When someone transcends motherhood, blooming into a proper grandma, the universe appears to bestow upon them a batch of enchanted tools. Among these tools is a sizable, but deeply disordered purse and an imposing, tacky glass bowl, both of which inexplicably act as otherworldly portals to some faraway, inexhaustible supply of otherwise unfathomable hard candies. At times, this really does seem like the only explanation for our beloved granny candies.
When I myself was a young lad, my grandma would constantly hand me those strawberry hard candies with the goo in the middle — you know the ones. And to this day, these candies live on in my consciousness as something that only grandmothers have access to. I certainly never bought them, nor have I ever seen them available in grocery stores or drugstores.
So, in an attempt to better understand our grandmas, their unquenchable hankering for hard candies — magical or otherwise — and most importantly, where the hell these curious strawberry sweets (also known as Strawberry Bon Bons) came from, I asked a couple candy historians for the full story.
Come along as we finally uncover the secrets behind granny candies.
A Spoonful of Sugar
In its earliest form, candy was almost entirely medicinal. In the 18th century, apothecaries would suspend at least some of their medicines — usually a strange, disagreeable combination of herbs — in sugar to, as Mary Poppins once sung, “help the medicine go down.”
As Susan Benjamin, founder of True Treats Historic Candy and author of Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure, explains, “You have to remember that sugar, which is now kind of like the demonic food source for people, wasn’t that way all the way through history. The hard candies originated as medicines. You’d boil the sugar, and you’d add the ingredients, some of which are the flavors of today, but plus other things.”
Shortly after the Civil War, once the price of sugar had fallen, we really started to see candies become distinct confectioneries, rather than just medicines, and they represented a literally sweet piece of life that almost everyone could enjoy. “When they started morphing into candy in the mid-1800s, they were delightful, because it was the first time working-class kids had access to the middle class,” Benjamin explains. “It was the first time they felt empowered and like they belonged, because these candies were made for them, and they could afford it.”
A Not-So-Sweet Period of Uncertainty
Fast forward a few decades, and several large events sent candy on a wild ride. First, during World War I, the government urged Americans to reduce their consumption of sugar, among other things, and that included candy, which was a serious blow for a lot of people. “When you were taking away candy from people at that time, you were taking away happiness — you were taking away something that was good and good for you, something that made ritual happen,” Benjamin says.
Shortly after World War I came the Great Depression, and the government once again limited the purchase of sugar and candy. Once the Depression ended, however, candy exploded in popularity, and while my sources and research were unable to nail down the sole inventor of the mysterious strawberry candies that inspired this whole venture, Benjamin guesses that they came about during the candy boom of the late 1930s — which is also right around when trick-or-treating began.
Many companies created many hard candies around this time period, so it really was kind of the Wild West of candy creation. As Beth Kimmerle, author of Candy: The Sweet History and general food expert, explains, “Back in the day, many American candy companies made fruit-filled hard candies. Our grandparents would have found them in apothecary jars or bulk bins at drugstores or confectionery shops, like See’s Candies, alongside butterscotch and starlight mints.”
But after World War I and the Depression, when candy was finally having its moment, America jumped into yet another world war, which again motivated the government to limit the purchase of sugar — and again, candy. And each time candy was taken away, it developed even more of a reputation for being a treat of peace and prosperity. “When candy came back at each one of these intersections of tragedy and calamity — the Depression and the wars — it represented that everything was okay, and it represented affluence,” Benjamin explains. “But understand by affluence, I mean really fundamental affluence: We have enough to eat out, we can work now and our children are home from the war. From that came our grandmothers.”
Out Came the Candy Bowls
As an accessible symbol of comfort in between the Depression and the wars, candy becomes a gift, something you share with loved ones whenever you have the chance. As a result, Benjamin explains that having a bowl of candy in your home became a sort of status symbol, similar to the sugar bowls people had in the 1800s (sugar was in high demand in the 1800s, thanks in part to an increase in canning and ice cream consumption, and many kitchen counters at the time were home to a covered bowl of sugar for easy access). Many of our grandmas happened to have what are known as carnival glass bowls, which were won as prizes or given out at fairgrounds during the carnival era of the 1920s and eventually became the de facto candy bowls.
“If you remember the Depression, if you remember the shortages, you had bowls out, and they were there for anybody to take all they wanted,” Benjamin says. “Grandmothers carried candies in their purses, and if you had a sore throat, a bad taste in your mouth or an upset stomach, out came the candy.”
Kimmerle adds, “They were appealing because they could throw them in a dish, and they practically never expired. The house visit was also common, and any good hostess had empty ashtrays and filled candy bowls. Besides the perceived medicinal boost, candy was a great post-smoking/drinking breath freshener.”
The Magic Behind the Strawberry Candies
Both Benjamin and Kimmerle are privy to a wide assortment of immensely popular hard candies, but they concede that the strawberry ones were certainly among the more famous. One reason for that could be because seasonal fruit was once, well, a lot more seasonal than it is today. “If you can imagine, there wasn’t the array of ‘seasonal’ fresh fruit that we have today,” Kimmerle reiterates. “Fruit-filled hard candy allowed the fruit to be preserved and enjoyed whenever someone wanted it. There was also a ‘medicinal’ aspect to certain fruit-filled hard candies, and they were seen as a delivery system for vitamins that fruits contain naturally. They were the OG vitamin/cough drop mashup.”
Both Benjamin and Kimmerle say the sheer look of the strawberry hard candies played a part in their popularity, too. “Of all the twist-wrapped hard candy, the strawberry is the most hopeful and cheerful looking,” Kimmerle explains. “The strawberry design on the wrapper leaves any guesses about the flavor behind, and it’s a crowd pleaser, sure to be liked by children and adults alike. Strawberry Bon Bons had a starring role in the dish. A mint was for breath, and butterscotch was just sweet, but the strawberry has actual fruit filling, and therefore, it also has a different texture: There’s a surprise inside, plus maybe even a seed.”
Back to the Bottom of the Purse
You can see now how hard candies came to live in the hearts and souls of our beloved grandmas — as a treat that soothes and ameliorates pain; even mental anguish. And while some of us might feel nostalgia when we see these candies, as a whole, hard candies have largely been thrown to the bottom of the purse, so to speak, pushed aside primarily by luxurious chocolates. “Fifty years ago, many companies made their own hard candy: Brach’s, Spangler, See’s, Fannie May,” Kimmerle explains. “But today, a lot of hard candy — think candy canes and lollipops — is made in Mexico for lower labor and sugar pricing. That’s why its status is lowered. Now, it’s often unbranded and sold in pegged bags at dollar stores.”
Nonetheless, uh, who has the plug for those strawberry ones?
Besides my grandma, obviously.