New Publication: “The Candy Prophylactic”
We’re so used to seeing candy in wrappers, it’s hard to imagine a time when most kinds of candy were sold “naked”. But 100 years ago, individually wrapped candies were the exception. Some things had to be wrapped, sticky things like caramels and taffies. But everything else basically came in big boxes or crates or tubs. It might be sold by the piece or by the pound, but most candy wouldn’t be wrapped up until you bought it at the store.
The wrapping revolution happened fast. Between about 1914 and 1917, wrapping suddenly became the normal expectation for all sorts of candy.
New inventions, especially wrapping machines and transparent wrapping papers, made the explosion in candy wrapping technologically possible. But there were other forces as well.
In the ‘teens, Americans were terrified of the newly discovered “germs” that caused disease. The polio epidemic which afflicted thousands of children on the eastern seaboard in the summer of 1916 increased worries about how children in particular might be exposed to dangerous disease germs. Children like candy. Germs seemed especially linked to flies and dust. So covering candy up to keep off flies and dust ensured that they were germ-free.
Wrapping makes candy safe and clean. That’s why I call it the “candy prophylactic.” (Yes, that’s the same word we use for condoms; basically the same idea, a protective barrier. Stop that snickering in the back row, “prophylactic” is a perfectly good and not-naughty word!) And there’s a little twist to my idea of the “candy prophylactic” as well. Parents were terrified that their children would eat contaminated candies. New wrappers meant that candies could be “branded” with the manufacturers name. So manufacturers started marketing their brand names as “safe” and “pure”. Wrapped and branded candies were seen as safe candies. Parents could keep their children safe by choosing those kinds of candies. So that was another way that candy itself became a kind of prophylactic against germs, disease, and contamination.
You can get the full story in my article called “The Candy Prophylactic: Danger, Disease and Children’s Candy around 1916 ” which has just been published in the Journal of American Culture, September 2010.
Read my pre-publication version of this paper here. Or, if you don’t happen to subscribe to the Journal of American Culture, contact me and I’d be happy to send you a PDF of the published version.
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