In 1849, at the age of twenty-four, Henry L. Pierce and his family moved from nearby Stoughton, Massachusetts, to the Lower Mills area of Dorchester. That same year Pierce began work at the chocolate mills as a clerk for his step-uncle, Walter Baker, as well as Sidney Williams, earning $3 per week.
Pierce did not stay at Baker’s very long. He found it difficult to work for Walter and left his job the following year because of differing political opinions. Walter was a conservative Webster Whig and Pierce’s support of the Free Soil party greatly irritated Walter, quite possibly when the topic of slavery surfaced. Walter’s personal views are not known, but the Webster Whigs believed that slavery was “a matter of historical reality rather than moral principle,” and while it should not expand into new territories, slavery could not be removed from where it already existed. Conversely, Pierce was a staunch supporter of the anti-slavery movement and was active and vocal for the cause.
After leaving Baker’s in 1850, Pierce went west to Milwaukee to find work at a newspaper. He was unsuccessful and returned home to Dorchester the following year, and, at the request of Sidney Williams, returned to Baker’s. Rather than work in the Dorchester offices, Pierce was put in charge of the Boston counting rooms at 32 South Market Street and paid $800 per year.
Within two years Sidney Williams died, leaving Pierce in charge of the chocolate company. In 1854, Pierce leased the business from the Baker trustees for $6,000 per year, with an additional $3,000 annual payment to Walter Baker, Jr. to use the brand name “Baker.” This $9,000 was in addition to the annual cost of running the mill. Due to Pierce’s limited time at Baker’s, the trustees needed to know if he could rise to the challenge and continue to grow the company, so the agreement initially covered the first two years of a standard ten-year contract.
Pierce quickly proved himself to the trustees. His accomplishments ranged from absorbing his competitors and expanding the Lower Mills complex, to developing awareness of Baker’s chocolate world-wide, to creating a company trademark and expanding advertising efforts, and even to running for political office. Over forty-two years Pierce established a significant presence for Baker’s, leaving behind a legacy for both the company and himself in Dorchester.
There were three chocolate makers operating in Dorchester when Pierce began expanding Baker’s. In 1860 he bought Preston’s chocolate mill, leaving only one other competitor, Webb Chocolate, which he bought out in 1881. As business grew Pierce built larger mills that could handle greater production capacity. In 1868 he constructed his first mill with underground cooling rooms, allowing for summer chocolate production for the first time in 103 years. Buildings added under the watch of Pierce were the Pierce Mill (1872), Webb Mill (1882), Adams Street Mill (1889), and finally Walter Baker’s 1848 stone mill was razed to make the new Baker Mill in 1895.
This increase in business opened Baker’s to competition both in America and in Europe. To compete in a larger market, Pierce displayed his chocolate at world’s fairs and expositions. Beginning in 1867 Baker’s Chocolate and Cocoa became known world-wide when it won a Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition. In 1873 Baker’s won the highest award at the Vienna Exposition and again in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial. Pierce’s tradition of involvement at world’s fairs continued well into the early twentieth century.
Pierce also expanded advertising at Baker’s. He oversaw plans to increase exposure in grocery stores, in magazines, and on book covers, as well as marketing campaigns directed to homemakers. The most significant advertising contribution Pierce made was his decision in 1877 to develop a company trademark based on the painting of a young chocolate girl. La Belle Chocolatière became the inspiration for one of America’s best-known, and oldest, trademarks still in use today.
By relying heavily on Baker’s manager H. Clifford Gallagher (who later became president of Baker’s in 1896), Pierce was able to create a political presence not only in Boston but also in Washington, D.C. His passion for public affairs and politics led to four terms as a representative in the Massachusetts General Court, starting in 1860. He later served as a Boston alderman from 1869 to 1870, Mayor of Boston from 1872 to 1877, and as a member of Congress from 1873 to 1877.
After running the company for thirty years, Pierce purchased Baker’s from the Baker estate trustees in 1884. The original 1854 lease included the 1848 stone mill building, a store house, a cooling house, and some out-buildings. Under this contract a certain percentage of money was paid to Walter Baker’s widow. The lease was to terminate when either Mrs. Baker or Pierce died, but new arrangements must have been made since Pierce acquired full ownership seven years prior to Mrs. Baker’s death.
In 1895 Pierce incorporated the chocolate company as Walter Baker & Company, Ltd., ending a 115-year legacy as a family-owned and operated company. Only one year later, Pierce died in Boston on December 17, 1896. In ill health, and preparing for a curative vacation, he was stricken by a paralyzing stroke and died a few days later. Because he was a prominent and well-known figure in Dorchester as well as Boston, his funeral was a major event. Shortly after his death, the intersection of Dorchester Avenue with Washington and Adams Streets, at the north end of the mills, was renamed Pierce Square in his honor.