Sugarplum Fantasy: Visions of Candy Long Ago

A cotton-candy fantasy in the Lannuier bedchamber features this dramatic tree.

Lemon drops, cardamom comfits, coconut creams, almond taffy, chocolate cream drops, sugared almonds, violet drops, and rose drops offer just a small taste of the sugary confections that have enchanted past generations of candy lovers and inspired professional candy makers and home cooks; manufacturers, shopkeepers and consumers; cookbook authors, fantasy writers, and moralists; and holiday gift givers.

“There are fashions in candy,” explains the author of The Candy-Maker (1878). “Ten years ago, taffey [sic] cut up into various shapes, and variously flavored, was the favorite. Then gum drops couldn’t be made fast enough to meet the call. Dealers began putting brandy and cordials into them, and with that the demand fell off, and the gum drop furore was killed.” Trendy New York women joined a craze for cream-stuffed dates, and then “fig-paste had a run of about two years.” “The most profitable trade is in fancy candies in ornamental boxes, on a fashionable thoroughfare.”

Left: Trade card. Bailey’s Fine Candies, Boston, 1875–1900. Library of Congress
Right: Trade card. Henry Maillard Chocolates and Confections, New York, ca. 1876–90. From The New York Public Library

Confectioners offered a variety of sweets, including ice cream and candy. Some of these establishments were elegantly appointed. In 1899, according to the Confectioners’ and Bakers’ Gazette, there was “an abundance” of “confectionery stores and bake shops” on Eighth Avenue between Columbus Circle and 14th Street (which was on a major trolley line). Although “there is a sameness about them,” “here and there a store stands out as distinctive.” Mr. Fajens’s confectionery was between 57th and 58th Streets. “His store is one of the best on the avenue. The fixtures are of cherry, handsomely carved, and backed with mirrors. At the right is a large Tuft soda fountain. It is of marble and onyx and has 18 draughts. Ice cream soda is the popular tipple. . . . On the left is the candy counter. It is of unusual height and has a glass front.” Palm trees surrounded tables at the back. Revolving fans kept customers cool in the summer, and electric lights illuminated the delightful scene. “I saw here all the popular makes of confectionery, which shows that Mr. Fajens is a wideawake merchant,” the reporter writes.

A colorful collection of Pez dispensers and candies make cheerful ornaments for George Bartow’s bedchamber.

On the other hand, penny candy shops—which catered to children—responded to a ready market of juvenile spenders with their own coins to spend. “A good trade in less expensive varieties can usually be had by locating in the neighborhood of a school,” The CandyMaker unabashedly advises its readers. And this was often the case. “On their way to school, they had to pass a candy-store, the window of which was gay with glass jars of bright-colored sugar-plums and candy baskets filled with mottoes, and all sorts of animals and figures made in white sugar and highly colored. This store was a great resort of all the children who went to Miss Porter’s school. To Jack it was a never-ending temptation. He would begin to jingle the pennies in his pocket as soon as he came in sight of it, and sometimes he had even coaxed Rosy to spend her pennies too, in buying candy cigars or dogs, though he knew she was saving her money for a wax doll.” (“Jack and Rosy,” Demorest’s Young America, January 1869)

It seems that many children had pennies for candy, even ones in low-income neighborhoods and those on their way to Sunday school. “We had a count made once of the amount taken in penny purchases of gum, candy, and ice-cream in seven candy stores, in a very poor district in New York City, each week, and we found that it amounted to one hundred and seventy-five dollars a week. Nearby there was a large Sunday school,” A. F. Schauffler wrote in 1895 in Ways of Working. The anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock (1844–1915) called such stores “devil traps” in Traps for the Young (1883). “These traps may be discovered in confectionery stores which keep open on Sunday.” “Any person who has observed these matters must have been struck with the numbers of little ones who throng into candy stores before and while going to Sunday-school. . . . The pennies placed in the tiny hand of the child for the missionary or other good cause, are thus easily secured, and the child, with its back toward home, says, ‘Nobody will know,’ and tempted by the delicious flavors so sweet to the taste, dishonesty is encouraged and swiftly follows.” This moralistic finger wagging, however, did not deter most children from enjoying their penny treats.

Illustration from “The Candy Country,” written by Louisa May Alcott. St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, November 1885. “For some time, Lilly was quite happy in going about, tasting the many different kinds of sweets, talking to the little people, who were very amiable, and finding out curious things about them and their country.”

