Where Our Love/Hate Relationship With Candy Corn Comes From

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Editor's note: This is the fourth piece in a pre-Halloween series about candy. Click here to read about the origins of trick-or-treating, here for the story of October's original candy holiday (it wasn't Halloween), and here to learn about candy psychopath stories.

This is the time of year we come face to face with our candy demons. For me, October's candy gauntlet arrives in the form of a little tri-colored mellocreme known as candy corn. I can pass by the Hershey's Kisses and the mini-Snickers. But when I get to the bowl of candy corn, all bets are off.

Evidently not everyone feels the same way. In fact, according to a just-released survey of consumer emotions associated with popular Halloween candies, candy corn turns out to be the dud of the party. The headline on NetBase's Brand Passion Index report sums up the findings: "Most Traditional Candy of Halloween Least Loved by Consumers." In a survey of thousands of conversations in various social media, NetBase found the sentiments about candy corn were "the most polarized" and candy corn generated "the most negative feelings."

Here's the irony of candy corn: lots of people don't even like it, but we wouldn't have Halloween without it. The National Confectioners Association reports that 35 million pounds are produced annually. That's 9 billion pieces.

Candy-making oral tradition credits the invention of candy corn to George Renninger, a candy maker at the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia, who is said to have invented it sometime during the 1880s. At that time, many candy makers were producing "butter cream" candies molded into all kinds of natural or plant-inspired shapes, including chestnuts, turnips, and clover leaves. The real innovation in candy corn was the layering of three colors. This made it taxing to produce (all those colors had to be layered by hand in those days). But the bright, layered colors also made the candy novel and visually exciting.

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Jelly Belly Candy Company

In the early days, not everybody called it "candy corn." Some people called it chicken feed. Goelitz's packaging from the 1920s features a proud rooster scratching around in the candy bits and the motto "King of the Candy Corn Fields." (image) The thing is, corn wasn't something Americans ate much of before World War I. There were no sweet hybrids in those days. Corn was coarse and cheap and not very tasty: good food for pigs and chickens. It wasn't until war-time wheat shortages in 1917 that any but the poorest Americans would have considered corn flour, corn meal, or corn bread acceptable foodstuffs. Candy corn, on the other hand, quickly became one of America's favorite treats.

National Candy Corn Day, an unofficial observance with murky origins in the early 2000s, comes around on October 30, the day before Halloween. But the association between candy corn and Halloween has not always been so intimate. This Brach's ad from 1957, for example, features candy corn as one of "Brach's Summertime Candies," alongside circus peanuts, orange slices, and jelly beans. A 1951 grocery store ad celebrates candy corn as "The candy all children love to nibble on all year long." Through the first half of the 20th century, candy corn was first and foremost a variety of "penny candy," those inexpensive candies sold in bulk, primarily for children. A penny or a nickel would buy you a nice little sack in virtually any candy shop or drugstore. Today Brach's and Jelly Belly (formerly Goelitz) are the only national brands of candy corn, but throughout the 20th century many major candy companies included candy corn in their offerings.

Although the eating of candy corn was not exclusive to Halloween in the early 20th century, candy corn did have important festive associations. In addition to the corn shape, which evoked the fall harvest, the orange and yellow candy was a near-perfect match for the traditional colors of Halloween. In the early 1900s, candy corn was likely to make an appearance at Halloween parties, Thanksgiving parties, and all manner of festive autumnal occasions. Candy corn was also a popular addition to Easter baskets, which were traditionally populated with edible farm animals, and it showed up as a part of everyday life, both for eating and for playing or working. I've found references to candy corn in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in such diverse sources as children's stories, math textbooks, psychology experiments, party-planning handbooks, and baking and decorating books.

In the early 1900s, candy corn was likely to make an appearance at Halloween parties, Thanksgiving parties, and all manner of festive autumnal occasions.

As Halloween became more and more dominated by candy beginning in the 1950s, candy corn increasingly became the candy for Halloween. There was a dramatic spike in October advertising of candy corn beginning in the 1950s. Other kinds of candy were advertised for Halloween too, but they were advertised just as heavily during the rest of the year, and the more people thought of candy corn as a special Halloween treat, the less likely they were to consider it for ordinary eating at other times.

Candy corn makers today face a dilemma unknown to their predecessors a century ago: how to prop up candy corn sales the rest of the year? Enter the holiday-themed candy corn colors that have appeared in recent years: the pastel green and lavender "bunny corn" at Easter, the pink and red "cupid corn" for Valentine's Day, the red and green "reindeer corn" at Christmas. And more candy corn variations: flavors like S'mores, green apple, and strawberry cotton candy rendered in eye-catching colors.

I have mixed feelings about these hybrid offspring of the original purebred candy corn. On one hand, creative revision of classic colors and traditional flavors is a shining example of American ingenuity, the spirit of candy adventure that made America's candy industry the masters of the confectionery universe for most of the twentieth century. On the other hand, I like my old-fashioned candy corn just the way it is. Why tamper with perfection? In any case, it's clear that whether you love candy corn or loathe it, candy corn isn't just for Halloween any more. Just like it used to be.

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Samira Kawash researches and writes on the cultural and social history of candy in 20th-century America. She is professor emerita, Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). She blogs on candy history and opinion at CandyProfessor.com.

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