Posts filed under ‘Candy Nostalgia’

Langston Hughes Sings the Blues for Penny Candy

Young boy (6-8) holding a bag of candy

If you were a kid in the 1930s, you knew a lot about penny candy. It was what kids could afford, their biggest indulgence, their own consumer paradise. They were cheap, colorful, varied, and sold directly to children at the little candy stores. Familiar candies like marshmallows, licorice, hard candies, suckers, caramels and the like were sold at so many per penny. Like most candy before the rise of the “self-service” supermarket in the late 1940s, penny candies were dispensed from bins or boxes by the clerk, and they were usually not wrapped or branded. The rise of wrapping technologies and materials, especially after the first world war, as well as the new importance of advertising in the 1920s, began to shift some of the children’s market to wrapped goods and bars costing 5 or 10 cents. But penny candies continued to be the major kiddie attraction. Penny candies were a big part of childhood in those days:

They would keep a child wondering and looking for a long time before spending his small change. There used to be bright red cinnamon drops at a cent a tiny cup. And big yellow or green gum drops at two for a penny. And coconut strips the colors of the flag in waxed paper.

Langston Hughes

That’s Langston Hughes, believe it or not. He is best known as one of America’s most beloved poets and a major figure in African American literature. He also was an unrepentant candy lover. And a sad candy lover: by 1948, when he wrote the essay I’m quoting, penny candy had all but disappeared.

In the 1940s the children’s candy market began to experience dramatic changes. By 1946, the portion of the total candy output that was produced for the penny market had fallen to less than 4 percent. Both long term and short term forces conspired to make penny candy a nostalgic memory by mid-century. Penny candy had always represented the bottom end of the candy trade. “Better” candy stores avoided penny candy sales, viewing the children’s trade as an inconvenience and a distraction. Profit margins on penny goods were razor thin, and the penny candy merchant had to spend more on labor to serve the demanding but small-spending customers making numerous small purchases. The U.S. entry into World War II in 1942 brought the rationing of sugar and other candy ingredients. The candy industry succeeded in having candy designated an “essential food,” thereby assuring their continued access to sugar and other necessary commodities, but prices rose significantly. During the years of the war, about half the nation’s candy production went to provisioning the military, thereby creating reducing the amount of candy that could be sold domestically. The result of these forces was to drive out the penny candy trade. Bulk and box candies were far more profitable, and manufacturers, even those with nostalgic ties to the candy past, could no longer make economic sense of the penny lines.

No one was more eloquent in mourning than Hughes, who described the parched candy landscape that had replaced the jeweled palaces of his childhood:

Nowadays, most of the candies displayed in grocery shops (at least in the big towns) seem to be the standard brands of Hershey’s and O. Henry’s the same from coast to coast–monotonously unvarying–and costing a nickel or more. Not even a child can shop for a penny in this day and age. And they don’t have the fun of peeping and peering and puzzling and selecting such as one had when faced with a wonderful array of unwrapped penny candies in the old days.

Source: Langston Hughes, “Childhood Memories Of Good Old Home,” The Chicago Defender 18 December 1948.

January 20, 2010 at 7:33 am 3 comments

Candy Making in Brooklyn, 1908

I happen to live in Brooklyn, so it is with pride that I relate Brooklyn’s glorious candy days past. In 1908, Brooklyn ranked among the top confectionery manufacturing cities. Brooklyn alone accounted for 130,000,000 pounds of confectionery and chocolate a year, at a value of some $10,000,000. The population of the borough in that year was 1,640,400; so that’s almost 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. The biggest candy factory in the world was on Lorimer Street, churning out 36,000,000 pounds of confection a year for the candy starved masses. All that candy didn’t stay in Brooklyn, though. Brooklyn candy makers exported more candy than those of any other city, and Brooklyn-made candies could be found in every state of the union.

Brooklyn was a great place to be a candy eater, too. In 1908, there were some 560 shops dedicated to the sale of candy, and many of those shops were also making their own candies on site. Plus, you could buy candy at drug stores, news stands, stationers, department stores… well, the fact is, it would have been hard to not buy various, interesting, fresh, locally made candy in 1908, if you found yourself on the streets of Brooklyn.

One candy seller described his typical male customer’s candy-eating habits:

[Men] are at it all the time–and eat much more at a time than they used to.It is the men who keep the candy business going. Where they used to buy a box once in a while and carry it home, now they come into a store like this and buy 5 or 10 or 15 cents worth just for themselves and eat it right up.

5 cents in 1908 would buy you a good-sized bar, or a pouch of smaller candies, about what a dollar buys today. 15 cents worth of candy would have been a hefty amount to “eat right up”!

No wonder America was known in that day as a nation of candy eaters. Brooklyn’s 560 candy shops served 1.6 million people. Today, we have 250 listings in the Yellow Pages under “candy,” and the borough population is closer to 2.5 million. Most candy comes from drug store and grocery racks, the same familiar Hershey and Mars and the like. Yeah, we still eat candy, but not like in those good old days…

Source: “Brooklyn leads Country in Candy Export.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 7 March 1908 Industries, Real Estate, Long Island Section, p 1-3.

