a mold at the Franklin Fountain. The owners bought the molds along with other inventory from Young's Candies, at 28th and Girard.

One snowy afternoon last week, the cellar doors were flung open on the sidewalk on Letitia Street, the better to funnel the chill to the basement at the Franklin Fountain, the antique ice cream parlor in Old City.

A passerby at the corner with Market Street may have found that an odd sight, though below ground - where steam rose from a copper pan set on a ring of blue flame - you saw the point.

The sugar syrup for a batch of holiday clear toys, the hard-candy figurines that long defined Christmas morning in Philadelphia and beyond, had boiled to an impatient froth.

It was time to pour the 100-year-old molds; time for fire to become, in a manner of speaking, ice.

Just a year and a half before, it looked as if that time had passed for good: Harry Young, the clear-toy master, had died, and so did his singular shop, Young's Candies, at 28th and Girard.

The glassy toys had taken another step toward oblivion, leaving stockings to the likes of Hershey, and prosaic toy wannabes - joyless, two-dimensional, dim-witted pieces.

But behold the miracle off Market Street! Below the ice cream parlor, two workers as white-clad, formal and focused as surgeons in Eakins' famed Agnew Clinic began drizzling the molten stuff. Into Harry Young's old molds.

The toy story would have a second act, after all, written largely by two history-buff brothers, Eric and Ryan Berley, who own the Franklin Fountain and are determined to keep it busy through the winter lull.

It didn't hurt that the Food Network's Road Tasted show ran a segment kindly noting their efforts.

That show was first shown in June. And orders started coming in. But when the weather's hot and sticky, that's no time for clear-toy making: "We told them we wouldn't make any until the weekend after Thanksgiving," Ryan said: "That's when Harry would make them."

In fact, as national brands - Tennessee-based Brach Candy Co., for one - bought up Philadelphia-area candy companies (Lansdale clear-toy maker Shelly Bros., in that case), regional favorites that couldn't stand the heat were quickly stricken from the playlist.

Enter the basement. You want it as cool as possible and humidity 40 percent or lower (an exhaust fan worked on that in the window). Otherwise you're asking for clouding, and that is the clear toy's greatest enemy: Clear, after all, cannot be cloudy.

It is a chore (typically delegated to pourers Nick Vena and Elliott Landes) to get it right: Pour too quickly, you get gaps. Too slowly, the syrup thickens. Brush too little olive oil in the mold, the toy sticks. A strong oyster knife may be required to pry it out.

Brittle pennants snap from the masts of bulky sailing ships. Firemen's hat brims are at constant risk. Antlers? Oy.

When everything turns out, there is still the painstaking work of shaving the toy's edges to rid them of excess flashing. For this, the Berleys have found dental tools useful.

But clear toys surface just once a year, at least the genuine items. (Easter crops, in my book, are unnatural.)

And when it all works together - the air bubbles dispatched, the light dancing off a stag's ruby antlers - they are regarded by devotees as near-sacred objects, the Rosebud sleds, if you will, of the winter candy world.

Sweet memories

Clear-toy makers have gotten orders from customers whose mothers have Alzheimer's in hopes the figures might ignite buried memory.

They hear reports of candy galleons, sticky by spring, reluctantly chiseled from windowsills.

An Ohio action-figure-sculpting company put in a large order; it's giving the toys as corporate gifts - whimsical examples of early America's expertise in the figurative sculpting arts.

In 2006, however, the toys were a step closer to becoming a lost art. That's when Harry Young, the city's master candy-maker and fourth-generation proprietor of Young's Candies, died - and his 1890s-vintage shop along with him.

Young alone, among the city's small-time candy makers, had retained a trove of the Victorian-era molds, most of them made by long-gone local suppliers Thomas Mills & Bros. and V. Clad & Sons.

Supplanted by automated-molding systems, and decimated during the scrap-metal drives of World War II, when modernizing shops put them out for collection, the stock of the exquisitely detailed brass-alloy originals dwindled.

There are a few repositories: Regennas Candy Shop (estimated 1894, on North 19th Street) still molds from its Victorian-era collection, now in Myerstown, Pa., east of Hershey. In suburban Montgomeryville, Tom and Shirley Sargent have made toys for 41 years from molds they first encountered at an old blacksmith shop.

But Harry Young's stash was unrivaled in Philadelphia. He had more than 250 iconic molds, many sized for stocking-stuffers (flintlocks, acorns, open hands, locomotives), but dozens of heftier pieces, last glimpses at a hand-work made obsolete when industrialization took full hold.

There were molds for majestic, amber lions, and butchers hauling pigs on their shoulders, for Keystone Kops throttling miscreants, and firemen rescuing babies from frozen, emerald flames.

A handful of his rare commemorative molds (a bust of Teddy Roosevelt, for instance) were donated by the Young family to the city's Atwater Kent Museum, which is planning an exhibition.

The rest of the inventory, let us give thanks, was bought at an auction at the shop by the irrepressible brothers Berley, who, with their slicked hair, period clothes and bow ties, have the not-uncalculated aspect of being antiques themselves.

Homegrown goodies

Clear toys can be found as far afield as Madison, N.H., where Dorothy Timberlake founded a still-thriving barley-sugar candy business, big on lollipops.

But they originated hereabouts, the legacy of early Pennsylvania Germans, zuckerbeckers (sugar-toy makers) whose craft, along with the domestic arts of medallionlike springerle cookies and gingerbread men, defined the flavor of Christmas past.

Harry Young, of course, was a descendant of that tradition; the family was originally Jung. But one thing he wasn't was a marketer. In his 14-by-40-foot kitchen he hand-pulled candy canes and crafted incomparable walnut pillows, turned out hard-candy pickles and the tenderest chocolate straws.

But you had to come to his shop for all that, and certainly for the magical clear toys, which, as they were rediscovered in recent years, tended to vanish within days of going on sale.

The Berleys have bigger ideas. They have a Web site and want to ship nationally. They've dedicated the fourth floor of their corner building to the packaging of the fragile toys.

Still, on a snowy afternoon, you can see the occasional white-haired customer bundled up, waiting for an order in the deserted ice cream parlor downstairs.

They tend to pay with checks, sometimes substantial ones, and printed on them, if you care to look, you will find addresses a block or two to the north, or maybe to the west, of a shop, now shuttered, at 28th and Girard.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.