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The First Penny Candies: What’s Missing and Why?

Necco Wafers

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 Secret Life of the Pixy Stix (Plus Kool-Aid)

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.

 

Norbert Rillieux: All the Sugar that You Eat and a Bizarre Twist

norbert-rillieux

Norbert Rillieux (undated)
Fun (and Informational) Candy Facts

  • Americans get a small amount (about 5%) of their sugar from candy! Most sugar comes from hidden places, from frozen pizza to granola bars.
  • Through most of history, food had a purpose – it was healthy, a medicine, or used in ceremonies. No junk food!
  • Early sugar in North America came from roots, barks, fruits, and grains, including corn!
  • Most Americans eat sugar from a beet – 55%! – and not the sugar cane. What’s the difference? It’s hard to tell!
  • The abolitionists thought they could get rid of slavery by “boycotting” the cane sugar, which was important to the economy of slavery. They used other sugars instead – the beet was one of them.
  • In the 1800s, most of the candies were made in pharmacies.

If you like sweets, eat sweets, or give gifts of made sugar, you have Norbert Rillieux to thank. His story is remarkable and his legacy regarding cane sugar in specific and sugar in general is profound.  He was born in 1806; his mother was a free woman of color, and his father, Vincent Rillieux, a European American plantation owner and inventor. At that time, 25 percent of African Americans in New Orleans were free and mixed couples often raised families together.

Rillieux was a precocious student – so precocious his father sent him to the famous l’École Centrale in Paris where he studied engineering. At twenty-four, he became the youngest instructor of applied mechanics and later, back home, developing a multiple effect steam-operated evaporator that turned raw sugar into sugar crystals.

evaporator

Rillieux’s Evaporator System

At the time, sugarcane production relied on something called the “Jamaica Train”: a process where slaves ladled scorching sugarcane juice from one boiling container to another. Frequently, these workers were scalded to death or endured debilitating burns. Then came Rillieux’s system, where the evaporator did the work, saving lives, enhancing the quality of sugar and expediting the timing of the sugar evaporating process.

In short, it was of the same magnitude as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. And here is the bazaar twist: Rillieux became the most sought-after engineer in Louisiana: evaporator was embraced by widely by such persons as the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin. Yet, as a “person of color,” he couldn’t sleep at the plantation as a guest or, in some cases, even dine there. As the Civil War drew near, Rillieux faced an increasing number of restrictions, such as the loss of his right to walk along the street. So, Rillieux moved back to France where he died in 1894 and was buried in the famed Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise.

degas

Degas, Suffering City of New Orleans

Eligh Whitney has made his way into the annals of history. Norbert Rillieux is forgotten.  But, an interesting footnote is this: In 1872, French impressionist painter, Edgar Degas was suffering from a bout of artist’s block. So, he decided to visit the home of American relatives in New Orleans. Louisiana, still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War, somehow inspired Degas and fueled some of his finest paintings. The home had belonged to Vincent Rillieux, Senior.  His son, Vincent, Jr, was Norbert’s father. Degas and Norbert Rillieux were cousins.

Source:

Author’s Book “Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure.” (Prometheus, 2016)

“I have always held that Rillieux’s invention is the greatest in the history of American chemical engineering and I know of no other invention that has brought so great a saving to all branches of chemical engineering.”

— Charles A. Browne (1870-1947), Sugar Chemist, U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Charleston Chew

james-johnson

James P. Johnson

The Charleston Chew, that dense chocolate covered marshmallow-taffy-toffee substance may be nostalgic, but beneath the chocolate exterior, is an edgy, activist DNA embedded in the candy which, as it happened, was named for the song and the dance known as the “Charleston” in 1925.

Let’s start with the dance. No one knows where it originated exactly, but it likely was in the domain of enslaved African-Americans living on a small island near Charleston, South Carolina. Their dance likely had Ash-Ante African roots, modified to deceive the slaveholders and their rules prohibiting it. You have to remember that both song and dance were a powerful means to resist the slaveholders’ grip on those who were enslaved. They could communicate information about food resources, escape plans, and other matters central to their existence as well as maintain a spiritual and generational connection to their pasts.

