WHEN Ryan Berley was a kid growing up in Media, he didn't dream about becoming an astronaut or a basketball player.
He wanted to have his own museum. "Our parents took us to countless museums," he recalled. "I wanted to build one myself."
Berley, 37, has achieved his goal, sort of. Along with his brother Eric, 33, Ryan is co-curating "Oh, Sugar!" an exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Independence Seaport Museum.
The brothers are uniquely qualified to weigh in on the topic: They are the retro-obsessed owners of the Franklin Fountain and Shane Confectionery, in Old City. Typically photographed in a cross between turn-of-the-century and steampunk garb, the mustachioed sibs take authentic candy-making drop-dead seriously. And they really don't break character.
"We're a lot like living history re-enactors," Eric said. "We are in this world, but not of it." Even on the weekends, his straw boater is close at hand.
The sweet museum opportunity came to them because the museum's longtime curator, Craig Bruns, walks by Shane every day on the way to work, and, over time, the Berleys got friendly with him.
"He was aware that we had confectionery antiques," Ryan said. It so happens that Bruns has a personal interest in the candy business - his grandfather owned a confectionery-supply business around the turn of the century in his native St. Louis.
"It was Craig's idea to recruit us as curators for an exhibit about sugar," Ryan said. "It's a dream come true for me."
Our sugar town
"Oh, Sugar!" delves into the role sugar has played in Philadelphia's history, from its importation from the West Indies and Caribbean to the golden age of refining that fueled the economy from the mid-18th century to well into the 20th.
Large refineries were on the Delaware in Kensington, Northern Liberties and in Southwark. They included one of the largest factories in the world, Franklin Sugar Refinery, which sported a portrait of Ben on its logo.
Initially, sugar importation was controlled by the British, who brought enslaved Africans to work the plantations on its colonial-held islands. "Thomas Jefferson was hoping that maple trees in New York state would be able to make us a country of self-sustaining sweeteners, allowing us to break our ties with the English system," Ryan said.
All that sugar coming to market created something else: a lively confectionery scene that supported an army of candy makers.
"By and large Philadelphia was the biggest candy-making center in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries," Ryan explained.
While researching the exhibit, the brothers found that there were four confectioners listed in the city in 1800. A century later, there were 117 large-scale wholesalers, 418 retailers similar to Shane Confectionery and 1,011 places listed as corner candy stores - businesses run primarily by French, Italian and German immigrants.
In a 1917 edition of Bankers Magazine, sugar production in Philadelphia was defined as a $46 million industry, producing between 375,000 and 450,000 tons annually. In today's terms, that adds up to more than $910 million.
Age of innovation
The city's last refinery closed in 1984. All that's left of what was once a thriving industry is the casino called SugarHouse, built on the footprint of a refinery with the same name.
The earliest refinery still standing is a block from the Berleys' Old City shops on Church Street, a building dating to 1792 that includes Sugar Mom's pub.
"A big part of the story of sugar in Philadelphia is the industrialization of sugar refining and candy-making," Ryan said. "Mid-19th century innovations in machinery allowed sugar to be consumed exponentially more than it had ever been in human society."
It also powered a host of supporting trades, from rope makers whose products ran hand-cranked sugar elevators in factories to the forgers of the cauldrons and tools used in production.
Innovations included the invention of a revolving steam pan in Philadelphia in 1843, and a lozenge-making machine invented in Boston the following year.
But it was a Philadelphia company that manufactured the hand-cranked machine that essentially allowed just about anybody to make hard candy.
"It was possible then to mass-produce candy on a small scale all around the country," Ryan said.
Feeding America's sweet tooth
Visit a typical candy store around the turn of the last century and you'd see mostly hard candies flavored with herbs and extracts, much like today's bar chefs infuse simple syrup and bitters with seasonal herbs and spices. Ryan found an 1883 circular for the confectioner George Miller & Son, in which hundreds of candies are listed, in varieties from musk and teaberry to cinnamon, rose and lemon.
At "Oh, Sugar!" you'll see the tools, molds and equipment that innovated an industry and fed America's insatiable sweet tooth. Most of the artifacts are from the Berleys' personal collection of more than 100 items - tools made of iron, steel and bronze, candy machines, antique molds, cutters and kettles amassed in the decade since the Berleys bought Franklin Fountain.
Ryan borrowed some decorative pieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including a silver sugar bowl designed by Colonial artist Philip Syng Jr., the silversmith who made the inkwell used in the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
"We see that piece, obviously only for the very rich, juxtaposed with a cheap industrial sugar shaker from a diner, and that alone tells a story," Ryan said.
As part of his curatorial duties - Ryan took the lead on the project while Eric held down their two stores - he was able to peruse the Independence Seaport Museum's "attic" of artifacts long out of public view, and showcase a model of an 19th-century ship that was used for sugar importation.
The museum also has tools and commercial artifacts that it acquired from the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, a collection that was dispersed when its home, the Civic Center, was razed.
Ryan and Eric Berley see "Oh, Sugar!" as the first of what they hope will be multiple exhibitions focused on the by-products of sugar cane.
"We didn't even touch on chocolate this time," Ryan said. "Then there's ice cream and pastries. The story is so integrated into our history. There are so many facets to it."
"Oh, Sugar!," tomorrow through Feb. 16, Independence Seaport Museum, Penn's Landing, 211 S. Columbus Blvd. at Walnut Street, 215-413-8655, phillyseaport.org.
Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. Read more at unchainedtravel.com.