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When you go to an amusement park, you may notice that there are two types of roller coaster riders: one has hands flung in the air, faces broad with animated expressions, plenty of laughter, and plenty of screaming. Fun screaming. The other is white-knuckled, fingers so tightly wrapped around the bars, you’d think they’d make an imprint. Their eyes are closed – rigor mortis seems to have set in.
Same is true with candy. When the fun-loving visitors come into the True Treats shop, they are excited about the variety, the color and the stories. When they get to the retro-ish stuff, they practically swoon with memories of their childhoods, their grandparents, their vacations and on and on. They ferret out the most unusual candies or the ones with the highest degree of memory per bite.
As for the white-knuckled contingent – they walked hesitantly around the shop with cautious interest. If they have kids, the kids can pick one candy only. For the kids, this is not a fun decision. The parents watch with stern consternation, as if enabling them to view sexy pictures. Not quite porn but not exactly appropriate. Some kids get nothing. They insult my staff – and think nothing of it: they would never eat our candy, never have candy at home. Candy, they inform us, will kill you.
OK, so we know candy won’t kill you. And, we know people don’t eat enough to ruin their health. They just don’t. But candy is about fun and Americans have a trouble with fun. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans work 8.8 hours a day, in aggregate per week, more than any other activity, even sleep. Of that amount, only 30% are engaged or inspired at work whereas, yes, 70% dislike their jobs. On weekends they shop, mow the lawn, clean the house, not exactly work but not exactly fun. As for vacation, more than a quarter of Americans take no vacation time, and of those who do, the average is four days a year. As for those four days – 61% actually do some work. As for fun? Huh?
Now – more about candy. Poor lonely, misunderstood candy. The multi-billion dollar pleasure food accounts for roughly 5% of the sugar and roughly 3% of calories Americans consume today. We know how to eat it. A little per day. Maybe a few pieces per week. It’s a gift, a reward, a bit of fun. Which isn’t…well, us. My view: get your fingers off the bar America!! Enjoy the damn things. It won’t kill you. It might even help.
Want to try a sampling of retro candy? Might we suggest:
Penny candy has been a favorite for kids since the burgeoning industrial age of the mid-1800s. They could buy an array of sweets in general stores, tobacco stores, and apothecaries. The Ohio Journal of Education, in an 1857 publication, Lessons in Common Things, listed a few of the selections: Cream candy, popcorn, peppermint, molasses, rose, clove, butterscotch, sugar plums, lemon drops, lemon candy, peppermint drops, French kisses, cinnamon, ice-cream, wintergreen, sour drops, horehound, lavender, gum drops, vanilla, Rock, birch, cats-eyes, and kisses.
Look carefully at this list and you’ll notice a difference from lists of today which would more likely read: Dum Dums, Ring Pops, Smarties, and, on a good day, NECCO Wafers. In other words, then we had candy. Now we have brands. And speaking of brands, it’s worth asking why the NECCO wafer, originally called the Chase Lozenge, or generically a soft paste candy, didn’t make the list. Made in 1847, it was among the nation’s first, if not the first, penny candy.
Here’s why: up through the mid-1900s, candy was a blend of local, handmade treats and some sold by peddlers and salesmen. Each town had their own assortment, many ethnic, courtesy of immigration. In the 1920s, for example, up to 100,000 varieties of candy bars were on the market, compliments of small candy-making enterprises, some produced in the kitchen or basement of the business owners’ homes. Candy, like all food, told a story about places and people that were shared for a penny or less.
I know, I don’t have to tell you, candy today is all about brand, such as Ghirardelli, Lindt, Hershey and many others who, ironically, got their start in the 1800s. Today’s candy gets more and more sour and the chocolate gets darker and darker or more and more fanciful, depending on whether it’s targeting health-conscious grown-ups or kids. But it doesn’t really vary that much. Even the small family-owned candy stores are startlingly alike: chocolate covered nougats and creams of tasty but limited range.
