Where’s the Caramel? Common American Candies, c. 1857

February 2, 2011 at 10:17 am 3 comments

As part of a 1857 curriculum in “Object Lessons,” fifth grade pupils in Cincinnati, Ohio were invited to list “things to be seen.” Among the many categories, edibles figured highly. And among the edibles, of course candy.

I reproduce here the list of candies as an indicator of what sort of sweets were on the minds of American children in the mid-1800s:

Cream candy, pop-corn, peppermint, molasses, rose, clove, nut, Butterscotch, sugar plums, lemon drops, lemon candy, peppermint drops, French kisses, cinnamon, Ice-cream, wintergreen, sour drops, hoarhound, lavender, gum drops, vanilla, Rock, birch, cats-eyes, orange, cough, kisses.

This is not presented as an exhaustive list. These were the candies children spontaneously named when invited to shout out every sort. Nevertheless, there are some interesting conclusions we can draw.

No chocolate is the obvious one. Chocolate wouldn’t become common as a children’s candy until well into the 1900s.

Candy flavors are different, too. I take these to be flavors of hard candy or stick candy: peppermint, rose, clove, lemon, wintergreen, “sour,” hoarhound, lavender, birch, orange.

“Rock” refers most likely to the English version, hard candy embedded with shapes or letters that is pulled into a long rod and then cut to reveal the design in cross-section. And notice that ice cream, pop corn and nuts are included in the category of “candy” (although nut here might refer also to nut candy).  These treats were sold where candy was sold, and eaten as candy was eaten, so the connection makes sense.

I ran across this list while researching the early uses of butterscotch and caramel. Here’s something else that I notice on the list: Butterscotch is named, caramel isn’t.

I think of caramel as a basic American candy. After all, Milton Hershey got his start in the 1890s selling caramels. But here in 1857 there is no caramel, only Butterscotch, an English candy innovation from the early 1800s. Caramel as a term referring to a stage in the cooking of sugar first appears in the 1700s. But caramel candy, that distinctive caramel flavored chewy morsel, seems to have emerged much later (looks like the 1880s), as a uniquely American variation of the English toffees and butterscotches.

Hershey, as you know, got out of the caramel business and into the chocolate business just at the right time. The twentieth century saw chocolate in ascent, a century of chocolate hegemony. But caramel seems to be making a comeback. Happily, even in candy nothing is eternal.

If you are interested in the common foodstuffs of the mid 1800s, I highly recommend taking a look at the Ohio lists (link here). The variety is surprising and instructive.

Entry filed under: 19th Century. Tags: , , .

Sunday Candy Sunday Candy, Round Two

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve Schmidt  |  February 5, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Allow me to put my two cents in. First, the “ice cream,” “popcorn,” and, likely, the “nuts” are all indeed candies. So-called ice cream candy was a sort of taffy and very popular. There is a recipe for it in the original 1896 Fannie Farmer. Also popular were various sorts of candied popcorn, both individual candied kernels and popcorn balls. The 1906 edition of Farmer has recipes for both, and so-called mais tic-tac, a New Orleans popcorn candy, was, in the day, almost as legendary as pralines. About the “nuts,” well, there were many, many nineteenth-century nut candies.

    Finally, about the caramels, the most popular of all American candies in the second half of the 19th century. Nineteenth-century American caramels looked just like today’s familiar supermarket caramels, the ones individually wrapped in plastic, and were also similar in color, texture, and flavor. However, the 19th century candies were made with molasses, and lots of it, and so were darker, firmer, and more bittersweet and pungent than the supermarket candies that are their heirs. The inspiration behind American caramels were French caramels, which came to this country during the vogue for French cooking of the Gilded Age. The candies are still made in France today (with sugar, not molasses) and recipes can be found in many places, including Larousse Gastronomique.

  • 2. Candy Professor  |  February 8, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Thanks, Steve, for this excellent information. I really appreciate your expertise!

    I take your point about nut candies, especially as the Ohio list includes a separate category for “nuts.” But looking at the whole list which encompasses “things to be eaten,” snacky type foods like pop corn and ice cream (not the candy versions) don’t fit in any other category, nor are the “true” versions named elsewhere. So I’m not entirely convinced that what is meant is a candy and not a snack that would appear alongside or in the place of candy (ie that the category of “candy” might be more expansive). For ice cream especially, your sources are several decades later for “ice cream candy.” I note also that ice cream was included as “confectionery” in this period, which could translate to the common word “candy” if one were simply making categories. All speculation, of course!

    • 3. Candy Professor  |  April 11, 2011 at 10:32 am

      I revise my thinking on “Ice-Cream” as candy, here is a recipe from 1861
      The children also listed “ice-cream cake” under “kinds of cake.”


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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

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