The Bitter-Sweet Story Of Wedel, Poland’s Famous Chocolatier
full-width, wedel-praliny-ag-flesz.jpg, Pralines at a Wedel chocolate lounge, photo: Małgorzata Kujawka/Agencja Gazeta, top
Wedel, one of Poland’s leading sweets companies, started out in the mid-19th century as a small family business specialising in chocolate. Today it produces a whole range of sweets including some that are, like the famous Bird’s Milk, Polish staples. Culture.pl takes a look at the amazing rise of this enterprise, especially the story of the family that founded it and the impact they had on the sweets industry and Polish culture.
Have you ever had Ptasie Mleczko (Bird’s Milk), or Wedel Cake? Well, if you haven’t you’ve probably never been to Poland where these local sweets are so popular they’re almost unavoidable. Actually, it’s hard to think of a Pole who’s never tried them or at least heard their names. These very traditional foods date back to the 1930s and are manufactured by one of Poland’s oldest confectionary companies, known simply as Wedel, whose own roots go back even further…
The company was founded by a German by the name of Karol Wedel, born in 1813 in Ihlenfeld. He came to live in Warsaw in 1845, already as a confectioner with professional experience from places like Paris and London. After having worked at one of Warsaw’s sweets shops for a few years, he decided to open his own place where the manufacture of quality chocolate would be the unique selling point. At the time, making chocolate was a craft seldom practiced in Poland and Karol Wedel, who had brought the appropriate know-how with him, saw that as his chance. He wasn’t mistaken, the shop he opened in 1851 in the corner of Miodowa and Kapitulna streets quickly became popular with Varsovians who’d order up to 500 cups of hot chocolate per day. That year, he founded his sweets company.
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Better than smoking
Emil Albert Fryderyk Wedel, Karlsbad, photo: Elżbiety Jasińska’s archive/Fotonova/East News
Apart from chocolate, both liquid and solid, the business would also sell things like candy and processed fruits. Karol Wedel would also regularly introduce new products keeping the customers’ interest at a high. The son he had with his wife Karolina, Emil, worked at the shop as well. Born in 1841, Emil Wedel eventually travelled to gain experience with various sweets companies in Europe, like his father had done before him. Later, after years of co-running the family business he became its owner. Karol gave the successful company to his son as a wedding gift in 1871. Emil, who is said to have felt stronger ties to Poland than to his father’s homeland, married a Pole, Eugenia Bohm.
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Under Emil’s management, the company kept growing. He had an elegant tenement house built in 8 Szpitalna Street according to a design by the noted architect Franciszek Baumann, and relocated the shop there. Next door, he opened a chocolate ‘salon’ or, rather, a hot chocolate drinking lounge. The owner lived in one of the apartments above and his sweets manufactory operated in the courtyard behind. The firm now also offered wafers and candy, as well as different kinds of solid chocolate.
The shop had (and has) two rooms. The celadon ceiling with gold embellishments sported allegoric figures of women painted by Buchbinder [Józef Buchbinder, noted Polish-Jewish painter – ed.]. (…) Decorative counters, golden stuccos, blue shields with golden ‘E.W.’ letters on them. The mirror cupboards reached almost to the ceiling. (…) The salon next to the shop, with stylised furniture and wall paintings by J. Kubicki (the one who embellished the M/S Piłsudski ship) was the company’s showcase, always gladly frequented even though people were never allowed to smoke there.
Source: W dawnych cukierniach i kawiarniach warszawskich, by Wojciech Herbaczyński, published by PIW in 1983
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Soon a Warsaw hot spot, the shop was frequented by important writers like Henryk Sienkiewicz and Bolesław Prus. Wedel’s products (also sold at other spots the company set up in the city) enjoyed so much popularity that fakes started appearing. To put an end to these forgeries, Emil started to mark his merchandise with a one-of-a-kind sign: a facsimile of his signature. That’s how the company’s iconic logo, still in use today, was born.