November 16, 2009 at 6:22 pm 2 comments

Ye Olde Candy Shoppe

Here’s a peek inside a candy shop some hundred years ago.

sweet shoppe

Martin Hesche presided behind the counter of this high grade retail establishment on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia. The shop offered candy, of course. Our photo doesn’t show too much detail, but we can see trays of goodies at the counter, and rows of glass jars behind. Brass polished pans, and glass trays for chocolates, would have displayed the goods.

Candy wasn’t the only thing on offer. Soda was really the main attraction; the soda fountain was the first thing customers would see, a contrivance of marble and mahogany and mirrors designed to dispense soda and flavors with an air of Continental grandeur. The whole contraption was topped by a “bathing beauty” with a stream of water squirting over her. 10 cents would buy you an ice cream soda and a seat at a table. For 5 cents, you could enjoy a plate of ice cream.

What sort of candies were made to sell at Martin Hesche’s shop? I can tell you the names, but I have no idea what most of them might have tasted like: cream filberts, raspberry cuts, rose and lemon jellies, Annie Rooneys, Trilby Cuts, Humbugs, Steamed Coconuts, Boston Drops. Taffies cost 12 cents a pound and for full cream caramels, you’d pay 25 cents the pound. In the summer, there were candied fruits including sickle pears, peaches, crab apples, apricots, pineapple and cherries. And when the weather cooled and the risks of melting passed, Hesche made chocolates. Assorted at 25 cents the pound, or as the holidays approached, packed for you in lovely five pound boxes.

Would you have enjoyed working in such a shop? At the counter, girls worked 10 hour days, six days a week, for a weekly pay of six dollars. Chocolate coaters and dippers made eight dollars, and the more skilled candy maker helpers could make $12. If you were the head candymaker, maybe you’d take home $18 at the end of the week, if it was a first class shop.

Martin Hesche’s shop was luxurious for its day. I’m sure if I were strolling down Germantown Avenue, I’d stop for an ice cream soda. Likely I’d leave with a smile, and probably a five pound box of candy too!

There are still a few descendants of the old candy makers around here and there. One “chocolatier” in my own city is Ms. Kamila Myzel, who has been making chocolates, marzipans, and cookies at Myzel’s Chocolate in Midtown Manhattan. The New York Times ran a feature on her shop on Nov. 10: Sweets From the Heart. She says her hand made chocolate is “regular chocolate, good quality for ordinary people.” We need more Myzel’s these days, places where good quality is considered “regular,” and where the distance from kitchen to shop is just a few feet.

Source: Harry C. Nuss, “Ye Olde Candy Shoppe At the Turn of the Century” Confectioners Journal Dec. 1949 118-121.

November 11, 2009 at 7:06 am 1 comment

Candy Cook Books: Where have they Gone?

Recipe book, eggs, measuring cup, bowl, whisk and muffin tin

I was in the bookstore the other day looking for cookbooks on candy making. I found approximately…zero. I’m not saying there aren’t any at all out there, I’m just saying it doesn’t seem to be a popular topic.

And why would it be? There is amazing candy to be had, whatever your taste or budget. It’s not the kind of thing you do at home. You need special equipment, and a fearless approach to hot sticky liquids. Most of us are still struggling with the Betty Crocker Mix. But once upon a time, home candy making was a very big deal.

In the olden days (before 1865 or so), a confectioner would set up shop in town and sell what she made. The invention of candy making machines in the second half of the nineteenth century meant that by 1890, most North Americans had access to a fantastic array of commercially produced candies. That meant when you headed out to buy some candy, you wouldn’t be likely to know who made it, or even where it might have been made.

This anonymous commercial production of candy made some people quite nervous. What was in that candy? New technologies and processes were creating candies no one had ever seen before. Was it safe? Some candy makers were cutting corners, adding cheaper fillers or substituting fakes for more expensive ingredients like chocolate or nuts. Some of the new ingredients were chemicals, unknown and untested.

There was an explosion of home candy cookbooks from the 1880s to the 1910s. These cookbooks often made explicit appeals to women to protect their children. Good mothers were told never to let their children touch “cheap” candies. They might be “adulterated” with fillers, poisons, who knows what. Instead of buying cheap candy for their children, good mothers should make their children’s candy at home.

The per capita sale of candy increased dramatically from 1900 to 1915. By then, home candy making was falling out of favor. Worries about adulteration seemed less important. Pure Food laws had helped regulate additives and ingredients, and advertising and brand names increased consumer confidence in the goods they bought at the store.

It could never have been the case that home candy significantly displaced manufactured candy. Only a small number of families would have the leisure time necessary for candy making. It is likely as well that after some 25 years of experimentation, home candy cooks realized that candy making was difficult and exacting work, and the variety and quality of candy readily available at attractive prices made home candy less appealing.

The days of home candy making seem long past. I have friends who enjoy baking, friends who garden, friends who sew handbags. I don’t know anyone who makes candy at home. But these days, we think a lot about how to simplify, how to get back to basics, how to “do it yourself.” Perhaps lollipops and taffy from our own kitchens will be next!

