The snacks that are just the right size
A history of "fun size" foods
Hello, Snackers. We’re getting small (but not that small) and very sweet today. It gets confusing, but that’s part of the fun, no?
If you’re new here (welcome!), this is the weekly free post for Snack Stack, a newsletter that explores the history of snacks and other topics connecting food and culture (like microwave nachos and parenting or what it means to be a great food city). If you enjoy this, please share it and subscribe. Thanks so much.
Candy names are an endlessly intriguing subject. Very rarely do you get something as straightforward as a Salted Nut Roll or a Peanut Butter Cup. Instead, names seem to following some unofficial rule that they must sound confusing or a bit off-putting. Three Musketeers, Milky Way, Fifth Avenue, and Mars are all proper-noun things whose most famous versions are found outside the candy universe. A Lifesaver won’t save you from anything but a lack of sugar (and even then it won’t help much) but a Jawbreaker could break your jaw, in the right circumstances (please don’t take that as encouragement). Then there’s the matter of Goo Goo Clusters, which don’t sound like the sort of thing you’d want to put in your mouth at all and whose name comes from the baby-babble expression “goo-goo.” The candy’s original slogan was—I’m not making this up—“Goo Goo! It’s so good, people will ask for it from birth,” which is one of those things that sounds cute until you think about it for two seconds. Brand loyalty: Instill it in your newborn!
But candy names sorta make sense in the context of an edible amusement—something sweet, something quirky. A bonbon, that classic treat, has a name derived from the French word for “good.” But in candymakers’ eternal quest to manufacture joy through naming trickery, nothing hits the mark quite as solidly as “fun size” candy.
* * *
This is a post about language. Food, too. But also language.
In my efforts to research the history of “fun size,” as a descriptor, I was also thinking about all the other similar labels.
There’s “bite size” and “mini,” for starters. More recently, we’ve had an influx of 100-calorie snack packs, which you might argue aren’t exactly the same, because their size is inmeant to connote a sense of wellness or something, and not “fun,” explicitly. But I found plenty of dieting books that recommend “fun size” snacks for precisely this reason—limiting calories—and it’s also useful to know that the whole logic of the 100-calorie snack packs is based on debunked research that used some extremely sketchy statistical methodology (Inverse has a good piece on that and if you have more time, this episode of the podcast Maintenance Phase goes deep). 100-calorie snacks are fun-size treats for people who eat nonfat yogurt, in the same way that Coke Zero is Diet Coke for a different audience.
In my hunt for synonyms—an essential part of doing research in historic archives—I tried all kinds of terms, including “tiny,” “half-size,” and even “cuties,” like the mandarin oranges, which led me to … not candy.
I also looked for “junior,” which led me to a remarkable post, from 2018, by Ernie Smith for his newsletter, Tedium. It’s, uh, exactly what I was trying to research: a history of “fun-size.” And while I can usually find all kinds of things that other researchers have missed—because most of what passes for snack history on the internet is really just endlessly recycled content with some tenuous roots in a shoddily-researched Wikipedia article—in this case, Smith has clearly done his due diligence. I checked a ton of resources, hoping to find gaps, and the basic facts are exactly as he says.
Smith’s story—which you should go read!—zooms in on the question of who made the first smallish candy bar, regardless of the “fun” label. He writes:
The Curtiss Candy Company, best known for Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars, came up with a variant of this concept first, called the “Junior” candy bar. I can find references as far back as 1932, though a particularly prominent reference showed up in a full-page ad in the scouting magazine Boys’ Life dating to 1933, along with an even smaller “Buddie” size.
* * *
It’s worth noting, before we go further, that candy bars existed in different sizes even before Baby Ruth. There were chocolate bars of various lengths and chocolate drops like Hershey’s Kisses and all manner of other formats, but for the most part, they didn’t have specific marketing-driven names for specific sizes—the various species existed, but not the labeled taxonomy.
In 1930, one candy manufacturer got a cease-and-desist order from the Federal Trade Commission because of a sales strategy it used. The company made made “small” candy bars, along with quarter-pound and half-pound versions, all of which they bunded in cartons sold to wholesalers and shopkeepers, along with a pasteboard card with covered holes, each of which contained a number. Customers paid five cents to pick a hole, uncover a number, and win the candy bar that corresponded to that number. They always won something, but the FTC shut down the gimmick on the grounds that it was unregulated gambling.
You can read the whole ruling here, if you’re interested in marketing techniques of the 1930s, but the point is, many sizes of candy bar had existed before companies got around to giving them individual names.
As Smith discusses—and my research confirms—the Curtiss Candy Company was the first to realize there was money to be made in assigning a particular name to smaller-than-normal candy bars. Other candy manufacturers got in on the act, too, as Smith discusses, including Hershey’s, which launched its Miniatures in 1939; more companies added “junior” bars, with that name, over the next two decades.
