Saturday, June 6, 2015

Sweet Memories: Candy and Gum of an Earlier Time

No better way exists to evoke memories of the small pleasures of bygone days than the vintage artifacts that featured them.  My remembrances of the candy and gum enjoyed in my young days six or seven decades ago are spurred by seeing their advertising paperweights and other items.   Shown here are ten such, all of them conjuring up thoughts from the 1940s and 1950s.
World War II broke out when I was five years old and severely constrained the variety of candy that was available to a young sweet tooth.   As I recall, sugar was rationed with much of the supply going to the troops at home and abroad.  One confection still readily available was marshmallows.  Those treats had been introduced by a Milwaukee candy company in 1917, with packaging that recommending roasting them over an open fire.  With the war restricting travel, many activities were neighborhood based, including evenings around a campfire with marshmallows.  My preference was to let them burn until the entire outside was charred and then to eat the whole blackened mess with the soupy insides.  Yum!
Another candy that seems to have been around during the War was licorice, sold in the form of chewy ropes or tubes.  They could be purchased in those days for about two cents a rope and gave many a moment of pleasure as your teeth snapped off a chunk and the process of mastication ensued.   The flavor is an extract of the roots of the licorice plant and not to everyone’s taste.  In those wartime days, however, any candy to be had was eagerly consumed.
Represented here, not by a paperweight, but by an early 20th Century metal container is another favorite of mine — Tootsie Roll.  Tootsie Rolls, however, encountered a different kind of rationing.  My father was a dentist and determined to exclude cavities from the teeth of my brother and me.   Although this candy had been around since 1898, he objected to it because it had a tendency to stick to the teeth and the sugar to linger in the mouth.  The buying public was not concerned.  Today Tootsie Rolls are consumed worldwide and enjoy global favor.  According to the company, 64 million rolls are made daily.
Dad had considerably less objection to Cracker Jacks, possibly because of his own “sweet tooth” and love of popcorn.  Shown here on two vintage paperweights, this confection originated with a German immigrant named Frederick Rueckheim who ran a popcorn stand in Chicago beginning in 1871.  In 1896 his brother, Louis, discovered a method to separate the kernels of molasses coated popcorn during the manufacturing process.  As each batch was tossed in a drum similar to a cement mixer, a small amount of vegetable oil was added that helped prevent the contents from sticking together in chunks.

Inside each Cracker Jack box were two additional items:  a peanut or two and a prize.  The presence of the nuts meant little, but the prize was a big deal.   As I recall, before World War II, they frequently were made of metal.   During the war, with metal going for military purposes, the prizes disappointingly were made of paper.   After the war plastic made its appearance in the Cracker Jack box.   Whatever the prize, it was always a kick to pour out the candied kernels to look for what else the box might hold.
Life Savers were another favorite.  As shown on the weight here, for many years the round candy with the hole in the middle sold for five cents — a nickel.  The price was usually within reach of a kid with kind of any enterprise.   All it took was returning three soft drink bottles back to the store to afford a roll, with a penny left over.   The package of candy, with discipline, could last a long time.  The story of Life Savers reaches back to 1912 when Clarence Crane of Garrettsville, Ohio, invented the sweet stuff in 1912 as a “summer candy” that could withstand heat better than chocolate.   After registering the trademark, Crane sold the rights to Edward Noble for $2,900.  Noble grew Life Savers into a national brand.  He is said to have encouraged sales at cash registers of restaurants and stores, suggesting that change include five cents.  Noble’s strategy frequently was successful on me.
Bubblegum was around for a long time, produced by Frank H. Fleer in 1885 through his Fleer Corporation.  Called Blibber-Blubber, it was inferior to regular chewing gum.  It was not until 1928 that Fleer improved the formula to produce the first commercially successful bubblegum, giving it the pink color with which it traditionally is associated.  I was too young to chew before World War II and it was unavailable during the conflict itself, re-emerging only after 1945.  What a revelation!   My friends and I could not get enough of the stuff.  We also collected the cartoons that wrapped the pink chunks.  Many had corny jokes but some could even be quite sophisticated.  For years I kept one that featured the painter Picasso.  
Fast forward from the 1940s to the 1950s and Necco Wafers.  Those candies date back to 1847 when Oliver Chase, an English immigrant, invented a lozenge cutting machine to produce the wafers.   The name “Necco” was added in 1912.  The wafers got their boost during the war after the U.S. favored it as appropriate for consumption by troops overseas.  Returning servicemen became customers and spread the word.  I became addicted about 1955, buying a tube of assorted flavors almost every day before embarking on an hour-long bus trip home from high school.  
 About the same time, my taste in chewing gum changed and I became fond of the flavor of Beechnut Gum.  The Beechnut firm was founded by Bartlett Arkell in 1891 in Canajoharie, New York. It manufactured numerous items, including bacon, ham, peanut butter, coffee, strained foods, chopped foods, soups, candy and — importantly for me  — chewing gum.  Just when Beechnut Gum was first marketed is not clear, but its appearance pre-dated a 1931 paperweight that featured an “autogyro,”  an early form of helicopter.

A final memorable candy requires another movement in time, to my late 50’s college days in Milwaukee.  On many occasions going to and from the campus, my route took me past the Ambrosia Chocolate factory, founded by Otto J. Schoenleber in that city in 1894.  The company was named “Ambrosia” to characterize chocolate as “food of the gods.”  The aromas coming from the plant were indeed heavenly and I did all I could to imbibe of them fully.   The experience would lift my whole day.  Under new ownership since 1964,  Ambrosia in Milwaukee got a new plant in 1992 and today is the largest supplier of private label chocolate baking chips in America.
Although this illustrated romp through the candy and gum of yore is meant as a personal memory trip via vintage artifacts, further observations seem appropriate.  First, note that each of these confections is “home grown,” that is, invented right here in America.  Although some of the inventors were immigrants, possibly bring insights to candy-making from their homelands, all these products were “Born in the U.S.A.”   Second, without exception, all are still being sold today, having survived the Great Depression, World War II, succeeding crises and economic turndowns.  In fact, many candies such as Tootsie Roll, Cracker Jack, and Life Savers have achieved a global market, proving that the world has a sweet tooth.


  1. Dear Mr. Sullivan,
    This is in reference to your 25 January 2013 blog post, "New Yorker Cartoonists Sell Liquor." I am working on a book related to African-American history, and am very keen on the Eldon Dedini New Yorker cartoon you included in that post. The cartoon features two African-American men and the caption, "Sure there's discrimination, but it is getting better." Do you happen to know the New Yorker issue and page number on which the 1967 cartoon appeared? I am trying to obtain the rights to use the cartoon in my book, and the company that owns the New Yorker (Conde Nast) requires this information. Many thanks, Chin Jou (

  2. Dear Mr. Chin: Thank you for being in touch. Sorry I missed your commentary earlier. Unfortunately I do not have the information you require. But your books sounds very interesting -- as was that 1967 cartoon. I will be emailing you with other suggestions for illustrations. Jack