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Blessing a new Wedel store, Jan Wedel standing in the left of the image, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Emil’s son, Jan wanted to continue the family confectionary tradition. Born in 1874 and raised Polish, he gained a doctorate in food chemistry from Switzerland’s University of Fribourg. A well-travelled man, he spoke, aside from Polish, also German, French and English. He was considered an expert on chocolate:
[He] could pinpoint the place of origin of a cocoa bean, meaning he could determine what plantation it was from and of which variety it was, on the basis of its looks, aroma and raw taste.
Source: E. Wedel - krótka historia rodzinnej firmy, by Mieczysław Kozłowski, published in 2004 by Cadbury Wedel
After working various jobs at the company starting from entry ones (something his father believed would give him a thorough understanding of the business), he eventually became its head in 1923. At the time the prospering firm was making, among other things, chocolate, biscuits and candy.
Wedel’s tenement house in Szpitalna Street, Warsaw. The ceremony of activating the renovated Wedel neon sign, photo: Adam Stępień/AG
Jan Wedel wanted to further expand the company and to do that he built a new factory in 28/30 Zamoyskiego Street. The existing facilities behind the tenement in Szpitalna Street were just too small for his plans. The factory designed by Napoleon Czerwiński was ready in 1931:
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The construction was a rather large undertaking. The entire city was waiting for its completion. In the end, one of the most modern sweets industry facilities in the country was created. The buildings and equipment were impressive and people told legends about them. The machines brought in from Germany and France were on the highest technological level.
Source: Rody Starej Warszawy (Old Warsaw’s Clans) by Tadeusz Świątek, published by Bis-Press in 2000
A package for Wedel’s chocoalte deigned by graphic artist Karol Śliwka, photo: Daniel Dmitriew/Forum
The success was based on the products’ high quality, which Jan Wedel devoted much of his attention to. Even when the company was already a very large organisation, he would personally check the cocoa beans coming to the factory. One of his workers noted that ‘There is no clerk between Wedel and the chocolate’.
The 1930s is also when some of Wedel’s flagship foods were introduced. The aforementioned Ptasie Mleczko, whose curious name implying birds produce milk is said to have been an impromptu idea of one of the employees, is a marshmallow of sorts. A ‘light, milky, vanilla fluff dipped in chocolate’ as Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux puts it in her Culture.pl article about iconic Polish sweets. In the same text, Torcik Wedlowski (Wedel Cake) is described as a ‘a hand-decorated wafer cake with hazelnut cream and chocolate’ and a ‘famous treat’. Another well-recognised Wedel product from that era still sold today is Czekolada Jedyna (The Only Chocolate).
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The muses of art
A design for a chocolate box made for Wedel by Zofia Stryjeńska, ca. 1934, photo: DESA
Within the grand scope of Jan Wedel’s entrepreneurship there was plenty of room for culture. The art field most closely linked to his business was, naturally, graphic design. Well aware that people are said to ‘eat with their eyes’, he wanted his packaging to reflect the high quality of the foods they contained. That’s why he hired top graphic artists like Zofia Stryjeńska and Tadeusz Gronowski to design for Wedel (something his father had also done, by the way). The classy image extended from the packages to other mediums, such as poster advertisements. Today, many applied designs made for Wedel are considered Polish classics and as such can be encountered in museums.
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For instance, the Museum of Warsaw, which narrates the capital’s tale through a wide array of objects, has on exhibit a stylish interwar Wedel confectionary tin embellished with views of the capital. Another Wedel package from that era, a cocoa tin with images of a cocoa farmer, cocoa fruit and a cup of hot chocolate is on show at the Gdynia City Museum. On the other hand, Zofia Stryjeńska’s design for a Wedel box of chocolate, made circa 1934, was recently auctioned for close to 6,000 euros, a pretty penny. The artist, known for her predilection for folk themes, created a graphic which has as its centrepiece a Lajkonik, a traditional Kraków masquerader dressed up as a Tatar horseman.
