BY STEVE FRANGOS
James Doumakes (1879-1956) was a Greek immigrant candymaker who eventually established a business and a family in Los Angeles, CA. As with so many aspects of the Greek-American experience, the average American knows more about James Doumakes than does the average Greek-American. Doumakes and his descendants are known the world over and especially by residents of Southern California as well as individuals in the confectionary business. How the accomplishments of this notable family became lost to Greek-America given their level of success is more than a little surprising.
Like all those of his generation and chosen profession, Doumakes made candy entirely by hand. But he was deeply dissatisfied with this most basic requirement of his daily trade. His solution to finding a new way to make candy solved a fundamental problem that dated back quite literally to Ancient Egypt.
By 1900, Doumakes arrived in the United States and was presumably soon plying his trade as a confectioner. We do know that by 1914, Doumakes had a partner, cited in the available documents only as Coulures. We read that “in 1914, Doumakes & Coulures leased a store at 314 W. Seventh Street in Los Angeles for the purpose of candy manufacturing. In a Los Angeles City Directory from that year, James Doumakes’ occupation was listed as candy maker. The business section of a 1922 city directory listed James “Doumak” under the heading “Confectioners—Manufacturers and Wholesalers” at 1739 W. 22nd Street, with his residence across the street at 1722 W. 22nd Street. The company moved sometime after 1922 and by 1928 was located at 711 E. Jefferson Boulevard…The marshmallow company remained at the location on Jefferson Boulevard for an indeterminate number of years, before the company moved from Los Angeles in 1961(doumakeshouse.com).”
Curiously, Doumakes’ life sees episodic outlines not in a history devoted to his accomplishments as a confectioner, but for the various pieces of property that he once owned or built. “Most of the other buildings in Los Angeles associated with Doumakes and with the Doumakes Marshmallow Company (and its predecessors) have been demolished. The commercial building in which the business was located in the 1920s on 22nd Street was demolished by 1964, when the entire north side of the street was cleared for the construction of Interstate 10. The building where the company was located in its earliest years before Doumakes established his own business specializing in marshmallows at 711 E. Jefferson Boulevard was demolished sometime between 1972 and 1980. Of the historical buildings associated with the Doumakes family and its marshmallow business, only the family house on 22nd Street and the View Park house at 4918 Angeles Vista Blvd remain (doumakeshouse.com).”
On April 8, 2016, the Doumakes family home was officially declared as became the First Historic Home (Landmark #1) in Unincorporated Los Angeles County. The Doumakes family occupied this residence from 1928 until 1958. According to the 1930 U.S. Census, Doumakes had married a woman who is only identified as Maria, and the couple had four sons John, Alexander, Milton, and Arthur, as well as one daughter, Frances.
For a family that was to accomplish so much, there is little to no agreement in public documents in terms of the calendar dates when key business-related events took place. It is said that the Doumakes Marshmallow Company, was founded in Los Angeles in 1921. At least two patents associated with the production of marshmallows were issued in 1928 and another issued sometime in the 1950s, with dates varying from 1954 to 1958. In some accounts, Doumakes shares the patent credits with his son Alexander and in other accounts Alexander (b. 1912) is cited as the sole inventor.
But let us step back a minute to provide some background on what the Doumakes clan has really accomplished. A confection made from the marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) plant’s root is said to date back to Ancient Egypt, where the recipe called for extracting sap from the plant and mixing it with nuts and honey. Another pre-modern recipe uses the pith of the marshmallow plant, rather than the sap. The stem was peeled back to reveal the soft and spongy pith, which was boiled in sugar syrup and dried to produce a soft, chewy confection.
James Doumakes would cook his version of a marshmallow confection and pour the mixture into a cast mold where it took up to 24 hours to properly set. Obviously with this kind of time intensive aspect to the manufacture of marshmallows they were a very expensive and not often made confection. In 1932, Doumakes’ business was specified as “marshmallow manufacturing,” and by 1934, the listing was “Doumakes’ Marshmallow Co.,” with James and his son Alexander listed as owners with Alexander further cited as “foreman.”
As reported in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, “In 1954, Alex Doumakes, of the American marshmallow company Doumak, invented an extrusion process by which marshmallows were forced through a chute and cut to their desired size. The innovation reduced the time required to make a marshmallow from 24 hours to 1 hour (Darra Goldstein, ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015: 431).” The upshot of this new method of mass-producing marshmallows is that the extrusion process was the breakthrough that allowed the mass production of marshmallows in a cost-efficient manner. Marshmallows went from being an expensive confection to an everyday sweet treat and favorite ingredient for many recipes. There is no debate about it the Doumakes Company is credited with making the marshmallow a household treat.
In 1961, Alexander Doumakes moved the family company to its current location 1004 Fairway Drive in Bensenville, IL just outside Chicago. In 2003, Doumak acquired the Campfire brand and the Rocky Mountain brand and opened its second manufacturing facility at 2201 Touhy Ave, in Elk Grove, yet another suburb of Chicago. As Doumak Inc. describes itself: “It is a family-owned company that operates multiple manufacturing facilities throughout the U.S. The company offers its products under the Campfire, Fireside and Rocky Mountain labels, as well as under various other private labels. Doumak also produces pork skin and fish gelatin marshmallows for customers who are on a halal diet. It exports Rock Mountain and Campfire products to more than 30 countries throughout the world. The company’s clients include industrial food manufacturers, schools, recreational centers, bars, restaurants and other confectionery outlets (nca.myindustrytracker.com).”
All that Doumak, Inc. produces today are marshmallow products. There are three major marshmallow manufacturers in the United Sates: Favorite Brands International (manufacturers for Kraft brand marshmallows), Doumak, Inc., and Kidd & Company. Together, they produce the approximately 90 million pounds of marshmallows consumed annually. According to the National Confectioners Association, Americans consume more marshmallows than any other nation, buying more than 90 million pounds annually (www.country-magazine.com). Doumak Inc. profits circle around 50 million a year.
Each summer, more than 50% of the marshmallows are toasted over a fire. As such, August 30 is National Toasted Marshmallow Day, a fitting celebration for the last official weekend of the summer.
The next time you sit around the campfire with your non-Greek friends, be sure to tell them the tale of the Doumakes family and how they eventually mastered the marshmallow – for all to enjoy.