Suckers: From Candy Sticks to Candy on a Stick
Who was the first to put a blob of candy on a stick and call it a “sucker”?
It seems like a pretty obvious idea now, but back in the 1800s candy makers didn’t just have sticks lying around. They made “candy sticks,” and you could suck on that.
In Canada the innovation is credited to Gilbert and James Ganong who ran a grocery in St. Stephen. The story goes that they had some of the sticks butchers use to fasten meat, and they hit on the idea of pressing the stick into a warm piece of candy. This was in 1895, and the candy on a stick was a big hit, spreading across Canada in a few short years.
On this side of the border, we don’t have any particular contender for the honorary title of “inventor,” but we do know that by 1900 the phrase “all-day sucker,” meaning hard candy on a stick, had passed into common idiomatic use.
And not everyone approved. A Pennsylvania teacher writing in 1900 laments the lassitude and distractibility of the child whose attention is overly focused on candy:
I ask the pupils…above all things to avoid that demoralizing ‘all-day sucker.’ I have never yet had a child who was persistently devoted to this candy who was of any account. One can buy four all-day suckers for a penny, and there is something so exasperatingly self-satisfied in the child who starts to school in the morning with three of these pieces in his hand and one in his mouth!
Four all-day suckers to a penny! Another writer remembers the price at two to the penny, and recollects his fondness for the sweets:
In my youthful days they used to have what they called an all-day sucker, selling at two for a cent, from which any reasonable human being of ordinary suction-power could extract a steady stream of unalloyed bliss for twenty-four hours, or, if he worked on the thing for one eight-hour shift per day, for three solid days. My idea of Heaven used to be a Harp, a Halo, and an all-day sucker ever ready for my need. (1916)
That price was bound to rise; by 1920, when sucker manufacture really took off, the typical sucker would cost a penny a piece.
And what about the sticks? Today we’re used to paper or plastic to hold our candy upright, but back in the 1900s it would have been wood. Who was cutting up all those little sticks for suckers? It must have been tedious work. Finally around 1925, someone came up with a machine to cut up boards into little sucker sticks, at the rate of 50,000 sticks per hour.
And one last thought on those sticks. Maybe you remember the famous line from the movie Some Like It Hot (1959) when Sugar Kane Kowalczyk says “Story of my life. I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Here’s the same sentiment, circa 1896:
A GRIEF AND A REFLECTION.
She was sitting on the curbstone,
And she wept and sobbed aloud,
While her little friends stood near her
In a sympathetic crowd.
“What’s the matter, dear?” I asked her;
“Are you hurt or are you sick?”
“No; I’ve sucked my all-day sucker,
Till there’s nothing left but stick!”
Well, a penny cured her trouble
With another “sucker” quick;
But why is it that life’s taffy
Nearly always ends in “stick?”
Sources: Candymaking in Canada: the history and business of Canada’s confectionery industry By David Carr (Dundurn Press Ltd., 2003); “Snappy Recitation: How to Make a Recitiation Snappy and the movement Brisk” Pennsylvania school journal, Vol 48 no 12 (June 1900): 547-550 ; John Kendrick Bangs, “The Genial Philosopher,” The Independent, Nov. 27, 1916, p. 372 ; “Making of ‘All-Day Sucker’ Sticks is a New Industry,” Popular Mechanics Nov 1925 p. 744 ; Bessie Chandler, “A Grief and a Reflection,” The Times and Register. (Philadelphia and Boston) Vol. 32. Oct 24, 1896 p. 360