Somewhere, buried inside the ingredients list, are stories but nothing like the all those other stories that never make the shelves. Who knows what the candies taste like and the stories reveal, but it would be amazing to find out.
The Dum Dums lollipop was first made in 1924 by the Akron Candy Company. According to manufacturer Spangler, who purchased the company in 1953, they produce12 million Dum Dums per day and about 2.4 billion Dum Dums each year.
The reason for its success goes back to the 20’s with I.C. Bahr, a company sales manager. At that time, marketing was no longer a tacky sales pitch. It was all about strategy, demographics, and imagination. Marketing had risen to a heyday which, to be frank, has yet to end. Good salesmen knew that the candy’s name could be translated into dollars, and no one knew more that Bahr. He named the lollipop “Dum Dums” knowing that kids could remember the names and ask their parents to buy some.
Today, more Dum Dums are given away than any other sweet. Not so dumb the Dum Dum.
Don’t like the Dum Dums you’re eating? Try another, any other.
Dum Dums started out with seven flavors: lemon, lime, orange, coconut-pineapple, cherry, grape, and butterscotch. Over the years, flavors came and went. Chocolate, for example, was in in 1955 and out five years later. In 2000, the company added Buttered Popcorn, but was “sent on vacation” a year later which indicates to me it might return. Today, the flavors include a caveat for creative license, aptly called the Mystery Flavor™, and these:
- Blu Raspberry
- Bubble Gum
- Cotton Candy
- Cream Soda
- Fruit Punch
- Lemon Lime
- Root Beer
- Sour Apple
Lest you think the manufacturer has slacked off in their marketing acumen, forget it. The newest invocations: Dum Dums Crafts. Yes, you can make Dum Dums topiaries, Dum Dums infused wreaths, Dum Dums Sparkling Drinks, and my favorite: the Dum Dums Candy Flower in Dirt. Oh, and more. Did I forget to say that? Here you go: http://www.dumdumpops.com/crafting.
Susan Benjamin Sweet as Sin, (Prometheus, 2016)
The Pixy Stix, beyond any other candy, is a lesson in “don’t stop ‘til” you get it right. The ubiquitous Pixy Stix sugar-esq powder started out as a drink mix in 1930, along the lines of Kool Aid, made two years earlier.
Not to digress, but the guy who made Kool-Aid, Edwin Perkins, actually experimented in his mother’s kitchen. Apparently, the drink started as a liquid. According to the Hastings Museum in Perkin’s home town of Hastings, Nebraska: “One of the products Perkins found success with was Fruit Smack. It came in came in six delicious flavors and the four-ounce bottle made enough for a family to enjoy at an affordable price.”
The drink was too cumbersome to ship, a serious problem since Perkins was selling it mail order. So, he figured out how to evaporate the liquid into a mouth smacking powder called Kool-Ade, later to be renamed “Kool-Aid.” A few decades later and it became Nebraska’s state drink.
Back to the Pixy Stix. Unlike its successful processor, the Pixy Stix started as a drink mix then called Frutola. Kids may have enjoyed a cool glass of Kool-Aid but they were happier eating the Frutola. So inventor J. Fish Smith seized the opportunity and turned the drink into a candy which he sold in little cups to be eaten with a spoon. It wasn’t exactly a success until 1950 when Sunline, Inc. purchased the powder, and combing the powers of eating and drinking, sold it in a straw. Success!
Actually, almost success. By 1963, rumor has it, the mothers of this nation had had it. The kids loved the Pixy Stix, but what a mess! They petitioned the candy maker, demanding a neater, cleaner version. The result was the SweeTart. A year later, happy customers bought $8 million dollars of the fizzy tablets.
SweeTart Scandal: The original SweeTart, a maker of glazed and candied fruit, opened in Oregon in 1927. They sued Sunline for the name years later, but lost. The previous patent, it turns out, was invalid due to lack of use.
