The History of Some Classic Easter Treats

Apr 14, 2017

Credit Pete Luckhurst / Flickr

Easter is, of course, a major religious holiday for Christians, but for the secular world it’s all about candy.  As it turns out, this country played a key role in the evolution of what fills today’s Easter baskets as Sandy Hausman reports.

Many of the candies we like today came from Europe.  Among the oldest, says author Susan Benjamin, is the so-called sugar plum.

“Sugar plums actually originated in 1591 or so.  They were tiny little seeds or nuts, and they would star it in sugar water.  They would put it aside, let it sit. This would go on for a couple of weeks. The descendent is the jaw breaker made here in 1901 with a sugar crystal at the beginning.  They take maybe two weeks to make, and they have roughly a hundred layers.”

But other sweet favorites have roots in the Americas – like chocolate, first consumed as an unsweetened drink by the Aztecs.  It came to Europe through Spain but would remain a treat for elites.  In the colonies, however, cocoa was big business – manufactured and exported in large quantities and served to people of all income levels here.  It didn’t actually become a candy until just before the Civil War, when the industrial revolution made mass production possible.  In fact, Susan Benjamin says this country pioneered many sweets thanks to mechanization.

“It was in 1847 that a pharmacist by the name of Oliver Chase had this idea that instead of cutting the candies by hand he would make a machine that would produce them. That became the Necco wafer.”

And who can forget the technological miracle that is the Tootsie Roll Pop.

“How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?  The world may never know.”

We turned Turkish delight – an old world candy – into the Easter favorite – Jelly beans. Also a product of Easter – cotton candy.  Some histories trace it to the world’s fair in 1904 St. Louis, but in the mid 1700’s Americans were hand crafting spun sugar into holiday nests.  The growing availability of cane sugar in the new world made this country a logical place to make candies of all kinds, but during the Second World War sugar was rationed.  When the fighting ended, young men came home with a taste for candy bars that were part of their rations, and women celebrated with sweets.

“They grew into mothers and grandmothers who would have candy bowls all over their houses, and in the bottom of their purses they would carry such things as lifesavers but also the raspberry filled candies, the sour balls, all of those wonderful things so they could give them to those they loved the most as a sign that everything is okay now.  We’re alright.”

“The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand!”

Children did their part in the post-war period -- becoming first-time consumers, purchasing penny candy.  Susan Benjamin’s book is Sweet as Sin, and she’s the founder of True Treats – a historic candy store in Harper’s Ferry that supplies its own customers and museums nationwide.