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Some even played a role in U.S. history.
If there’s one thing America loves, it’s candy.
The U.S. confection industry—chocolates, caramels, gummies, hard candies and more—stands as a $13 billion annual behemoth. On Halloween alone, according to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent some $3 billion on sweets.
Candies have even occasionally played a role in U.S. history. They’ve bolstered our economy at home and fueled our soldiers at war. Sweets have inspired and defined American popular culture, set legal precedent and even helped ease tensions during diplomatic standoffs.
Here are seven iconic American candies and their fascinating stories:
In the 1880s, when farmers comprised about half the U.S. labor force, many confectioners tried to market sweets by molding mellowcreme—usually a mix of corn syrup, sugar, gelatin, fondant and coloring—into the shapes of pumpkins, turnips and other agricultural products. Candy corn, reportedly invented by George Renninger of the Wunderle Candy company, followed suit. But before World War I, corn was seen as a cheap, coarse foodstuff meant more for pigs and chickens than for humans. So the Goelitz Candy Company cribbed the recipe from Wunderle and began playfully marketing the sweet as “chicken feed.” A common penny candy of the early 20th century, candy corn became by the 1950s America’s most highly advertised Halloween treat. Today, despite its famous divisiveness, the tricolor candy sells more than 35 million pounds in America annually.
Though not the Hershey brand’s most popular candy (that honor goes to Reese’s Pieces), Hershey’s milk chocolate bar is often recognized as America’s first iconic candy bar. After being inspired by the German chocolate-making machinery exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, American businessman Milton Hershey decided to enter the chocolate business himself. By 1899, his company had developed the first process for mass-producing chocolate in the U.S. The following year, he debuted the milk chocolate candy bar, tailored specifically to the American palate, which didn’t favor darker European chocolate flavors. At a time when consumer markets were beginning to expand from regional to national, Hershey savvily branded the confection as the “Great American Chocolate Bar.” Building on that national identity, the company formed a partnership with the U.S. military during World War II, mass-producing millions of chocolate bars meant to fuel American troops to victory.
What do you get when you mix America’s favorite pastime, a superstar athlete, a U.S. President’s daughter and a federal patent lawsuit? The wonky history of the Baby Ruth candy bar.
In 1921, Otto Schnering sought to revive his struggling Curtiss Candy Company in Chicago. So he reformulated and rebranded its flagship “Kandy Kake” confection into a peanut, caramel and nougat-filled candy bar. With its new name, Baby Ruth (conspicuously close to that of Babe Ruth, the era’s top sports superstar), and some savvy marketing, the bar took off. By 1926, sales totaled $1 million a month, and the company’s candy-making facilities became the largest in the world.
That same year, Ruth decided to create his own branded candy bar. But when the beloved slugger tried to register “Ruth’s Home Run Candy” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, Curtiss sued him for copyright infringement. The company further claimed it had named the candy bar not after the baseball great, but after Ruth Cleveland, daughter of former U.S. President Grover Cleveland. It was an odd explanation, since “Baby Ruth,” as she had been nicknamed, was hardly a pop culture fixture and had died 17 years before the candy bar was created. Still, the court bought the argument and ruled against Ruth.
Watch ‘Food That Built America‘ on HISTORY Vault.
Created by one of America’s oldest candy producers—Young & Smylie Confectionary Company, known for licorice treats since 1845—spiraled licorice whips debuted under the “Twizzlers” trademark in 1929. After the candy really took off in the 1960s, the Hershey Company acquired its maker, then called Y&S Candies, in 1977. Not only have Twizzlers become a beloved American movie snack. They’re likely one of the only candies in history credited with helping facilitate a complicated nuclear agreement. In 2015, negotiators from Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers reportedly consumed some 10 pounds of strawberry Twizzlers during their tense, 19-day nuclear reduction talks—part of a comfort food diet that also included string cheese, Rice Krispie treats and more.
After observing soldiers in the Spanish Civil War eating chocolate pellets covered in a candy shell (which prevented melting), chocolatier Forrest Mars came up with the idea to create and sell a similar confection. He patented his manufacturing process and the protective coating and debuted M&M’s in 1941. Soon after, Mars entered into an exclusive partnership with the U.S. military during World War II to supply M&Ms to American G.I.s as part of their ration packages. But M&Ms’ durability made them a boon beyond the battlefield. In 1981, they became the first candy to launch into space after being requested by the crew of Columbia, NASA’s first space shuttle.
The Everlasting Gobstopper may have originated as a fictional sweet treat in Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But the colorful jawbreakers became a reality after breakfast cereal manufacturer Quaker Oats decided to expand into the confection business—with a few hiccups. Their initial plan? Back a movie version of the book and sell Wonka-themed candy tie-ins like Peanut Butter Oompas and Super Skrunch chocolate bars, produced by affiliate company Breaker Confections. Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971), the first film financed by a food company, splashed Dahl’s candy fantasia onscreen, complete with a chocolate river, giant gummy bear trees, cream-filled toadstools and more. But Wonka bombed colossally at the box office, the Wonka candies flopped and Gobstoppers didn’t hit the market for another five years. Over time, as the film achieved cult-classic status, the colorful, multi-layered and multi-flavored Gobstoppers grew in popularity, helping move the candy market away from plain Jane chocolate bars and etching their own spot in American candy lore.
When Canadian marketer Frank Galatolie first invented this mouth-puckering, sweet-and-sour candy for the import company Jaret International, the treats were a branding play meant to capitalize on America’s obsession with all things outer space. Back then, the treats were called Mars Men. But in 1985, when they were bought over the border to be sold in the U.S., another craze—Cabbage Patch Kids dolls—inspired an iconic rebrand. Ditching the martian-shaped jellies, the company rebranded the candy into a more friendly human shape and changed its name to Sour Patch Kids. The rebrand worked, and Sour Patch Kids became the top-selling jelly candy in America.