High Society Marshmallow Roasts (Marshmallow Chronicles, Part II)
Candy Professor Marshmallow Madness continues today. Missed Part I? Click here for “In Search of Lost Marshmallow,” in which all mysteries of the origins and nature of marshmallow are revealed.
Marshmallows exploded onto the American candy scene in the early 1900s. New machines and recipes made it possible for marshmallow to be sold on a mass scale for the first time. And marshmallow everywhere inspired a new entertaining sensation for the high-society set: the marshmallow roast.
The city newspapers in Boston and Philadelphia and New York of the 1900s and 1910s are full of stories of fashionable marshmallow roasting parties. One such party in August 1908 brought a group of young revelers to the beach in Sea Girt, NJ:
A marshmallow party took a lot of young people from the Parker House down on the beach Wednesday evening, and there, making a fire, they gathered around the pile of burning driftwood and spun yarns, roasting just enough marshmallows to give an excuse for the gathering. “Sea Girt Plays Croquet,” NYT 8/1/1908
Marshmallow roasts weren’t restricted to the sea-side, to be sure. At mountain and lake side resorts in the summer months, the scene of roasting marshmallows around the campfire was always a highlight of the holiday. Summer society pages described the marshmallow roasting revels at popular destinations including Schroon Lake, Groton, Lake Placid, Belmar, and Pinehursh. A New York Times description of a 1911 party in Allenhurst, New Jersey gives a sense of the flavor of these evenings:
A marshmallow roast was given on Wednesday night by a number of young women and men from the cottage colony. They built a bonfire in front of the Casino and there toasted the sweets. When all the candy had been eaten they strolled along the beach in the moonlight.
It wasn’t just the society types who were roasting marshmallows in those days. Any place there was a camp fire, it seems, there were marshmallows. Camping was a popular American leisure activity for the middle classes, even in the 19th century. Teddy Roosevelt had gained fame as the leader of the “Rough Riders” in the Spanish American War in 1898; Roosevelt’s image of rugged fortitude and fresh-air adventure inspired the nation. Marshmallow roasting parties gave pampered city dwellers the chance to light the beach bonfire or the mountain campfire and go rustic. Kids were roughing it too: the idea of “scouting” for children was gaining popularity; the Boy Scouts of America would be founded in 1910.
The Scouts quickly developed a reputation for being inveterate marshmallow eaters. A Boys Life magazine editor, seeking to distinguish the useful magazine article from the obvious, zeroed in on the matter of marshmallow eating:
Eating marshmallows is an exercise that every scout knows perfectly well how to perform, and reading a hundred paragraphs about scouts who burned their tongues and smeared their faces with marshmallow powder would not increase their capacity for marshmallows. But, if the Podunk Scouts [who hope to have their article published] discovered some new, novel and brilliant stunt for acquiring those marshmallows, or developed some method by which they could be placed in the mouth blazing without taking the skin off their tongues, or invented some automatic guage that would stop a scout just before he absorbed enough marshmallows to make serious trouble in the department of the interior, that would be big news. (Boys Life July 1924 “Pow-Wow Department” p. 43)
Who roasted the first marshmallow, we don’t know. But I think it was a kid. You have this marshmallow, and you wonder, what would happen if I held a match to it? Only a kid would think of that. As the stories from the highs of the society pages to the middle brow pages of Boys Life attest, roasted marshmallows their eating and their roasting) are one treat with universal appeal. Is there anything better than the perfectly roasted marshmallow?
So this summer, as you douse your wood with lighter fluid and sharpen up your roasting sticks, imagine yourself back one hundred years ago. Lots of things have changed. But we still have roasted marshmallows!