Hello, Snackers. It’s Chewy Candy Week! We’ll cover gummi worms on Wednesday (I’ve been working on that one already and it turns out to be a doozy) and the infamous salty licorice on Friday, but today we’ll start things off with …
Red gummi candy made using wine gum. Slightly firmer chew and stickier texture than many other gummi candies (will cling to your teeth!). Flavor: red.
The USA by way of Sweden
Swedish Fish were supposedly created by a Swedish company called Malaco for the North American market in 1957, but I’m starting to have my doubts. I’ve been looking through endless databases and repositories of information (Google Books, ProQuest, Chronicling America, and a bunch of others) and I can’t find any ads or mentions of the product in the 1950s or 1960s. Do you know how hard it is to find a packaged food from that era with no paper trail? There’s always something. Always. I did find plenty of documentation of actual fish in Sweden—but the candy? Nope.
That basic information—the company, the date—comes from the The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, which I do trust, so we’ll go along with that. A few other random websites have some kind of copy-and-pasted info that’s hard to trace back to a source, but here are those details, citation needed:
Malaco CEO Thor Fjørgerson called the move ‘a landmark day for Sweden/US relations.’
International trade experts hailed the move, as it allowed Malaco to extend its brand beyond the Scandinavian Peninsula. Malaco’s export trade grew and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Swedish Fish and Swedish Berries were developed specifically for the North American market.
Sounds plausible, I guess! One interesting piece to mention here, alluded to in the Oxford Companion book, is that gummies as we know them today—the bears, the worms—didn’t enter the American market until the 1980s, a startling and tragic fact that we’ll discuss more on Wednesday. In the USA of the 1950s, your chewy candy options were basically gumdrops, fruit-jelly slices (which arrived sometime between the world wars, as discussed here), jelly beans, or the siblings Jujubes and Jujyfruits. The last ones, you may recall, look like this:
That is to say, they looked like a specific thing that exists in the real world, even if they didn’t taste like the thing being represented—the asparagus bundle does not, in fact, taste like asparagus. You’ll also note that some of the candies have a word on them: Heide, the original brand name. These are traits shared by Swedish Fish, which do not taste like fish and wear their names on their chests. My speculation, then, and based on nothing more than a mild hunch, is that the Malaco marketing people were using Jujyfruit as the general basis for their own concept.
It is clear, in any case, that Malaco was quite proud of the specific form factor of its product, to the point that when another company introduced a fish-shaped gummy candy, in the early 2000s, Malaco sued for trademark infringement. The lawsuit failed, because, according to the ruling, “it is evident that affording protection to a common, fish-shaped candy design would eliminate competition in this product category.” In other words: Let the oceans and candy aisles teem with fish!
Trader Joe’s has clearly taken that message to heart, introducing its own product, Scandinavian Swimmers, while back. But Swedish Fish remain their own cultural phenomenon, the stuff of merchandise (see below) and memes and the literal stuffing of Oreos. It’s fair to say, I think, that Swedish Fish are much more of a Thing, these days, than the chewy candies with which they originally competed.
Like a centuries-old shark, Swedish Fish have a slightly mysterious staying power: they’re the top-selling Halloween candy in the state of Georgia, were a common craving of people stress-eating during the financial tumult of 2009, and are supposedly an effective bribe if you’re mailing off computers to tech support and want them to bump you to the front of the line. Seriously, it’s a whole thing, as this remarkable piece of investigative journalism reveals:
Get it here
Wherever candy is sold, especially if you’re in the USA. Also available online or here’s a guy who’ll teach you to make your own giant version.
Will you like it?
Notes and stray thoughts
Sources here include “A Brief History of Swedish Fish” by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie for Mental Floss, which doesn’t get too far into the details because, well, either they don’t exist or there’s a conspiracy to cover up the history, one of the two.
To repeat: It is NOT EASY to research Swedish Fish on JSTOR. You’ll get a ton of papers on the history of the fishing industry in Scandinavia and assorted passing mentions in research unrelated to candy or marine life, like this real quote: “The doctors stabilized him with Haldol, an antipsychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and then transitioned him to lithium. I visited George regularly, always bringing cigarettes—Benson & Hedges 100s—and Swedish Fish gum candy.” If you narrow your search to “swedish fish” “Malaco,” you get no results at all, which means there’s a major gap in the scholarship on this important topic.