Langston Hughes Sings the Blues for Penny Candy
If you were a kid in the 1930s, you knew a lot about penny candy. It was what kids could afford, their biggest indulgence, their own consumer paradise. They were cheap, colorful, varied, and sold directly to children at the little candy stores. Familiar candies like marshmallows, licorice, hard candies, suckers, caramels and the like were sold at so many per penny. Like most candy before the rise of the “self-service” supermarket in the late 1940s, penny candies were dispensed from bins or boxes by the clerk, and they were usually not wrapped or branded. The rise of wrapping technologies and materials, especially after the first world war, as well as the new importance of advertising in the 1920s, began to shift some of the children’s market to wrapped goods and bars costing 5 or 10 cents. But penny candies continued to be the major kiddie attraction. Penny candies were a big part of childhood in those days:
They would keep a child wondering and looking for a long time before spending his small change. There used to be bright red cinnamon drops at a cent a tiny cup. And big yellow or green gum drops at two for a penny. And coconut strips the colors of the flag in waxed paper.
That’s Langston Hughes, believe it or not. He is best known as one of America’s most beloved poets and a major figure in African American literature. He also was an unrepentant candy lover. And a sad candy lover: by 1948, when he wrote the essay I’m quoting, penny candy had all but disappeared.
In the 1940s the children’s candy market began to experience dramatic changes. By 1946, the portion of the total candy output that was produced for the penny market had fallen to less than 4 percent. Both long term and short term forces conspired to make penny candy a nostalgic memory by mid-century. Penny candy had always represented the bottom end of the candy trade. “Better” candy stores avoided penny candy sales, viewing the children’s trade as an inconvenience and a distraction. Profit margins on penny goods were razor thin, and the penny candy merchant had to spend more on labor to serve the demanding but small-spending customers making numerous small purchases. The U.S. entry into World War II in 1942 brought the rationing of sugar and other candy ingredients. The candy industry succeeded in having candy designated an “essential food,” thereby assuring their continued access to sugar and other necessary commodities, but prices rose significantly. During the years of the war, about half the nation’s candy production went to provisioning the military, thereby creating reducing the amount of candy that could be sold domestically. The result of these forces was to drive out the penny candy trade. Bulk and box candies were far more profitable, and manufacturers, even those with nostalgic ties to the candy past, could no longer make economic sense of the penny lines.
No one was more eloquent in mourning than Hughes, who described the parched candy landscape that had replaced the jeweled palaces of his childhood:
Nowadays, most of the candies displayed in grocery shops (at least in the big towns) seem to be the standard brands of Hershey’s and O. Henry’s the same from coast to coast–monotonously unvarying–and costing a nickel or more. Not even a child can shop for a penny in this day and age. And they don’t have the fun of peeping and peering and puzzling and selecting such as one had when faced with a wonderful array of unwrapped penny candies in the old days.
Source: Langston Hughes, “Childhood Memories Of Good Old Home,” The Chicago Defender 18 December 1948.