Posts filed under ‘WWI to WWII’
Today, the Hostess Twinkie is the poster-cake for processed food that has gone over to the dark side. Some 35 ingredients, rumored to be sprayed into molds instead of baked, reputed to have the shelf-life of hardtack. But this is not how Hostess began.
Once upon a time, ladies would invite their lady friends over for tea. They would wear clever hats and thin gloves and pass fragile cups from which to sip ever so demurely. With the tea, there would be cakes. Any hostess who wanted to impress her friends, and avoid vicious post-tea party gossip, would want to be sure she served only the finest.
And so, the scandal depicted at this c. 1930 tea party: “What…You bought them?”
The ad’s headline seems ambivalent: is the speaker horrified by the fact that the hostess has purchased cakes for her guests? Or is she amazed that the cakes, having been exposed as store-bought, taste so very good as to belie their humble origins?
The small print rushes to clarify: Hostess Cakes are achieving enviable success because “their flavor..their texture…their dainty appearance have been a revelation to millions of women.” Hostess promises ease, deliciousness, and most important for a generation of women struggling to create the impression of total and effortless domestic mastery, “no baking failures…a cake you can serve with perfect confidence.”
Today we’re all going back to the kitchen to make “real food.” But our 1930s fore-mothers were not so much worried about “real” or “manufactured” or “fake” in their food. What they were worried about was the very real risk that a “real” cake made in their own oven might actually be a disaster. In this context, processed and manufactured food was a solution to a serious social problem. (Of course, you could probably also argue that women wouldn’t have considered this a problem until Hostess Cakes came along and encouraged them to start worrying…)
Of course, it took a generation of chemists and food engineers to transform something like that lovely coconut layer cake into today’s plastic-wrapped snack food. But even today, no one could call a Twinkie or a Ding Dong a “baking failure.”
One thing I love about the candy business is the general spirit of fun. Granted, things get messy sometimes (witness the trail of lawsuits left by every major candy company). But generally, something about the candy trade seems to appeal especially to folks with a good sense of humor.
And sometimes humor will get you a lot farther in business than any thing lawyers might come up with. Exhibit A, The COPY Bar.
It’s 1926, and the Williamson Candy Company is flush with the success of their signature candy bar, Oh Henry! Millions sold every month. The only problem is those pesky competitors, who keep trying to grab a share of the Oh Henry! riches with cheap knock-offs. Williamson prevails in court (see my post on the suit against Oh Johnnie), but the onslaught continues.
Fighting head on doesn’t work, so Williamson goes Zen, bending like the bamboo. If everybody else is going to sell a copy of Oh Henry!, then Williamson will too, by gum. The “Latest Copy of Oh Henry!” is a Williamson original, priced at 5 cents against 10 cents for big brother Oh Henry!
This new 5cent bar is a radical departure for us. Heretofore other manufacturers have made the imitations of our product. But, in line with our endeavor to be ‘first with the latest,’ we have decided upon the policy new, even radical in the candy industry–of making our own imitations.
Williamson conceded that it wasn’t “as good as” Oh Henry! At half the price, it couldn’t be. But on the other hand, he claimed it was better than the cheap Oh Henry! knockoffs everybody else was selling for a nickel.
In tandem with the announcement of the new bar, Williamson launched the “Confectioners’ “Copy” Club.” The Club’s founding document was published in the November 1926 issue of Confectioners Journal, together with a space for a roster listing the members.
Here I transcribe the text, as my summary could never do justice to this witty attack on the trade:
Sometime ago when Oh Henry! came into prominnece, there was such a rush of imitators that the candy trade, both wholesale and retail, was seriously embarassed. Few were able to keep up with the daily growing list of imitations.
To forestall this difficulty when “COPY” begins to be copied, and also to engender a clubbier feeling among the manufacturers who copy “COPY”, we are organizing the “CONFECTIONERS’ ‘COPY’ CLUB.”
The only requisite for membership in the COPY CLUB is the manufacture of a bar similar to “COPY”… From month to month the names of the duly self-elected memers will be published in the roster of the COPY CLUB in these pages.
By this means we hope to keep the candy trade posted as to who is copying “COPY” so that there will be no difficulty in identifying the clever manufacturers who have had the originality to make a bar like “COPY”.
Candy bar business was, as this snarky ad suggests, cut throat. Margins were slim. Williamson was committed to a quality product, but that meant selling Oh Henry! at 10 cents, even as more and more bars were coming out for 5 cents. COPY let Williamson have it both ways, defending Oh Henry! while also competing for the lower segment of the market.
