An Emporium of Toothsome Sweets: The Short History of Howell’s Sweet Shop

Howell’s Sweet Shop first opened in Columbia Hall (tall building on right). It later moved into the Safe Deposit Building (long building on right). Photo courtesy: Olympia Historical Society, private postcard collection

Olympia has been home to many businesses over the years. Some have operated for decades, while others only opened their doors for a short time. Despite existing for only a little over two years, Howell’s Sweet Shop has an interesting story and shows the impact that all businesses have on the community regardless of the length of time they operate.

Olympia Federal Savings LogoHowell’s Sweet Shop was owned by Harry and Mabel Howell. Biographical information on the couple is patchy. Harry was born in Wisconsin around 1884. Sometime he moved to Washington and married Mabel (born around 1885). They appear to have had no children. At one point they operated a confectionery store in Chehalis.

The couple decided to try their luck in Olympia around 1912. They remodeled part of Columbia Hall, the recently vacated city hall built in 1869 (210 Fourth Avenue East) to be a candy store. On Wednesday, November 27, 1912 the business opened its doors.

The Howells made their own candies, chocolates, wafers, ice creams, and sherbets, as well as hot drinks including hot chocolate. Candy was made fresh daily and their ice cream was available for delivery, with special rates to churches. One of their specialties was strawberry ice cream and strawberry sundaes made with fresh berries.

This advertisement from the November 13, 1913 issue of the Olympia Daily Recorder shows some of Howell’s Sweet Shop lunch offerings. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

The first few months of 1913 brought a blossoming to the business.  A soda fountain was installed, bringing in new customers. Saturdays brought live music and candy sales. In March the store began to advertise daily hot lunches, which would be a mainstay of the business. A menu from November 1913 included sandwiches, meat and bread, salads, pies and cakes. Prices were low, from 10 cents to 20 cents per serving.  In fall and winter 1913 they also sold chicken tamales.

Howell’s Sweet Shop participated in community events. In May 1913 the store had a booth at the Pure Food and Industrial Exposition sponsored by the Olympia Chamber of Commerce at the Forum. They even received the candy concession for the event. Governor Ernest Lister toured the exposition along with several thousand other visitors.  In December, the store gave away bags of their candy to children who attended the “Kiddies’ Christmas” matinees at the Acme and Rex Theaters.

The year 1914 brought new endeavors. For St. Patrick’s Day the Howells sold colored wafers and ice creams/sherbet bricks with shamrock designs in the center. “They even advertised a “full line of April Fool’s candy” in the April 1, 1914 issue of the Morning Olympian, suggesting customers “try some on your friends.” For Easter the store sold lilies, baskets of candy, and chocolate rabbits.

In 1914 Howell’s Candy Store relocated to the Safe Deposit Building down the street (222 East Fourth Avenue). The Olympia Daily Recorder elaborately described the renovated new space, highlighting the store’s women’s restroom (claiming it to be the first in a commercial building in Olympia). The kitchen was on the east side of the building with large plate glass windows that allowed passersby to watch the candy being made. Between the sales area in the front and kitchen were several booths for patrons of the soda fountain.

According to the Morning Olympian, an estimated 1,800 people attended the opening of this new “emporium of toothsome sweets” on Saturday, April 10, 1914, snapping up candy souvenirs, enjoying punch and listening to an Olympia Union Orchestra concert of popular ragtime music that opened with a (no-longer extant) “Howell’s Sweet Shop March.” Ironically, Columbia Hall burned down June 5, 1914.

Howell’s Sweet Shop did big business during the holiday season, as seen in this December 14, 1913 Olympia Daily Recorder advertisement.
Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

In its new location, the Sweet Shop expanded its service to hosting groups. They held weekly luncheons for the Chamber of Commerce as well as banquets for visiting political candidates.

The Howells also rented their space to private individuals for gatherings and parties, including the cast of Olympia High School’s senior class play “The County Chairman.” One noted visitor was Virginia Wilson Mason of Tacoma, president of the Washington branch of the National Council of Women Voters (now the League of Women Voters), who spoke to guests about the suffrage movement.

However, the store was beset with financial woes by the fall of 1914. It was sued by creditors. The business tried to stay afloat, keeping its doors open and even hosting a few more banquets. Their last event was on January 16, 1915 for the school principals of Thurston County. Despite further legal wrangling, the store closed at the end of January.

What happened to the Howells is unclear. Mabel Howell is listed in the 1920 census as living in Astoria with her sister’s family. Now widowed, she worked in a candy store. The Regal Shoe Company and Union Electric Company replaced the Howell’s shop in the Safe Deposit Building. The site is now a parking lot.

Howell’s Sweet Shop operated in Olympia for a brief time, but definitely left a “sweet” impact on the city through its food and community service.

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