The snack to pair with dancing bears

The curious history of circus peanuts

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Circus Peanuts

If I’m being honest, I’ve never eaten circus peanuts. They terrify me. That orange color is nature’s code for “you probably shouldn’t eat this,” and then there’s the whole banana flavor/smell combined with the name and shape, both utter lies, since there’s no peanut content here.

But the other day, a ragtag team of brilliant minds (people on Twitter) assembled (in my mentions) to consider this confounding confection and its meaning. Circus peanuts: What’s their deal?!

It was time to confront my fears and try some exposure therapy by way of a deep-dive investigation of the roots and meaning of a most curious candy.

* * *

There are several histories of circus peanuts you can find on the internet—like this one published by Eater in 2015 or this section of a book by Andrew Zimmern and Molly Mogren—and they all hit the same talking points:

  • Circus peanuts date to sometime in the 1800s. When? Unclear, no one pins it down. Where? Same answer. Who? <shrug emoji>

  • The banana flavor was maybe an accident that stuck. Probably? Hard to say.

  • It’s always been penny candy, the cheap stuff you buy in bulk. Gourmet circus peanuts are not a thing that exists (YET).

“Their beginnings are shrouded in mystery,” Zimmern and Mogren write, which is not super helpful.

Unearthing new information about the previously unknown origin of various snacks is kinda the specialty of this newsletter, so I got to work. And then I immediately ran into a problem: when you look in any given database for “circus peanuts,” you encounter a massive amount of noise, in the form of articles about circuses in the 1800s. Just pages upon pages of giant spreads with breathless descriptions of the spectacle of it all: the dancing bears, the cameos by giraffes and rhinos, the acrobats soaring overhead and contorting on the backs of galloping horses, the clowns bringing the crowds to tears with their slapstick antics, the fire-breathers and sword-swallowers, the man who could supposedly do a double backflip from standing (I have my doubts!!), the Ringling Bros. show that culminated in reenactment of the burning of Rome and the fall of Nero. No, really:

Buried in all these stories, inevitably, was some passing reference to someone eating “circus peanuts,” with every context clue indicating that the snack in question was, in fact, peanuts, the legume.

Eventually, I tried other word combinations, adding “marshmallow” and “candy” to my searches, trying to block out the circus stuff. What I found was … not much, really. The earliest mention I could find that was clearly about the marshmallow candy was this ad from 1913:

Obviously, this is just one data point, but the “something new” label makes me wonder if the candy was, you know, actually new at that point, not something that had been around since the 1800s. (I also found that in the mid-1800s, marshmallow candies tended to be considered something of a miracle medicine—“It will cure all common colds, hoarseness, etc.,” said one ad from 1848—which makes me doubt it was also being sold as a bulk candy for kids at that time, although given the understanding and marketing of medicine at the time, who knows.) A later invention date would help explain the lack of references to the candy before this, although it still doesn’t give us an origin story or the name of an early manufacturer or insights into the banana flavor, mentions of which don’t seem to begin until 1920.

By the 1950s, at least four companies—Trilby, Brach, Heide, and Spangler—were making circus peanuts, but research about each of them as individual businesses also didn’t lead anywhere.

The beginnings, in short, remained shrouded in mystery.

But as I fell down the ever-branching rabbit holes of all those circus stories from the 1800s, I kept seeing some information that might offer some clues.

* * *

Between the mid-1800s and about 1915, American newspapers contained hundreds of references to “peanuts and red lemonade” as a quintessential snack at the circus. They were listed among the expected attractions in ads for specific shows, they were a regular feature in those long recaps after the big top stopped in a given town, they even became shorthand for “circus”—“Red lemonade and peanuts to be sold,” read one headline in The Wichita Daily Eagle in 1904, with the actual information in the subhead: “Mid-Winter Circus will be February 18-19-20.”

The association between snack and spectacle was so strong that it was even used when the circus was a metaphor, as in this Tampa Weekly Tribune story about politics from 1898:

When American writer John Flanagan covered Buffalo Bill’s visit to Rome, in 1906, part of the showman’s tour of Europe, the foods were in the kicker to his critical review, the ultimate disappointment in a lackluster night for a jaded scribe:

The point is, peanuts and red lemonade, together, were a cultural phenomenon. They were to the circus as hot dogs are to baseball games, foods-on-sticks are to state fairs, saltwater taffy is to the boardwalk, and arugula is to moneyed hipster neighborhoods. Newspapers.com has this fun thing where you can graph a term’s rise and fall, and here’s what you get when you enter “circus peanuts” and “red lemonade” as a pair:

* * *

So where does that leave us in our search for the story of the orange candy? At this point, I need to speculate, although I’ll try to do it in a convincing way, like the fortune-tellers that were also part of the circuses back in the day. [Closes eyes, dramatically raises hand to temple, takes a slow, meditative breath to indicate the thinking of deep thoughts.]

I think the candy was simply a marketing ploy building on the strong association of peanuts, the real ones, with the circus. The shows were a huge deal, just an endless frenzy of jaw-dropping wonders and delights, attractive to a cross-section of the American populace. As one writer put it in The Grand Forks Herald in 1906:

Think of it this way: the circus offered all the mind-blowing marvels you can find on YouTube now, but without the algorithms leading you to conspiracy theories about ancient trees (so much weirder than “marshmallows will cure your cold”). If that’s what the circus meant, why wouldn’t you try to associate your brand with it?

Some enterprising candymaker was presumably just looking to the trends, saw that peanuts had this association—acrobats and dancing bears and Nero-impersonators—and decided to make a quick buck, like how Kellogg’s now has a Baby Shark cereal.

* * *

Speaking of breakfast cereal. If there’s one lasting legacy for circus peanuts, it comes from a General Mills product developer named John Holahan, who was playing with his food in the early 1960s. The company’s Cheerios were a massive hit, but he was wondering how he might tweak the recipe, give it a bit more sugar and an air of mystery. He had some circus peanuts on hand, because they were his favorite candy, and he tried chopping some up—I like to imagine him in an avocado-green midcentury kitchen, wearing a “Grill Master” apron and wielding a giant cleaver, but you can choose your own era-appropriate tableau—and sprinkling them on the Cheerios.

He tried it, he enjoyed it, and so did his colleagues. Like circus peanuts, the new cereal had a name utterly removed from its original context, albeit one that has served General Mills well in its marketing efforts. You know it as Lucky Charms.

Happy snacking!

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