Chicken Dinner is not for Dinner
Of all the “jazzy” candy bars from the 1920s, this one still seems the most strange. Candy and chicken seem about as far apart as you can get. What were they thinking?
Sperry Candy Company of Milwaukee WI introduced the bar in 1923 with the slogan “Candy Made Good.” Good like candy, but also good like chicken dinner. An ad to the trade explained the reasoning behind the name: “A name which suggests the best of something good to eat, and known to every child.” These children of 1923, I’d love to meet them. Sperry seemed to think that a big roast chicken was the best lure for the kiddie market.
Chicken Dinner originally sold for 10 cents, the high end of the candy piece market. Sperry described it as “an expensive, high grade candy, put up in convenient 10 cent packages.” Neither in the ads nor on the package did they say much about what was actually in the candy bar. The innovation and excitement of Chicken Dinner wasn’t nuts or nougat, it was the name.
Chicken Dinner meant quality and goodness. What it did not mean, at least not directly, was meal replacement. I’ve read in more than one account of candy during the Depression that bars like Chicken Dinner and Denver Sandwich were popular in part because they promised a kind of imaginary substitute for more expensive real meals. Now I’m beginning to doubt that story. For one, both those bars were first marketed before the Depression, so the context of empty pockets and hungry bellies doesn’t explain these names’ origins. Candy bars in this period had all kinds of outlandish names. Choosing to call your candy bar something so unlike candy, but still appealing, seems a great way to get a second look in a crowded field. But more than that: the idea that a candy bar might be contemplated as somehow equivalent to chicken or a sandwich sounds much more like our contemporary “anything goes” food culture.
I suspect a candy bar named “Pizza Dinner” today might not take off the way Chicken Dinner did. It was one of the best selling candy bars in its day, and remained on the market for some 50 years. It wasn’t just that everybody loved a good chicken dinner. And it probably didn’t have too much to do with the bar itself. It was advertising.
In the 1920s, not everyone realized that advertising was the secret to success. Candy bars that were heavily advertised from their inception would go on to bigger and bigger shares (anyone could have realized in the early 1920s that Milky Way and O, Henry! would be the ones to watch). There was no TV in those days. Radio advertising wouldn’t really catch on until the 1930s. So live interactions with the candy-buying public were the only way to get the word out.
Chicken Dinner billboards were a common sight around the land. But Sperry wasn’t just waiting around for potential customers to pass by to see the sign. In 1926, Sperry’s advertising experts came up with the idea of putting Chicken Dinner signs, and big colorful chickens, on automobiles and driving them around cities drumming up excitement. Back up was provided by teams of window trimmers, artists, and even circus clowns. Behind the scenes, Sperry was assigning advertising staff to work permanently in the field to support distribution and sales. This was a new idea; most companies sent their goods off with jobbers who made the distribution rounds in different locations and didn’t stick around to provide marketing support.
The best think about Chicken Dinner besides the name was the chicken cars, which became quite elaborate. Fleets of Chicken Dinner cars or trucks would arrive in town to deliver the candy goods. Here you can see an image from the mid 1930s; here’s a later model. What did people think the first time they saw one?