Source: on home candy cookbooks, see Wendy A. Woloson, Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth Century America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)

Related Posts:

  • Home Made vs. Store Bought Candy
  • November 4, 2009 at 8:30 am 1 comment

    Creed for Candy

    As you contemplate the vast glittering expanse of your Halloween booty, I offer you this little meditation on the loveliness of candy:

    Candy adds to the sunshine of the world as well as to the nutrition of the world.

    Candy is a symbol of fun to the child, sentiment to the adult, pleasure to old age.

    Candy knows no social barriers, it is for the rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, no matter the race or religion or rank.

    Candy is available to everyone, priced for everyone, with a choice for everyone.

    Candy is delicious food.

    Enjoy some every day!

    –1948 Council on Candy, National Confectioners Association

    colored candy figures
    A little background information: The Council on Candy as Essential Food in the War Effort was organized by the National Confectioners Association in 1942 in response to the sugar rationing program. The Council on Candy was charged with persuading the government, the military, and the general population that candy was an essential food item, and therefore that candy manufacturers should continue to have access to sugar supplies. The “Creed for Candy” was reproduced and republished in magazine advertisements and shop placards as part of an ambitious advertising and education campaign in the 1940s aimed at securing a place for candy in American hearts and at American tables.

    November 2, 2009 at 7:14 am 2 comments

    Home Made vs. Store Bought Candy

    It would seem to follow that more expensive candies are better candies. Better ingredients, more care, higher quality, all adds up to higher price.

    For candy buyers in the nineteen-teens, worried about food purity and adulteration, expensive candy seemed not only better, but safer. Women’s magazines encouraged housewives to buy only the most expensive sorts of candies for their families. If they couldn’t afford the best, the only safe alternative was to make it at home.

    Professional candy makers laughed at the idea. One remarked,

    Those who are such fools as to suppose they can turn out kitchen stove candy as good as the cheapest sold by any respectable confectioner are soon undeceived. Candy making calls for skill and experience. It is cheap because it is made in large quantities and by the use of machinery.

    Commercial candy had to overcome consumers’ anxieties about new products and new technologies for manufacture. Commercial candy also competed with a nostalgic idea about home made candies. Although candy making was indeed a laborious affair, the work could be made fun, and the product was certainly a pleasure. Taffy pulls, fudge parties, and the like had been popular middle-class entertainments at the turn of the century.

    The candy trade hoped Americans would come to see store-bought candy as an everyday food rather than a luxury for holidays and special events. One enterprising candy poet proposed this little scene to illuminate the new world of candy consumption, circa 1916:

    “’Lasses Candy”

    How ways have changed since dearest Grandma’s time,
    ’In lots and lots of things,’ she says, ’it’s so.’
    When she was young and in her girlhood prime
    Store candy was a luxury, you know.

    ’But,’ she says ’when farmhouse work was done
    And company’d come–just country girls and boys–

    They’d have a candy pull.’ I’ll bet ’twas fun,
    In those old times of simple, homely joys.

    What fun ’twould be, if mother’d only leave
    Me have a ’candy pull,’ like grandma did.
    With boys and girls to come and make believe
    That each was just a jolly country kid!

    But mother’d say: ‘Who put such notions in your mind?
    Don’t let me hear such nonsense anymore.
    I guess, when grandma comes to town, she’ll find
    Much better ’lasses candy at the store.’

    Sources: “Those Silly Sunday Pages,” Confectioners Journal, Feb. 1915, p. 62; “’Lasses Candy,” Confectioners Journal, April 1916, p. 78.

    Related Posts:

  • Candy Cook Books: Where have they Gone?
  • Ye Olde Candy Shoppe
  • October 14, 2009 at 7:14 am 4 comments

    Candy Sales Up in Recession

    San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that candy sales are strong in California, even as unemployment tops 12%. The Candy Store, on Vallejo Street, reports surging demand for nostalgia candies. Meanwhile, purveyors of high end chocolates are seeing a drop in demand.

    We saw a similar story reported from New York last spring, as the economy showed signs of failure to recover in the wake of the bail-out and stimulus plan. Economy Candy, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, couldn’t keep the shelves stocked.

    This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a connection between hard times and candy eating. American candy consumption grew faster during the Great Depression of the 1930s than at any other time in the twentieth century. For some, candy bars were more than just a treat. The Depression gave us such memorable but long-gone candy bars as: Chicken Dinner, Chicken Bone, Denver Sandwich, and Idaho Spud. A chicken dinner might be out of a hungry man’s reach, but a Chicken Dinner could take the edge off. Many of today’s favorite confections were launched during the Depression, including Snickers, Mars with Almonds, and Three Musketeers.

    The turn to candy when things are rough isn’t so surprising. Candy is sweet, it tastes good, it’s simple, it connects to less complicated times. And sugar has pain-reducing properties, which might help too in these hard times.

    Sources:Candy sales strong despite recession, Robert Selna. San Fransico Chronicle, 23 Sept. 2009;When Economy Sours, Tootsie Rolls Soothe Souls, Christine Haughney. New York Times, 23 March 23 200; Joel Glenn Brenner, The Emporers of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars (1999)

    September 24, 2009 at 9:16 pm 4 comments

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    Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

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