COPY didn’t last long, and seems to have been advertised primarily as a footnote to Oh Henry! But COPY wasn’t really so much candy as a weapon. Chocolaty and sweet pea-nutty, to be sure, but a weapon nonetheless.
Oh Henry! is not the most popular candy bar in America today, but it’s been around a while. It’s one of three major contemporary candy bars that you could have bought in the 1920s. Milky Way and Hershey bar (plain or with almonds) would be the other two. But there were others, hundreds nay thousands of others, now gone and forgotten. Why did Oh Henry! survive?
The candy bar market in the 1920s was a bit like the wild west, fast and lawless, any buckeroo with a candy kettle and a wrapping machine out to make a buck. Oh Henry! soared above the competition because George Williamson knew a few things about marketing. He bought billboards, magazine ads, newspaper spots to promote his bar. He focused on the one product. And he had some pretty innovative ideas about how to expand the market for candy bars, like a booklet of 60 recipes for cooking with Oh Henry! (see my post on Oh Henry! stuffed tomatoes here). Not surprising, there were some who figured on riding the Oh Henry! coattails to grab a little piece of the candy action for themselves.
Copying was a huge problem in the candy business. The yummiest combinations were pretty well established. And if there was already a good version of, say, peanut marshmallow chocolate bar, you could understand the temptation to just try to sell your own as “almost” that other one. Candy innovation could only take you so far. Names, colors, and packaging–the stuff of trade mark and trade dress– were increasingly important, maybe even more important than the candy itself.
The success of Oh Henry! could be measured in the proliferation of copy cats. The worst offender was “Oh Johnnie,” sold by the Uncanco Candy Company of Delaware. “Oh Johnnie” looked like “Oh Henry!” and tasted (sort of ) like “Oh Henry!”, and you had to admit that there was something familiar about the name “Oh Johnnie.” But Oh Henry cost 10 cents. Oh Johnnie, on the other hand, was half the price.
George Williamson was not happy. Lawyers got involved. Williamson sued for trademark infringement, claiming Uncanco was deliberately attempting to fool people into thinking their bar had something to do with the more successful Oh Henry! The judge agreed:
Thus far the ‘Oh Johnnie’ bar had the appearance of being the same as the ‘Oh Henry!’ bar save in size, price and possible quality. They were alike as two brothers of different years. … It would be strain upon human credulity to believe that such and so many points of similarity as here found, could innocently exist. … The only plausible purpose for the similarity was to enable the smaller bar to be passed off as the product of the plaintiff.
Williamson won, and Ucanco was found guilty of trademark infringement. The lawsuit stopped Oh Johnnie. But lawsuits were an expensive, time consuming, and clumsy way to swat at the flies of candy competition in the roaring ’20s. Here comes Oh! Jiggs. And watch out, over there is Hey Eddie! Williamson didn’t give up fighting off the copy cats, but he did change tactics.
Next post: if the law fails, bludgeon them with sarcasm.
When I was growing up, my mother took me and my brother and sister to church every Sunday. And on the way home, we always stopped at the candy store. Each of us got 15 cents, and we could eat our spoils however we liked. We called it “Sunday Candy.”
Where did this tradition come from? I’ve met a few other people who had similar Sunday rituals, but not many, so I conclude this was not a wide-spread practice. My mother grew up in Illinois, and has a vague recollection of candy on Sundays. My initial theory was that Sunday penance at church was matched by Sunday indulgence in the bon bon box.
I’ve found some references to the idea of “Sunday candy” as a special treat in the early 1900s. Especially where pennies for candy might be hard to come by, a child might get candy once a week, on Sunday. Newspaper ads from the period also promote special items for the “Sunday candy feast,” suggesting that it was a frequent custom for special family Sunday dinners to conclude with candy.
But I’m also beginning to suspect that Sunday Candy, like just about every other American candy tradition, was an invention of the publicity department at the National Confectioners Association. V.L. Price began beating the drum for holiday candy promotions in the 1920s (Halloween, St. Valentine’s Day, and more). And soon, candy promoters realized that boosting candy sales on holidays was only the beginning.
In 1928, the NCA sponsored a co-operative advertising campaign with the slogan “Sweeten the Day with Candy!” Ads in major magazines like the Saturday Evening Post encouraged Americans to enjoy candy every day. And as part of this campaign, ads included the reminder: “Take Home Candy for Sunday.” Promotions along these lines, with the same slogan, had appeared locally beginning in the early 1920s; the NCA was attempting to make the Sunday Candy idea a national tradition.
Here are some illustrations of this theme that appeared in the trade publication Confectioners Journal. These might have been used as window cards in candy stores or as images for ads in local papers.