Snap forward 1894 and the great African American musician and composer James P. Johnson was born. Classically trained, he went on to bridge the gap between ragtime and jazz, as back-up player for such greats as Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith, mentor to Duke Ellington and  Fats Waller, among many others, and an accompanist on over 400 recordings, and colleague of George Gershwin. As ground-breaking as he was, Johnson’s role as resistor also played out in the classical music landscape, where he was intent on breaking barriers with compositions that reflected African beats.  He succeeded.

One of his most enduring compositions, was the song, the Charleston, likely written in 1913. The popularity snowballed a 1920s hit. The flappers adopted the song and the dance, where it was featured in images of speakeasies with overflowing and deliciously illegal cocktails. The Charleston came to represent female liberation, irrant behavior and flight from the Victorian-esq norms.

It was during the wild times that Donley Cross, an actor in San Francisco, ended his career by falling from stage and injuring his back. With no back-up profession and for unknown reasons, he went into candy-making, instead.  In 1925, his most famous hit the market and the name tapped into the spirit of defiance and resistance, both crazed and serious.  And that was, of course, the Charleston Chew.

Sources:

http://redhotjazz.com/jpjohnson.html

http://blackhistorynow.com/james-p-johnson/

Black History Museum Talk & Tasting

black-history-museumLast Saturday, I had the pleasure, and I do mean pleasure, of speaking at the Black History Museum in Alexandria. The museum was formally a one-room library for African Americans during segregation. Since then, the site has expanded and now features a presentation and exhibition area.

I don’t know what I liked best. The museum itself is beautiful, clean, bright and airy. And while African American history is too large to fit into the New York City library, the small museum presents just the right information to make the trip warm and informative.

before-the-spiritsThe exhibition on the day I gave my talk was called “Before the Spirits are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings” by Sherry Z. Sanabria . I’ve seen Sanabria’s work else –portraits of captivity expressed though abandoned slave quarters, mental hospitals, concentration camps and prisons. The images are disturbing, revealing and beautiful at the same time.

audrey-davisThe best part for me as a speaker, though, was undoubtedly the people: Audrey Davis, the curator, the staff, and the guests. All of them were friendly, smart and quick to engage in interesting conversations.  The talk lasted longer than scheduled but no one, especially me, seemed to mind.

In Virginia? Skip Trip Advisor and Head Here

Ready to sell tickets at the Rising Sun Tavern

Ready to sell tickets at the Rising Sun Tavern

I’ve been traveling around the country quite a bit these days and am always delighted to be hitting the road in Virginia. Last weekend, I found myself speaking in two beautifully historic places: Charlottesville and Fredericksburg. My recommendation: visit both (they’re only 90 minutes apart), spend time walking around the historic area, enjoy the wonderful stores, then head over to the Rising Sun Tavern and the Albemarle County Historical Society.

The Ultimate Deck at Rising Sun Tavern

The Ultimate Deck at Rising Sun Tavern

Rising Sun Tavern: Fredericksburg, VA

This former tavern was originally built in 1760 as a home for Charles Washington, George’s younger brother. About 30 years later, it became a tavern and popular gathering place for travelers. The interior has a cool, 18th century feel, with warm woodwork and well-preserved artifacts that express the time-period beautifully. Happy as I was to give the talk, I wanted to spend time just looking at the furniture, glassware and much more. Of course, from my perspective, there’s nothing like telling visitors about 18th century chocolate, sugar and other “sweets” in a space where it was likely eaten. As for the deck: so vast and comfortable you might want to relax for a few hours…too bad they don’t carry the original liquid refreshment! Before you head out, check the hours as the Tavern offers tours, staff dressed in period garb.

Albemarle County Historical Society

Albemarle County Historical Society

Albemarle County Historical Society: Charlottesville

So, here’s what you do: go for a stroll in the area around the Historical Society building, go out for lunch, and do a little shopping. But…before you do, find out what events are on tap that day. The Historical Society has walking tours and exhibits, all tastefully and professionally done and hosted by a welcoming staff.  At my talk, the audience felt welcome by their hosts, as did I – we had lots of laughs and great discussions.They even tried some of the really early candies I gave them without hesitation. In case you’re worried about parking, no problem. There’s a reasonably charged parking lot right down the street.