In the same period, another marketing label was gaining traction, on the other end of the scale: “king size,” a term that had existed in the art world since the 1800s but whose brand-specific use appears to have begun with Pall Mall cigarettes, in
1939 [Edit: 1912!]. As I scrolled through the newspaper archives from the 1940s and 1950s, I could see the moniker slowly enter the food world, first to describe soda fountain drinks, then cookies, then layer cakes. In 1954, more than twenty years after the first “junior” candy bar, Nestlé finally added “king size” to the industry’s terminology. A hierarchy order had officially been established and branded.
* * *
Which brings us to the 1960s and the Mars company, that candy industry behemoth.
Mars was a late to join the small-bar bandwagon, and when they did, in the mid-1960s, it was with the existing “junior” label. In 1968, though, the company ditched the “junior” designation and debuted a new one: “fun size.”
If you’re keeping track, “fun” was larger than “junior,” but smaller than “full size.” (These relative proportions are a bit odd, in retrospect—you would think that a larger candy bar would be considered more fun, and if this 1960 ad for Ford station wagons is any indication, other brands were already using “fun size” to mean “bigger and better.”)
It’s intriguing to look at the newspaper ads around Halloween in the late 1960s and early 1970s, because you can see all the labels at once, sold by different brands, the evolution of the industry in action. The various Mars-manufactured bars were all “fun”; the Curtiss products, like Baby Ruth, were uniformly “junior.”
By 1971, though, each brand was all-in on “fun.” I can’t find any ads touting their size relative to the “junior” bars—not “10 percent larger!” or anything like that—so it appears to be a marketing strategy based purely on a shift in nomenclature.
* * *
Once all the major candy bar manufacturers started using “fun size,” Mars got livid and litigious. (Again, all credit to Ernie Smith for doing the deep research on this. I did my own digging but he led the way.) They’d been late to the small-version-of-the-candy-bar game, and had used the established label of “junior” with no lawsuits from their competitors, but never mind all that. Mars wanted the others to knock it off already, and took the matter to court, suing Curtiss Candy Company.
As Smith pieced together, Curtiss won the initial case, in part on the strength of their own due diligence:
The defendants were quick to point out that a company on the West Coast had previously trademarked the term “fun” for candy-related uses way back in 1926.
“Defendants argue that since Mars could thus not establish proprietary rights in the word ‘fun’ for candy, nor in the unquestionably descriptive word ‘size,’ it certainly cannot be entitled to monopolize the combination,” an Illinois appellate court wrote upon denying a rehearing of Mars, Inc. v. Curtiss Candy Co. in 1972. (The appeals court found that the company could not claim that people specifically associated the term with its company.)
Mars came up with a workaround, buying the company that had originally trademarked “fun,” which is a real multinational mega-corp sort of move. The courts essentially rolled their eyes (once again: read Smith’s post for the details) and “fun size” became fair game for everyone.
* * *
As “fun size” spread across the candy landscape, it became ever more closely associated with holidays and other celebrations, especially Halloween.
Smith writes that even in the early days, “fun size” candy was especially popular around Halloween, and I’ve found no evidence to the contrary—indeed, their takeover of every grocery store in the USA come October is an indication that this seasonal uptick is not just real but probably deeply embedded.
Still, even before this particular label arrived, there was an existing association between smaller candy bars and Halloween, which turned out to be their ideal setting. Here’s an ad from The Kansas City Star in 1966:
Today, it’s difficult to imagine Halloween without this type of candy, and every time someone boasts about giving out full-size bars, it’s a reminder that their diminutive sugar-siblings have become the norm.
It makes sense that “fun” would sell better at Halloween than “junior”: One’s a size, but the other is an attitude, one that fits well with everything that day of costumes and revelry has come to embody. (“Fun” also feels like a clear precursor to later shifts in snack-labeling beyond actual physical descriptors, like the emergence of “Extreme” Doritos about twenty years ago.) “Fun size” candy also happened to arrive at the exact moment that Halloween was becoming a big deal in the the USA and, for various reasons, packaged treats became the preferred treat to distribute, rather than homemade items like popcorn balls. Mars got lucky with its timing.
I wonder, though, if in the long term, “fun” actually had the effect of flattening sales outside of autumn, narrowing consumers’ understanding of the candy bar to “something for a special occasion” rather than “something you eat on any given day.” The association with Halloween offers a huge boost in October, but you can't buy one solitary fun-size Snickers at a gas station or in a vending machine.
Which raises a question: What’s the defining characteristic “fun-size” candy bars? Is it their size or their name?
Snack Stack is funded exclusively through subscriptions from readers like you. These posts take time and resources (including books and paid database access) and I need your support to keep going. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.