Another venerable design made for Wedel is Tadeusz Gronowski’s interwar advertisement of the company’s Cocoa Oatmeal. Like Stryjeńska, the artist also employed a folk aesthetic, aiming to capture the attention of the viewer with flashy peacocks. Meanwhile, the company’s famous logo (complimentary to E. Wedel’s signature), a boy on a zebra holding bars of chocolate, was designed in 1926 by the noted Italian poster artist Leonetto Cappiello.
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Wedel’s logo as presented in the 1931 book A Fairy Tale about Wedel’s Gifts, photo: The National Digital Library Polona
The company also published prints. Among them was the 1931 Baśń o Podarkach Wedla (A Fairy Tale about Wedel’s Gifts), a colouring book for kids with a dedicated poem by valued writer Artur Oppman. In the late 1930s, it transpired that Jan Wedel was looking to refurbish the interior of the shop and salon in Szpitalna Street. There was a public outcry, with people arguing that the place had a unique and precious ambience and should remain in its original shape. The owner agreed to abandon his plans and instead decided to organise a literary contest for short stories with memories about the shop. As a result, 1938 saw the publication of Staroświecki Sklep (The Old-Fashioned Shop), a collection of short stories about the establishment with an introduction by celebrated writer Julian Tuwim. One of the stories was penned by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, another celebrated Polish author.
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I was always most intrigued by what I saw on my way out when I’d look above at the three women figures sitting in the plafond. It was them, the good sorceresses, that made the shop seem so amazing to me. They smiled to me, they spoke to me: (…) ‘We are the muses of art!’
Excerpt from Wspomnienie (Memory) by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, a short story from the book Staroświecki Sklep
An unremarkable brand name
An old-school Wedel confectionary tin in the collection of the Museum of Warsaw, photo: Adrian Czechowski & Igor Oleś/Muzeum Warszawy
Jan Wedel also facilitated the development of his workers’ culture. At the factory, he had a theatrical group and orchestra set up, and even created a special performance venue for them that could house a 500-strong crowd. His labourers could also make use of the in-house kindergarten and medical office – the work conditions at Wedel were considered good. Jan Wedel's pioneering was said to be so important to the development of Poland’s industry that he was awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta.
Sadly, the sweet story of Wedel as a family business was put to a bitter end by World War II. When the Nazis came, they forced him to produce his chocolate for Germans only. Wedel kept the factory running because that way he could at least help his workers (providing them with jobs) and others affected by the occupation. He supported impoverished artists as well as the pro-independence underground. After the Germans shut down all higher education institutions, he organised underground educational gatherings at the factory.
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People standing in two lines in front of Wedel’s store in Szpitalna Street in Warsaw, 1982, photo: Edmund Uchymiak/CAF/PAP
The war left Poland and the factory in ruin. After its end, Jan Wedel started to re-build his business but was soon expelled by the communists who took rule over Poland, now under the Soviet Union’s influence. In the state-run communist economy, there was no room for free enterprise. To commemorate the July Manifesto, a founding document of Poland under the communist regime, the company was renamed as Zakłady Przemysłu Cukierniczego im. 22 Lipca (The July 22nd Sugar Industry Factory). This rather unremarkable brand name didn’t click with the public which is why the old logo, Emil Wedel’s signature, was eventually put back on the products (many of which were made according to the old recipes, and still appreciated). The familiar facsimile appeared next to the new name with an annotation that it is the company’s ‘former’ name.
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Jan Wedel never got his factory back and passed away in 1960. His father’s signature was used as a logo of the rebranded company throughout the existence of the communist regime.
Under the new name the company, among other things, opened a new factory in Płońsk in the 1970s where the highly popular Delicje (much like Jaffa Cakes) were introduced to production. After the political turn of 1989, the firm returned to its original name and was privatised.
The Old-Fashioned Shop and Wedel’s Warsaw factory are still there and open to visitors. More importantly, the firm’s classic sweets are still being sold, bringing joy to many a palate. A 1930s quote from the factory’s architect Napoleon Czerwiński curiously relates to their timeless appeal:
All in all, there’s many great chocolates in Poland, but there’s only one Wedel.
Author: Marek Kępa, Nov 2018