Food Facts & Lore

A Short and Sweet History of Candy

October in the North Country. What comes to mind? Crisp autumn walks, majestically colorful trees that turn even long-time natives into photo-snapping tourists (and there is nothing wrong with that), pumpkin fields, favorite sweaters and the irresistible urge to sample Halloween candy as soon as it appears on store shelves.

Did you know that the purchase of penny candy is thought to be the very first commercial transaction children ever spent their own cash on? This may strike a chord and bring fond memories if you grew up in the cities and suburbs of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the summer, kids would go to the local penny candy counter, at a gas station or drug store, spend their entire allowance on a variety of sweets and return home to set up shop at the curb, selling the goods back to neighbors. It was great fun.

Candy was introduced to America via France and Great Britain in the early 1700’s. The first colonies were still young, and colonists did not indulge in candy making. They arrived here with the clothes on their backs and immediately necessary tools and cooking implements that did not allow for such creative freedom. Furthermore, few people could afford the luxury of sugar. This was true even in Europe.

However, the love of candy grew on us, almost overnight. More than 400 candy factories had been established in the United States by the mid-1700’s. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution (1760 to about 1830). Sugar was more affordable and widely available and technological advances inspired all manner of machines and mechanisms that transformed every industry, from clothes making, to transportation, to non-essential commodities such as sweets.

 In truth, it is not accurate to say that candy was non-essential, for sugary confections had long been considered a natural digestive aid, and rightly so. And it is at this time that candy’s status changes from being a luxury, affordable mostly to the wealthy, to a sweet pleasure enjoyed by the working class also.

1847 is a year worthy of notice as it marks the invention of the candy press. Manufacturing was greatly enhanced by the mechanization brought about by the Industrial Revolution, but it is this one invention that propelled sweets into commercial growth by providing manufacturers with the means to create innumerable shapes and sizes to promote their goods.

Our cave-dwelling ancestors could not possibly have imagined that the fruit, nut and barley they mixed with honey (evidence has been documented by archeologists) would one day inspire confections that would help shape the history of commerce and civilization.

The Egyptians continued this practice and similar confections were sold at markets, to those who could afford it, in their 1500 BC cities. Indians (India) were making sugar candy by about 250 AD. The Arabs invented caramel 700 years later. Some consider caramel to be the oldest “true” candy, as it involved a calculated and intentional transformation of ingredients for the purpose of obtaining a desired texture and taste.

The commercialization of candy names has a fascinating story of its own, beginning with newsprint advertisements of confections said to cure all manner of ailments. And we come full circle to our children consumers with the arrival of the television (1927). Newsprint appealed to adults, the television widened the audience to include children, who were not interested in digestive aids but rather in the sweets themselves.

Now, we live in a world of iconic brands. And we conclude this article with a toast to Halloween. M & M’s and Milky Ways were the most popular Halloween candy in New England in 2018, but Skittles hold first position nationwide year after year. May the best candy put a smile on the face of every child and every child at heart.