Posts filed under ‘Heroes and Personalities’

Candy and the Polio Vaccine

Vaccine on a sugar cube

Unless you’re over 50, you probably don’t have much experience with polio. It’s a nasty viral infection, which can in bad cases cause paralysis of legs, arms, and in the worst cases, your whole body. Polio gave us the Iron Lung (for paralyzed victims who otherwise would die of asphyxiation) and the March of Dimes, which started out raising money for polio research.

A vaccine pretty much eliminated polio from the U.S. and most of the developed world in the 1950s. And candy is part of the story.

In the late 1950s, polio researcher Albert Sabin developed a live virus vaccine to protect against polio. The vaccine had to be taken by mouth. The problem was that it was bitter tasting. Adults might swallow it anyway, but the primary intended beneficiaries of the vaccination programs were children. The obvious solution: put it in candy.

As early as 1959, scientists and confectioners in the U.S.S.R. had collaborated to produce a candy that could deliver the live virus. We don’t know what the confection tasted like, but it must have tasted pretty good. Over 1.5 million Russian children were successfully immunized by eating the vaccine candy.

Here in the U.S., Sabin’s live oral vaccine was approved for general use in 1961. Unfortunately, the Russian candy never made it across the ocean; instead, through the 1960s, the oral vaccine was administered to millions of adults and children as a sugar cube. The vaccine was effective; poliomyelitis is virtually unknown in the U.S. today.

A 1968 article in the New York Times makes the polio vaccine program sound like a party. “Children Frolic and get ‘Candy’ Polio Vaccine” describes a festive event organized by the NYC Health Department at the George Washington Houses in upper Manhattan. With music, toys, balloons and free orange juice, public health officials hoped to draw in pre-schoolers who had not yet been vaccinated against polio. At the event, each child received sugar cube tinted lilac with two drops of the Sabin live oral polio vaccine. Some kids, loving candy, came back for a second piece.

Too bad every vaccine can’t be candy!

More: See my research on the role of candy in the 1916 polio epidemic in Articles: The Candy Prophylactic: Danger, Disease, and Children’s Candy around 1916

Sources: “Children Frolic and get ‘Candy’ Polio Vaccine” New York Times May 22, 1968; “Polio virus Put in Candy” Science News Letter June 27, 1959: 405; “Polio Vaccine Given in Candy, Soviet Says,” New York Times Nov. 26, 1959.

October 12, 2009 at 6:20 pm 3 comments

Oliver Chase and Necco Wafers: Where It All Began

In 1847 in a small drug store in Boston, Oliver R. Chase turned the crank on his latest invention, a device that would press and cut candy lozenges. As the machine-cut sweets emerged from the press, the modern world of candy was born.

The lozenge cutter probably wasn’t much to look at, just a small table-top, hand operated machine, similar to a large pasta maker. Chase could not have known as he watched the first batch of opaque disks emerge from the machine that he was changing candy forever. The lozenge cutter was the first candy-making machine. Out of that little device arose the American candy industry, and the commercial manufacture of candies on larger and larger scales.

Oliver Chase wasn’t really in the candy business. He was a pharmacist. But in the nineteeth century, if you wanted something candy-ish, the pharmacy was the place to go. Pharmacists had for centuries been using sugar to “make the medicine go down.” Sugar disguised the often bitter or unpleasant tastes of medicinal herbs and compounds. And for many maladies, sugar itself was viewed as a beneficial drug. Chase’s first “lozenges” were sold to soothe the throat or to settle the stomach. The line between “drug” and “candy” was, in those days, pretty fuzzy.  (Come to think of it, we’re still a little worried about the “drug”-like qualities of candy, but that’s for another day…)

If you’re wondering what that 1847 lozenge might have tasted like, it’s easy to find out. Just run down to the store and buy a roll of NECCO Wafers. These chalky candies seem peculiar today, but in the late nineteenth century many similar candies were made and sold, and they were very popular. Chase was making basically the same recipe in his pharmacy; once he could automate the cutting of the pasty dough, his production took off, and with in a few years he had a flourishing candy business, Chase and Company, the first in a group of companies that would come together as the New England Confectionery Company, or NECCO.

More: Michael Nusair, who took the fabulous photo at the top of this entry, reviews NECCO Wafers at candyrageous.com

October 2, 2009 at 7:36 am 6 comments

Poets and Candymakers: Louis Untermeyer

Louis UntermeyerCandy has no doubt inspired plenty of poetry. While I can’t think of any particular odes to candy’s beauty, a candy dish surely must have fueled many a fire of poetic stamina. And as it turns out, one of the U.S.’s most beloved and influential poets of the twentieth century was a candy lover too.

Louis Untermeyer will be known to any college English major as the editor of numerous anthologies of English and American poetry used in classrooms across the country. He was also a poet, essayist, and literary personality in his own right, publishing over 100 books and anthologies.

Untermeyer lived from 1885 to 1977, nearly a century. Those were the decades when America set its claim to be a “nation of candy eaters,” decades of candy passion on the part of ordinary people, met with incredible variety, creativity, and deliciousness in the candy industry. A poet and a candy enthusiast, he was the perfect choice to write the book on candy at mid-century. In fact, had Untermeyer’s poetic ambitions been less successful, he might have found a career in the candy business:

Being born with the proverbial sweet tooth, I have always found myself lingering in the vicinity of some candy store or other. … Sweets have always changed my disposition and altered my metabolism for the better. As the sugared flavors trickle past my palate, my heart leaps up, the blood courses with a livelier rhythm and my pulse beats with a happier throb. … I have never outgrown my youthful dream of working as chief sampler in a candy factory. (9)

Untermeyer’s book is called: A Century of Candymaking, 1847-1947: The Story of the Origin and Growth of the New England Confectionery Company Which Parallels that of the Candy Industry in America. Published in 1947, the volume marked the centenary anniversary of the invention of the first candy making machine in America: the lozenge-cutting machine, invented by Oliver Chase. Chase’s little candy enterprise would eventually grow into the New England Confectionery Company, one of the biggest and most important candy companies of the twentieth century.

The book was commissioned by the New England Confectionery Company as an official corporate history. The volume includes Untermeyer’s essay, illustrative color plates, a pictorial “trip through the modern factory,” maps of Boston’s historic candy sites and of the global origins of candy ingredients, and a chronology of major candy events from 1847 to 1947. Given the absence of any scholarly or popular history of the candy business in this period, A Century of Candymaking is, all in all, a quite useful little book.

It was not entirely Untermeyer’s work. Historian Marion F.Lansing did all the research and collecting, as Untermeyer acknowledges. But Untermeyer wrote the text. His unique voice and his boyish love of candy bring the stories of American candy heroes to life. There are such notables as Oliver Chase, of the famous lozenge machine; Daniel Fobes, who patented “mocha” in 1867; and Abner Moody, who used his whittling skills to carve fantastical novelty candy molds in the 1870s.

The best of the writing is a Valentine to the candy itself: Gibralters and Pralines and motto wafers and the boggling “array of color, perfection of shape and variety of flavors” that fascinated at the candy shop. Untermeyer indulges his nostalgia for the good old days when he would run to the candy shop, nickel in hand, and while away the afternoon imagining the possibilities. Candy shops, and candies, alas long gone. We’re fortunate to have A Century of Candymaking to show us what’s been lost.

September 21, 2009 at 6:50 am 2 comments

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Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

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