A Cultural History of Candy

“The Candy Professor” talks about America’s historic relationship with sweets

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Samira Kawash writes the blog “Candy Professor” and is working on a book about the cultural and social history of candy in twentieth-century America. She spoke to Smithsonian’s Amanda Bensen about Americans’ tricky relationship with treats.

Amanda: At this time of year, even people who don’t eat a lot of sweets are stocking up. When did our obsession with Halloween candy start?

Samira: It surprised me to discover that Halloween was not a candy holiday until well into the 1950s. If you go back to the ‘teens and ‘twenties, and look at what the candy companies were making in terms of holidays, Christmas was a big one, Easter was a big one, but Halloween wasn’t even on their radar. There’s no sign of trick-or-treating at all until the 1930s and it really wasn’t until the late 1940s that it became widespread. Even then, kids might have gotten a homemade cookie, a piece of cake, money, or a toy. There really wasn’t a sense that it was all about candy.

So what was Halloween about, if not candy?

Up until before World War II, Americans had Halloween parties that might have involved some of what we do today, like costumes and games, but it was more of a harvest festival than a spooky thing. Candy that was made and sold especially for Halloween appeared in the 1930s, but it was something you’d have in a bowl at your party, not the main focus.

The trick-or-treat giveaway was pretty flexible in the 1950s and 1960s. Candy was becoming more important. At the same time, the door was open to other kinds of treats. No one objected to unwrapped or homemade things like cookies and nuts. Kool Aid’s Halloween ads suggested that kids would come in for a refreshing glass of soft drink. And Kellogg’s advertised cereal Snack-Packs for trick-or-treating.

Cereal, huh? Not sure that would pass muster with trick-or-treaters anymore.

I know—here’s a box of corn flakes, kids, happy Halloween! (Laughs.) But you know, when they did get candy, it was often a full-sized portion, not the mini ones we have today. For example, Brach’s was packaging candy corn for trick or treat in the 1960s, and the 5-cent package was the typical size. This was a pouch with 40 or 50 pieces of candy corn. Today you get just 6 or 8 little pieces in a tiny “treat” size pouch.

Did kids back then get the kinds of massive hauls of candy many now get at Halloween?

It's hard to say, but my sense is that trick-or-treaters in the 1950s, especially younger kids, were more likely to go into someone’s house and have some punch and visit for a while. The newspaper women’s pages had a lot of ideas for entertaining trick-or-treaters with party refreshments and games, and it is clear that these were frequently strangers' kids. Some of the social interaction of trick-or-treating has since disappeared; I hear a lot of adults complain that kids now don’t even bother to say thank you. Kids going door-to-door today are just a lot more efficient at covering ground, so it’s easier to fill up the treat bags much faster.

So what happened to make candy so central to the holiday?

Definitely marketing. Starting in the 1950s, big candy manufacturers started putting out a lot more Halloween promotions. But candy also was viewed in the 1950s and 1960s as a more acceptable treat. Kids, of course, really like it. And convenience was probably a big factor for the women who were handing out the treats. Candy was pre-packaged and portioned—if you bake cookies or make popcorn balls you have to wrap them, you know.

Also, in the 1970s, there was the emergence of the myth of the Halloween sadist; the idea that there are people out there who are going to poison the popcorn balls, put razors in the apples, etc. Anything that wasn’t factory-sealed wasn’t considered safe. We didn’t trust the handmade, the unmarked or unbranded. Which is hugely ironic, because in the early 20th century it was the factory-made candy that was viewed as suspicious when it was first introduced!

Even though it’s since been established that the Halloween sadist was an urban legend, there was a sense of loss of small-townness in that era of suburbanization. The neighbors were strangers for the first time. Fear of the neighbors’ candy sort of captured that sense of loss of community.

Tell me about yourself. How did you become the so-called Candy Professor? Is this a lifelong interest?

I have a Ph.D. in cultural studies and literary criticism, so I’ve always been interested in interpreting culture and everyday life. I was a professor at Rutgers University for many years, first in the English department, and later in Women’s Studies. After I decided to leave the university, I was looking for a new research project that would connect with my interests and also be fun and engaging for a broader non-academic audience.

At the time, I was a new mother with a little girl. One day she wanted a lollipop. Should I give it to her? That turned out to be a very difficult question. Should a kid have candy? How much? How often? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that candy was pretty complicated. It has such powerful emotional associations, especially with childhood. Even the words we use to talk about eating candy, like “temptation” and “guilty pleasure.” I got interested in trying to understand the meanings of candy and the uses of candy, and what that tells us about ourselves.

