An ode to candy
Oct 30, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
It’s nearly that time of year again, when little ghouls and goblins venture out into the night to fill their baskets with sweet treats. One of the best parts about being a grown-up during the month of October is being able to buy an entire bag of candy for yourself and not getting in trouble if you indulge! My love affair with all things sweet started at an early age – much to the dismay of my dentist – and I’m fascinated by vintage delicacies.
We’ve focused on the history of iconic confectionery in previous features, but in the spirit of trick-or-treat let’s expand our ode to candy. I would imagine that it’s fair to say most of us had that one special treat we longed to add to our basket and for me it was a Snickers bar. With the ring of each doorbell I allowed myself to hope. Returning home at the end of the night, I’d eagerly take inventory and categorize my haul. If I was lucky I was able to do some taste testing before bed and I’d drift off to sleep, dreaming of chocolate fountains and skittle rainbows. Enjoying candy is a fundamental joy of childhood (as well as adulthood) so tell me about your favorite sugary extravagance in the comments…
If I had to choose one company to represent candy in America, Mars jumps to mind as a top contender. It all started n the late 1880s when a young boy by the name of Frank C. Mars was diagnosed with polio. Polio could be a very lonely disease, and for parents during this era, very frightening. For some the paralysis was temporary, but not every patient was so lucky. The recovery process meant isolation and that was especially devastating for young children, who were just beginning to form friendships outside the home. Young Frank was fortunate, in that his mother saw this challenge as an opportunity. She not only home-schooled young Frank but instilled in him a love of cooking (and confectionery) that would become the driving force of his career. That loving devotion set the stage for his early entrepreneurial endeavors and in 1911 he became selling butter cream candy. His factory was his kitchen and his profit was a nickel a candy (which translates to about $1.35 in today’s money). Over the next decade he continued expanding his vision, finding modest success in selling his candies to retailers like Woolworth’s. By the 1920s his first signature candy bar was created. Called the Mar-O-Bar, it was a combination of caramel, chocolate, and nuts (sound familiar?). Much like its predecessor, the butter cream, it enjoyed limited success. It would take two big events to bring the Mars empire to life: WWI and the reunion of a father and son.
During the first World War, the government included candy bars in their standard issue ration kits. Filled with protein (nuts) and sugar, the combination not only kept the soldiers’ hunger at bay but it also generated a love for all things sweet! As these brave soldiers returned home, they longed for the chocolate creations they enjoyed while far from home. Seemingly overnight, candy brands sprouted up across the country, eager to supply a growing market. (Some estimate that 40,000 varieties could be found in the years immediately following the end of WWI – talk about options!) The stage was set, but who would get the competitive edge? Who would strive for innovation? Frank and Forrest Mars answered the call. Their reunion and the creative journey was anything but “meet cute.” Forrest was a rising star in the advertising industry and his maverick ways got him into a small misunderstanding with the Chicago P.D. His dad came to post bail and legend has it they found themselves shooting the breeze at a soda fountain. Forrest, ever the dreamer, asked why his dad’s Mars-O-Bar was only sold locally – why not sell it to the world?? Frank quipped that they should make his chocolate malt into a candy bar. Some may have let that statement linger, but Forrest saw it as a challenge. In 1923 the Milky Way was born and for the first time a dedicated sales team made their way onto the Mars payroll.
Fun fact: the first M’s were printed on M&M’s in 1950
Six years later and the operation relocated from Minnesota to Chicago, taking advantage of the benefits of increased railroad connectivity. With an enhanced transportation network at their doorstep, Milky Way grew into the nationwide phenomenon Mars-O-Bar had longed to become. It may have been easy to coast on this success, but Mars continued to imagine, create, and experiment. Thank goodness they did because in 1930 the beloved Snickers bar was introduced to Americans from coast to coast. Two years after that and the world was introduced to the Three Musketeers bar. In the following years the Mars brand diversified, but never strayed from its core offering. In fact, when the world entered WWII Mars created M&M’s exclusively for the American armed forces. Following the Allied victory, M&M’s were made available to civilians and today it’s hard to imagine a store shelf without a bag of M&M’s.
It’s fun to ponder the historical twists of fate. What if Forrest hadn’t decided to start a guerrilla poster campaign in Chicago, thus eluding the long arm of the law? What if Frank decided to let someone else bail out his son? What if they decided to go to a steakhouse instead of a soda fountain? And what if Forrest hadn’t decided to take up his dad’s challenge? The larger question remains – what if the government hadn’t decided candy bars were the missing thing in ration kits? So many crucial moments that, at the time may have felt mundane, culminated to create this ode to candy. We’ve seen this phenomenon in countless other vintage categories and it makes me wonder, what decisions are we making today that will lead to the next, great creation? What 2019 invention will be heralded in future, vintage blogs? Here’s hoping it’s something as delightful as the Snickers bar…