The Author’s Illuminating (for her) Experience
I recently had an experience in my hometown of Shepherdstown, WV. It was about racism, not against African Americans but Muslims, and it did not directly involve me. Still, I felt strongly about it and got involved. The situation, which is still ongoing, gave me new insight into how Mrs. Spencer and, dare I say, the escaped slaves, felt.
Here’s how it started: I found, among other things, an anti-Muslim meme on the Facebook page of the town’s police chief, who is also a star in the hit show Ghosts of Shepherdstown which reaches tens of thousands of people. Someone had shared the meme and it stayed there for ten days until I called it out. Through Facebook I revealed the post and said the community needed to make decisions about how the town could prevent such posts in the future.
Here’s what happened: At the prompting of a town council member, the chief took the meme down. Once he did, the town council member told me the matter would not be discussed any further. The chief soon weighed in on Facebook, saying he too had rights to freedom of speech and could express what he wanted.* The town’s people rallied behind him and were among hundreds who testified on his behalf , volunteering that he was “nice guy” and a “good, honest man” although that was never the question. Some castigated me for calling him out in the first place. I did contact a number of attorneys and local political figures about the matter. The response was minimal. The chief never apologized for the meme.
Insights into Mrs. Spencer: From my experience I could imagine with greater clarity the loneliness Mrs. Spencer must have felt. She was part of a community of decent people. Still, the overwhelming population were not abolitionists. They may have addressed issues in the safety of a group, at church, for example, but were unwilling to confront them in the immediacy of their communities. To stand out from the crowd in protest is difficult –to be an activist abolitionist in the early 1800s must have been remarkably isolating.
Mrs. Spencer was also up against those with the greatest power: the police, attorneys, political figures. Even more to the point, she was standing up to an unjust law which, if broken, would have profound consequences on her and her son’s lives, including fines, imprisonment, and physical punishment. Whatever supports that were available, were few and too hard-pressed to devote time to any one person.
As for the slaves – it’s hard to grasp their perspectives in this regard, many existential in nature. How could they fathom why a mass of people could subject them to such inhumane treatment? And how could they make sense of a universe where their very children were stolen from them? We can only focus on their actions, their songs and words, and their many modes of resistance.
And in Conclusion…
The issues regarding the meme were existentially jolting. I wake up in the morning asking how my neighbors could fail to confront that sinister form of racism. These are people who vote, join marches, comment on the news. What does this say about their ability to act on their convictions? To take a stand outside of the group? Work against their best interests for something of consequence? I wake up in the morning and confront the community that I love. The meme is somewhere in cyberspace. But Mrs. Spencer, and other abolitionists of the early 19th century, and above all, those who were enslaved, did not have that escape.
*The reality behind the chief’s claim to freedom of speech was untrue: the courts make provisions for law enforcement officers. Punishments range from fines to firings.
Resisters Under the Seat
It’s hard to know where the enslaved people in Mrs. Spencer’s buggy started. Slaves labored at the ports of Salem and many other nearby places in the 18th and 19th centuries. Likely, they didn’t come from the South, as freedom was too far for escape. Regardless, they traveled on inconspicuous roads and paths, with little food, drink, or chance to rest.
The escaped slaves fled for many reasons, among them the harsh reprisals of slaveholders; starvation and brutality where they worked; and the need to seek out family members who were sold away from them. How they found Mrs. Spencer is also unknown: possibly through a formal network of abolitionists or through informal contacts. They waited out the hours as the buggy rocked on gutted roads, moving slowly forward then stopping when Mrs. Spencer sold her candy, keeping up the guise of normality.
Within the buggy, they were certainly cramped and hungry, whiffs of sea air filtering through the wooden buggy skin, penetrating the suffocating air. There they encountered icy loneliness: outside was a world of strangers where even the sympathetic ones could turn them in or silently let them be caught. Should the worst happen, they could be flogged, branded, imprisoned, returned to slavery, or killed.
Mrs. Spencer resisted enslavement by transporting slaves toward their freedom. The enslaved people resisted, too, by escaping. Some succeeded.
…Stay tuned for the Final Chapter