I have been researching the history of candy in American culture, and it turns out that ideas we have about candy today are deeply connected to the past.  I’m also discovering that what candy means in different contexts has to do with many different ideas in our culture about food, health and medicine—ideas about what’s good for you, what’s harmful, and what’s pleasurable.

Hmm, I don’t think most of us associate candy with medicine these days.

Right, but the first candies were medicinal! An apothecary in the 18th century would prescribe you sugar candy for things like chest ailments or digestion problems. Back then, the “spoonful of sugar” idea was literal—if you had some sort of unpleasant medicine to take, usually a concoction of herbs that might not taste very good, the apothecary would suspend it in sugar.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the apothecary and confectionery started becoming separate professions. Candy of the sort that you might recognize today really took off emerged after the Civil War, after the price of sugar has fallen. And then the new industrial machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made it possible to produce candy in a whole new way.

Actually, the first candy-making machine was invented by a pharmacist, Oliver Chase, in 1947, to crank out medicated candy lozenges. I think that the idea of candy as medicine still lingers in the way we’re aware of its effect on our bodies. We think it must cause your blood sugar to rise, cause cavities, or make you hyperactive…and it’s true that candy can do all of those things, but so can other things you eat, like a big bowl of noodles!

Medicine and poison are always very close together: The thing that heals you, if you have too much of it, can harm you. So there’s a sort of subconscious anxiety about candy. There’s still this notion that candy somehow soothes, ameliorates pain—you get a lollipop at the doctor’s office, although it’s probably sugar-free these days. And just go to the drugstore and look at the gummy vitamins, sugary cough remedies, chocolate laxatives, etc. Candy looks like the opposite of medicine, but it turns out that a lot of the ways we think about candy’s dangers are closely related to the idea of candy as a kind of drug.

Have the types of candy we like changed over the years?

Chocolate has become more central, and I think that has to do with the idea we have that it is the most luxurious, decadent flavor ever. If you go back to the early 1900s, chocolate was not as ubiquitous, but now there’s a sense that somehow chocolate is better, more adult, than sugar candy. And now the National Confectioners Association survey of kid’s preferences finds the most favored trick-or-treating candy is chocolate.

What strikes you as interesting about our current attitudes toward Halloween candy?

There’s this weird ballet of Halloween now, where families buy a bunch of candy to give away to other kids, but then they take the candy their own kids are given and either throw it away or give it to someone else. So there’s all this candy circulating, but it’s not clear that anyone’s eating it!

From what I’ve seen, trick-or-treating is sort of hyper-controlled by parents. I saw some bit of advice on TV that parents should put candy in their children’s pockets before going out, so they won’t be tempted to eat the candy they get from others—such a strange idea, that you can eat candy, but only the “safe” candy from home.

Do you think we’ve villainized candy too much?

Yes. We treat candy as being so powerful that we try to protect ourselves in it in these almost magical ways. Let’s go back to the lollipop I was debating offering my daughter: it has less sugar in it than a juice box. So it surprised me a little that a lot of moms that I knew seemed happy if their kids drank apple juice, but worried if they wanted candy There was something about not just the sugar, but the form of sugar as candy, that seems to make it especially troubling.

I think that candy becomes a place to put a lot of our anxieties and worries about food, because candy’s at the very edge of food. When you go to the supermarket and you’re surrounded by these things in boxes that have 20 ingredients, it gets confusing. It’s handy to say: That’s NOT food, that’s candy. This breakfast bar, on the other hand, that IS food.

There are so many of these processed, food-like substances, and we want to know where to draw the bright line at what’s wholesome and nutritious, so we use candy that way—even though when you look closely, there is no bright line.

So, back to the lollipop. Do you let your daughter go trick-or-treating, and eat candy?

My daughter is 7 now, and Halloween is her favorite holiday. We live in Brooklyn so it’s a little different, but we go out and take candy, and we give it out. She loves it. One of the things I struggle with as a parent is, how can we have a healthy relationship with candy? I think saying, "it’s a bad thing, you can never have it" is a sure way to create an unhealthy obsession. So I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach that candy is something nice, something I like, but I don’t have to eat it all at once. I think that’s a nice way to experience Halloween.

Do you have a favorite candy yourself?

This time of year, I cannot resist candy corn. I have the biggest candy corn problem. I eat one, pretty soon the bag is gone, and I’m like…what have I done?

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