The snacks that are eternally "old"
A brief history of candy as an emblem of nostalgia, from strawberry bon bons to nineteenth-century candy-pulling parties
Hello, Snackers. We’re heading on a trip deep into the sticky thickets of candy history today.
Before we begin: There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and I know you don’t need one more opinion about any of it, but please do keep paying attention to what’s happening in Ukraine without losing sight of other serious issues like the significant new threats to transgender kids in Texas and other areas of the USA. You can donate to the Transgender Education Network of Texas here. Thanks.
This was going to be a post about strawberry bon bons, but then I got distracted by taffy and glass jars from county fairs and a popular social event from the 1800s involving copious amounts of both warm molasses candy and kissing.
You can see why I had to expand my scope. We’ll do this in two parts.
I. Strawberry Candies Forever
A few weeks ago, this popped up on Twitter:
Let me just say: They’re not trash! I mean, you like what you like, but I’ve always enjoyed those candies (the official name is strawberry bon bons), especially the soft center.
Far more interesting than personal candy preferences, though, was the realization that back when I saw strawberry bon bons fairly frequently (in the late 1980 and early 1990s), it was always in the same context: in a jar on a teacher’s desk or a bowl by the cash register at some family-style restaurant. I’ve never seen them in stores or even in a package in someone’s house. As far as I could tell, they from nowhere in particular but were always just kind of around, a free-floating, regular but not omnipresent part of the culture of my American youth, like Wilford Brimley or Jolt Cola.
It’s also curious that even though strawberry bon bons feel old-fashioned now, they also felt old-fashioned back then forty years ago. They always struck me as a relic not just of the past but the distant past, a grandparent’s wistfulness embodied in sucrose and placed in a wrapper that looked like a strawberry, the graphics plain and boring compared to the more alluring packaging of Pop Rocks and Fruit Snacks and Snickers.
Here’s an ad I found from 1981, with strawberry bon bons billed as part of a whole box of “old-time country goodness.”
Going back a bit farther, to the 1960s and then the 1950s, you’ll see strawberry bon bons listed in various articles about shops selling “old-fashioned penny candies” or, in one case, “nostalgic breath candies.” In 1965, a living-history tourist site opened in Cassville, Wisconsin, advertising a taste of nineteenth-century life, including a blacksmith, a barrel maker, a livery stable, and a candy store, with lollipops, candy canes, and fruit drops. In midcentury America, candies like strawberry bon bons already had an association with not just an earlier decade but an earlier century.
So here was my initial question: At what point were strawberry bon bons new and exciting? Or have they somehow been “old” forever?
* * *
It turns out that Ian Lecklitner at Mel Magazine investigated the candy’s history in a piece published last year. It’s a fascinating tale, with digressions including the use of hard candies as a early form of cough drop and the origin story of glass candy dishes, which began during the Depression, when they were essentially a status symbol—many of them were originally carnival prizes from the 1920s, but in the hard times of the following decade, people began filling the dishes with candies as a way to show that they could afford such small luxuries and were willing to share.
On the matter of strawberry bon bons, Lecklitner writes that there was a boom in hard candies (in the USA, anyway) during the 1930s:
Shortly after World War I came the Great Depression, and the government once again limited the purchase of sugar and candy. Once the Depression ended, however, candy exploded in popularity, and while my sources and research were unable to nail down the sole inventor of the mysterious strawberry candies that inspired this whole venture, Benjamin guesses that they came about during the candy boom of the late 1930s — which is also right around when trick-or-treating began.
Many companies created many hard candies around this time period, so it really was kind of the Wild West of candy creation.
That’s fascinating, but I think the dates are a few decades off—I did a bit of digging in the newspaper archives and found mentions of strawberry bon bons as far back as 1861. As you can see in the ad below, there were plenty of other “drop”-style candies available at the time:
It appears, from additional research, that these “French confectionery” items were relatively new to the USA at the time. One article, from the Edwardsville (Illinois) Intelligencer in 1871, noted that Americans were spending $20 million per year on candy (inflation calculators don’t go back that far, but that works out to multiple billions of dollars now) and that “the old fashioned ‘stick candy’ has of late given way in part to the French inventions of drops, crystals, nougats, caramels, etc, and the trade in this articles is continually increasing.”
I did a little fist-pump when I saw all that, because it means we have answer! There was a time when strawberry bon bons were new and exciting! Today’s relic was a delightful novelty around the 1860s. They came from France and were part of a broader trend of new hard candies of various types. Fascinating. Boom. Done.
* * *
Except … there was something about that Edwardsville Intelligencer quote that I couldn’t let go. Allow me to flag it here: “the old fashioned ‘stick candy.’”
Even in 1871, there was candy that was considered “old fashioned.” I know there’s nothing actually weird about that—the 1870s weren’t exactly the beginning of history, and people have been eating candy for millennia and the term “old fashioned” has been traced back to 1592—yet it caught me off guard.
It made me wonder what other sweets were “old” back then, which sent me back to the newspaper archives for more research.
What I found was so much more interesting than strawberry bon bons.
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2. What is “old” candy, anyway?
I looked in a couple different newspaper databases for variations on the term “old-fashioned candy,” and found hits going back to 1853, with quite a few in the 1850s.
