Candy | Canada | History
Why A Bitter Five-cent War On Chocolate Was Once Waged By Children
Did a sour rumor spoil a sweet cause?
Seventy-four years ago, almost two years after WWII, a different type of war broke out like no other. A conflict from which the smallest soldiers from all over Canada protested the offense.
On one side were manufacturers of candy bars, the other being outraged children.
The price of chocolate bars went from 5¢ to 8¢.
What was the reason behind the strike?
According to the manufacturers at the time, problems with the supply of cocoa beans and the elimination of wartime government subsidies were cited as the reason for the war on the price hike over sweet bars.
On April 25, 1947, the strike began at a local confectionary store and luncheonette, Wigwam Café, in Ladysmith, British Columbia. The strike started due to a 60% increase in the store’s chocolate bars. Outraged, local children called for a boycott and protested in front of the store, where a slogan, “Don’t be a sucker,” was adopted.
Their initial protest was staged using a 1923 black McLaughlin Buick covered with a slogan, followed by 40 children marching in a demonstration.
“We want a 5 cent chocolate bar
8 cents is going to darn far
We want a 5 cent chocolate bar
Oh we want a 5 cent bar.”
The children chanted as they marched.
For three successive days at noon, the children objected. Their strike ended up in the local paper, the Ladysmith Chronicle.
The children marched with their homemade signs,
“Don’t Buy 8¢ bars. Lower prices to 5¢. We are smart” read some.
“Let the sucker pay 8¢, we won’t,” read others.
At the same time, posing for a photographer for a paper, the Vancouver Sun, which ran the story the following day.
“Children Invade Legislature Building.”
Within days, the strike only managed to pick up steam. By April 29, the protest spread to the provincial capital, nearby Victoria, British Columbia, where 200 children joined in and stormed the city’s legislature building. The Times Colonist, Victoria’s paper, carried the story on April 30 with the headline, “Children Invade Legislature Building,” along with a photograph of children carrying posters on the steps of the building. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Edmonton, Alberta, 300 children marched in protest down the city’s Jasper Avenue (with the accompaniment of a police escort).
As news coverage on this war on sweets increased, the strike spread east. In Burnaby, children paraded around on bicycles which were said to block the main thoroughfare, Kingsway.
Sure enough, Within days of the strike beginning, sales of chocolates fell by 80%. Merchants in Winnipeg reported having gone a day without any sales.
The strike continued to expand yet even more. On May 2, 500 schoolchildren from Toronto marched along Bloor Street. The following day, May 3, 60 students in Ottawa demonstrated on Parliament Hill. In this instance, they were led by ten buglers, one of which carried a sign: “We’ll eat worms before we eat eight-cent chocolate bars.”
Around the same time as the marches in Toronto, the strikes took a strange twist.
An anonymous tipster reached out to the Toronto Evening Telegram and told the paper that the National Federation of Labour Youth, which was in public support of the protests, was backed by communist ties¹. On May 3, the Telegram covered a story on the tip with a headline:
“Red Seen Duping Youth in 8-cent Bar Campaign.”
Another paper, the Financial Post, followed up with their own story headlined:
“Communists Run Candy Bar Strike, Recruit Young Children For Parade.”
A Bitter End
As a result of the allegations, the strike’s supporters bowed out. Its organizational supporters and the parents of the children both withdrew out of fear of association with the claims.
The Youth Action Committee of Victoria, BC, rescinded its support on May 5, with Vancouver’s Sat-Teen Club, which held 2,500 members, also dropping support, citing “mob demonstrations and strikes are not consistent with the ideals of the club.”
At its conclusion, days after such a strong start, the strike ultimately died down in a whimper, and the hiked-up price of the chocolate bars stayed at 8-cents.
Before the strike ended, several candy manufacturers published open letters referring to the price increase. On May 2, candy company Rowntree published an open letter in the local papers titled: “Why You Pay 8¢ For A Rowntree Chocolate Bar.” A representative of another chocolate company, Moirs, also spoke on CBC radio, defending the decision. On May 7, Willard’s Chocolate published its open letter in the Toronto Star.
In the years since, a 2000 documentary, The Five Cent War, and a 2007 novel based on the strike by Michelle Mulder, Maggie and the Chocolate War, both came out on the event. A public mural based on the original Vancouver Sun photograph has memorialized the demonstrations since 2017. However, rather than chocolate bars, the mural instead depicts the original child protesters eating ice cream².
¹The co-founder of NFLY, Bill Stewart, refuted the claims in an interview in 2003.
²The change was due to ice cream still being priced at 5¢ at the time of the strike.
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