Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of those movies that seem destined for endless remakes. Its premise is irresistible: Five kids go on a top-secret tour of a candy manufacturing plant and see how all their favorite sweets are produced. Sure, the candy looks delicious, but kooky factory owner Willy Wonka does something else to enthrall us: He lifts the curtain on a magical process of things being made.
According to Allison Marsh, a University of South Carolina historian, people began going to industrial plants for recreation and education in the late 19th century, shortly after the idea of “time off” from work became widespread. The weekend had recently been invented; infrastructure such as transportation networks, hotels, and restaurants allowed for more tourism; and some employers offered paid vacation for the first time. During this period, food was also beginning to be mass-produced rather than grown locally, and products were increasingly made not by craftsmen but by machines and assembly-line workers. The shift struck many Americans as fascinating: They wanted to know how sheet metal became a railway car or canned beans made it into the can. Furthermore, the notion of spending leisure time watching others work appealed to a demographic trying to cement its comfortable, middle-class status.
The Franco-American facility in New Jersey (motto: “Tastes as good as homemade”) and the Heinz plant in Pennsylvania were among the first to conduct regular, scheduled tours of their shop floors. These companies “were selling a new food concept, and their factory tours helped answer consumer questions,” Marsh says. Other manufacturers found they could capitalize on the public’s interest to spread awareness of their brand and drum up good will. In 1906, Richard Sears of Sears-Roebuck invited customers visiting Chicago to come browse his warehouse, recognizing that the company’s famous catalog struck some families as too glamorous to be meant for them.
From the beginning, the factory tour has really been about public relations. While visiting dignitaries and potential investors had always been granted special access to industrial plants as a courtesy, and tours were occasionally used as worker recruitment tools, the advertising piece took front and center. “Companies want to establish brand loyalty and connect with customers,” says Karen Axelrod, author of Watch It Made in the USA: Your Guide to Factory Tours. “They are hoping to impress people with the quality of the manufacturing, all of the steps involved, how clean and efficient everything is.” (These days, many businesses also want to flaunt their environmentally-friendly policies: The Ford Rouge plant in Detroit loves to show off its living green roof.)
During the Great Depression, industry found a new place in the national mythology. Factories were seen as providing the kind of honest work people desired and helping the economy recover. Tours picked up, and customers came to expect that if they showed up at an industrial facility, they’d be shown around. So many people arrived unannounced at the construction site of the Hoover Dam that, two years into the project, the builders had to create a tourist platform to prevent people from wandering off into blast areas.
There’s something faintly patriotic about factory tours, about gazing with admiration at a country’s industrial workings, so it’s not too surprising that the practice peaked in the United States during the nationalistic 1940s. (It declined slightly over the next two decades, as concerns about visitor safety multiplied.)
In the 1970s and 1980s, companies like Crayola, Hershey, and Kellogg’s began to move away from scheduled walks around the shop floor and toward what they called “the factory experience.” They opened museums where tourists could learn about the history of a product, watch its simulated manufacture and, of course, purchase it when they were done. The Hershey’s company represents a sterling example of this: Its Chocolate World offers tasting adventures, educational film screenings, Hershey kiss packaging workshops, and trolley rides—all for the paying customer—but the actual chocolate is produced off-site. (Hershey’s recently drew criticism for closing its famous Hershey East plant in Hershey, Pa. and opening a new plant in Mexico, a move that cost 600 U.S. jobs.)
According to Gary Krieg, who runs Factory Tours USA, an estimated 565 sites across the country offer visitors an up-close look at American manufacturing. Most common are distilleries and breweries (perhaps tourists are tempted by all the free boozy samples), but candy and cheese manufacturers, glass makers, and auto builders also frequently open their doors to the public. A survey of Slate colleagues turned up an impressive list of factory tours, including a Jelly-Belly plant in Northern California, a Dole plant in Hawaii, Scharffenberger Chocolate in Berkeley, Calif., Crayola in eastern Pennsylvania, the unavoidable Hershey’s Chocolate World in Hershey, Pa., and a Hostess factory in Indianapolis. Reactions were almost unfailingly enthusiastic. “We got to eat crumbled crumb cakes. It wasn’t the least bit educational,” reminisced Laura Helmuth, the Hostess-goer, fondly. Emily Yoffe, who has visited an oil rig, a rum plant, a blue cheese factory, and a pretzel factory, wrote, “You always learn amazing details about how complicated it is to make anything and come away with great admiration for inventors and engineers— and the people who work the line.”
Professor Marsh agrees. “The thrill of the factory tour is that you get to see something you don’t normally see,” she explained. “It’s a wow experience.” A year ago, she took her students to a BMW factory in Spartanburg, S.C., where spot-welding robots loosed streams of sparks that shot over the visitors’ heads. She was floored, too, by the fully automated Brown Cow dairy in York County, Pa., which “looks and smells like a farm,” but employs machines—including “teat detection systems”—to milk the big bovines.
Axelrod was bewitched by the peppermint room in the Celestial Seasonings plant. (“It will clear out your sinuses,” she reported.) And she recalled loving the low-tech vibe at Martin Guitar. (“After they glue the rim of the guitar to the body, they use clothespins to hold it in place while drying.”)
But Torie Bosch had mixed feelings about the more than half-dozen factory tours her labor-crazed parents took her on. While she loved the Crayola and Hershey’s trips, seeing tastykakes come into being “turned me off peanut butter for several years,” she wrote. And the coal mine scared her, especially after a tour guide told her there were rats lurking nearby and regaled the audience with tales of what miners were trained to do in the event of a mine collapse (force your hand out of the rubble and wiggle your fingers).
One question that has lingered throughout the history of factory tours is how factory workers feel about being turned into tourist spectacles. In the early days of the tours, company archives were kept by administrators and reflected a management point of view. But union records from the auto industry in the 20th century register some employees’ dissatisfaction with a practice that seemed to sugarcoat the actual working conditions of their plants. “It was a legitimate complaint,” explains Marsh, “because the tours were so obviously PR tools. They had defined scripts and prescribed routes. You didn’t necessarily see the whole picture of what was going on.”
Workers may have also considered the tours a manipulative form of quality control. Employees at a Pez factory were disgruntled at first by a large glass window through which visitors could watch them go about their day. But over time, they grew flattered by people’s attention and interest. “I’d imagine that most workers feel a sense of pride about the tours,” Axelrod told me. After all, thanks to them, thousands of Americans every year can catch a glimpse of our trucks, pianos, pretzels, ice cream, and toothpaste, being born.
And we don’t even need a golden ticket.