There was that “stick” candy mentioned in the Edwardsville Intelligencer, which I presume was one of these varieties:
Mostly, though, I found a lot of references—Dozens? Hundreds? I lost track—to “old-fashioned candy pulls.”
Given the context, I thought it must be some sort of activity in which people, you know, pull candy, in the sense that they take the hot-sugar-and-whatever-else mixture and pull it into sticks or canes or make it into taffy. Something like that.
And it is that. But an “old-fashioned candy pull” was also so much more. It was an event, an occasion, an opportunity for flirting. Please enjoy the drama of this illustration, including the facial expressions of everyone in the background.
The candy was typically made with molasses or sorghum syrup mixed with sugar, vinegar, and butter. Mix it all together and boil for about twenty minutes, stirring all the while, and then let it cool for a but—you don’t want it hot, but it still needs to be warm and pliable. This is where the fun begins. Find a partner and get a blob of candy and, working together, gently pull it into a long rope, until it gets white and brittle. You can braid it, you can snip it into small pieces—your choice. And when you’re done, well, perhaps you’d like to kiss your pulling partner? This appears to have been the tradition at these parties, and it doesn’t take much of an imagination or an X-rated mind to see how this might possibly result from the act of sucrose-stretching. Again, look at that illustration. Two people, mutually attracted to each other (we hope!), locking eyes and slowly stretching a long, warm piece of [CURTAIN CLOSES].
The whole affair was ritualized enough that there was even a song to go with it, according to a reminiscence printed in the Wilmington Evening Journal in 1902:
Come to the candy pull tonight
For Southern beauties will be there
With ‘lasses candy in their hands
And garlands in their hair
The author writes that after the actual candy-pulling was done,
the young people proceeded to the drawing-room, where they indulged in the old play known in the South at all candy-pulls as “King William.”
The guests formed a circle, joining hands. One remained within the circle. This one, of course, was a young man. As the guests revolved around the centre they sang the old words sung by their mothers and grandmothers and to the same air:
King William was King James’ son
And from a royal race he come.
Upon his breast he wore a star
Which pointed to the northwest far.
Go choose your east, go choose your west.
Go choose the one that you love best
At the conclusion of the last line, the young man in the centre made his choice. As she stepped to the centre of the circle, the guests closed the gap and circling around the twain, they continued singing.
Down on the carpet you must kneel
Sure as the grass grows in the field
Salute your bride with a sweet kiss
And rise upon your feet in bliss
This continued until all the young men had a turn, and then the women also went, with “young man” (not “groom”) instead of “bride” in that last verse. It all sounds awkward, if you ask me, especially given that you know everyone’s hands were sticky, and probably their clothes, too. Still, given the pageantry here and subtext in that candy, and I’m surprised that these parties haven’t featured in key scenes in every period movie set in the 1800s.
It’s not clear that this particular song and game were a standard part of the candy-pull party, but I keep coming across references to kissing. Another account, from 1861, called them “a perfect shock-to-propriety affair, where everybody acts just as wild as they have a mind to,” where there is “a good deal of—well—kissing, to say the least.” In Tennessee, in 1878, one writer grumbled that this sort of ritual was nothing like the ones they used to have, back when he was a kid, when people met at communal molasses-stirring events:
These “stirr offs” were far more romantic and enchanting than your artificial “candy-pullings” of modern times.
I love this so much—such frostiness about the youths these days and their newfangled dating methods, so goofy and unserious. How will they ruin the timeless charms of romance next? Honestly.
Naysayers aside, candy-pulls were clearly a popular event whose appeal often lay in the romance more than the sweets. Consider this note from the publisher of The Mississippi Telegraph, in 1848, who evidently used his newspaper as his personal message board and dating app:
He’s done with work and he’s ready to party, ladies! Please text the details of the next quilting or candy-pull.
Equally telling, though, were the times that the activities at candy-pulls got a bit too hot and led to jilted lovers, quarrels, and even outright murders. I found several examples, including this jarring tale from August 1902:
* * *
Multiple newspaper articles from this era discuss candy-pulling parties as a revival, something the writers are glad to see making a comeback.
Nostalgia is always a moving target, and during the 1800s, many doctors considered it a disease. But it’s clear that, in the realm of candy, it was generally understood to be a positive thing, a link to childhood, sweet and carefree.
While candy-pulling parties eventually died out, it’s interesting to note that the basic types of treats that were “old fashioned” even in the mid-1800s are largely still around in some form—your grocery store may not have molasses candy, but it has taffy and Jolly Ranchers and plenty of things that are awfully similar. It likely does not have turtle or beaver, which were once staples of the American diet.
There are multiple reasons for that difference, of course, starting with the availability of goods: it’s easier to get sugar than to trap a beaver and candies these aren’t elaborate dishes requiring knowledge of complex techniques. But I suspect that a lesser but important reason for the persistence of familiar sweet things is that there’s also just constant, timeless link between candy, childhood, and nostalgia. Your grandparents gave you a candy because they liked it when you were a kid, and the candy endures, pulled across eras, because it becomes a link to your own childhood as you grow up. We like sugar, but we also like fond memories, and the former helps the latter endure. Some candies might seem old, but they stick around because they remind us of youth.
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If you liked this post, you’ll probably also enjoy Boston Baked Beans, Chinese chicken fingers, gummi worms, carob, or the story of the two feuding brothers who both claimed to have invented the six-foot hero.