Both these designs emphasize a connection between church and candy, without specifying what that connection might actually entail. The stained glass window and angelic choir certainly lend the product an aura of sanctity. Will candy eating get you to heaven a little faster? Or is candy a bit of heaven on earth?
Notice the promotion doesn’t say “buy candy on Sunday.” “Blue laws” limiting trade on Sundays were increasingly in force in the 1920s, and so in many communities most stores were closed. The idea was that mother or father would stop at the candy store on Friday or Saturday and stock up with boxes of family favorites for Sunday.
I found reference to one shop that offered a special weekend promotion: a pound each of chocolate, hard candy and gum drops for 99 cents. A mere three pounds of candy to get the family through the weekend.
Candy for the household at the week-end, a package of candy, good candy, that can reasonably be counted upon to please the taste in candies of all the grown-ups, the children, and any possible casual visitor, just the right variety and not too much of it, yet enough and not too expensive—that has become another of the housewife’s important problems in this candy-eating age.
Anyone else remember Sunday Candy? I’d love to hear your stories!
Quote is from “A Candy Method of Loft’s Inc.” Confestioners Journal Aug 1925, p. 105.
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?
Today candy novelties are mostly cheap plastic toys, usually generic one-offs. Advertising and brand loyalty are the keys to the success of the biggest candy companies.
High-quality candy novelties were much more important in the early days of the candy industry. Success in the candy business hinged on moving quickly to introduce new kinds of candy and new novelties to catch the eye of child or adult shopper. Higher priced candy was often bought as a gift, and clever or eye catching presentations would increase a gift’s value. For children’s candies, the novelty could transform a simple candy into something much more appealing.
These candy dolls from the 1920s were manufactured by Huyler’s, a large confectioner better known for quality chocolates. Although these goods are for children, they would have been sold at higher-priced shops and department stores alongside Huyler’s chocolate goods and similar candies. Each was made by hand. These candy dolls appear primitive to the modern eye, but must have been charming and appealing to a child in the 1920s.
The first is described as a “grotesque candy doll … of a type to endear it to the hearts of children.” I think in this context “grotesque” is supposed to mean “comical,” but you can judge for yourself:
Here is Simple Simon, fashioned of candy sticks, with his chocolate pies. The book motif is cleverly carried through from the shape of the box to the hand-written rhyme, with the figures and candies playing out the theme.
In the Simple Simon package, the Huyler’s name is featured prominently. The transformation of candy box into part of a toy novelty assures that the manufacturer’s name stays in the child’s mind. The novelties are not only for children’s delight, but also to build business:
The children of today are the candy buyers of the future. [These novelties] give the manufacturer a chance to get first place in the child’s affections.
Source: Edward T. Tandy, “Place of Novelties in Merchandising,” Confectioners Journal April 1921 (Printers Ink March 1921)
With the cold and flu season bearing down on us like a cold wind from the north, it is time to take stock. Are you eating enough candy?
Today we think of sugar candy as good-tasting poison: not just tummy aches, but obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and an early grave are attributed to excessive candy indulgence. (Chocolate, with its mysterious and exotic flavonoids, appears exempt.) But well into the twentieth century, many cast enormous store in the medicinal properties of sugar candy.
Here’s a report from 1922 extolling sugar-candy as a potent remedy to cure heart weakness brought on by influenza. Dr. F. Thompson of Sunbury-on-Thames explains:
I was sent for on Sunday to see an old woman of over 80 with a pulse of 140 beats to the minute. I gave her sugar-candy at once, and next morning her pulse was down to 88.
Dr. Thompson’s success with this patient inspired him to prescribe sugar candy to all his patients. What medical results this produced we cannot know, but I suspect it led to a substantial increase in his professional popularity.
An unnamed physician at a London hospital explains the powerful effects of sugar candy on the ailing body:
Sugar-candy, and sugar generally, are wonderful heart foods, great heat producers, and easily utilized by the body. Cases in which strong heart stimulants have failed have been immensely improved by the consumption of sugar. It is a very valuable agent in post-influenza cases both for the heart and the lungs.
The miraculous curative powers of candy even inspired one man of medicine to discard his pharmacy in favor of confectionery:
A London doctor, who was cured in this way of extreme heart weakness, has given up medicine, and has taken to eating sugar.
Legal disclaimer in case you’re thinking about treating your next bout of flu with a Whitman’s Sampler: Would I advise the same? Dear me, of course not. I’m a candy professor, not a doctor! But if you’re stuck in bed anyway, a little candy might be nice…
Source: “Candy for Flu,” Confectioners Journal, April 1922, p. 100, quoting an article originally published in the London Daily Mail.