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) is among the authors who have used the fanciful realm of candy not only to appeal to children’s imaginations but also to serve as an alluring didactic tool. In “The Candy Country” (St. Nicholas Magazine, November 1885), the author of Little Women tells the story of a schoolgirl and her adventures in a fantastical land where—like Dorothy in the Land of Oz—she learns some important life lessons. This is the tale of Lilly, who borrows her mother’s “red sun-umbrella” and is blown away “like a thistle-down, right up in the air.” After a crash landing in a faraway place, she is thrilled to find a fairy-tale world made entirely of candy with chocolate rocks, candy fruits and flowers, jujube streets, “dainty candy people,” and sugar birds singing in candy trees. “Lilly discovered that it never rained, but that it white-sugared. There was no sun, as it would have been too hot; but a large yellow lozenge made a nice moon, and there were red and white comfits for stars.” “A fine palace of white cream candy, with pillars of striped peppermint-stick,” had “a roof of frosting that made it look like Milan Cathedral.” Inside the “pretty rooms, . . . all the chairs and tables were of every colored candy, and the beds of spun sugar. A fountain of lemonade supplied drink,” and the floors were made of ice cream. But Lilly finally realizes that there can be too much of a good thing, and she makes her way to the “happy Land of Bread.” Here, she has “the best bread and milk that she has ever tasted,” but like Dorothy in Oz, she longs for home. “Just take the bread in your hands and wish three times,” her bready friend Sally Lunn tells her. Lilly never forgot what she learned in Candy Country and grew “into a fine, strong, healthy woman, because she ate very little cake and candy, except at Christmas-time, when the oldest and the wisest of us like to make a short visit to Candy-land.”

Candy canes and peppermints adorn this festive tree in Bartow-Pell’s carriage house.

Candy was more than just fun; some people used it for medicinal purposes. One of the most well-known “cough candies” was—and still is—made from the horehound (or hoarhound) plant, an aromatic perennial in the mint family. Charles F. Heilge of Boston was one of many 19th-century candy makers who sold sweets with healing properties, such as honey rock candy and Iceland Moss and Flax Seed Candies, a confection for soothing bronchial irritation. In 1880, Dr. A. W. Chase published Dr. Chase’s Recipes, or Information for Everyone, in which physicians, pharmacists, and “families generally” could find his recipes for cough drops and lozenges. Sugar, molasses, honey, and licorice sweetened these concoctions and helped to mask stronger ingredients like castile soap, laudanum, spirits of turpentine, and extract of opium.

Joseph Ferdinand Keppler (1838–1894). “Our Mutual Friend.” Cover illustration from Puck, January 7, 1885. Chromolithograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. In this commentary on unhealthy ingredients in some store-bought sweets, a sexton and a doctor flank a large multi-colored candy cane labeled with the names of poisonous dyes such as arsenic, red lead, verdigris, and chrome green (as well as additives like chalk and glucose). The men stand in front of a confectionery selling “all kinds of candy” as children gaze into the shop window behind them.

Candy makers were well aware that consumers worried about impure or harmful ingredients. “Many of the lozenges sold in trains are little more than sweetened and flavored starch. It would be well if this were the only adulteration,” The Candy-Maker warned in 1878, “but conscienceless manufacturers add china clay, called terra alba, or white earth, plaster of Paris, etc.” Even more alarming was the use of poisonous dyes. “Some of the poisons used either in the manufacture of the candies or to color them, were the following: red-lead, chrome-green, Prussian blue, burnt umber, vermillion and fuchsine,” reported a scientific study of New York City candies that was published in The Therapeutic Gazette in February 1885. Mothers, in particular, were concerned about the threat of injurious ingredients. Purity and freshness were prized, and if possible, retail confectioners were advised to make at least some of their candy within public view. In addition to reassuring customers about the quality of the ingredients, this was also a good way to attract business from curious passersby who wanted to see how candy was made.

Illustration from trademark registration by P. Wunderle for Common Sense: The Best Confectionery, Philadelphia, 1887. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. “People who eat Candies are generally willing to pay a few cents more for pure, wholesome goods of the best eating qualities than for inferior grades of goods.”

“It is now quite the thing to make candy at home,” Mrs. Frances Owens wrote in her 1884 cookbook. “The home-made is much more wholesome for the little folks than the cheap, highly-colored confectionery retailed so largely. Candy-making is a pleasant pastime for children, and they will become quite expert at it in a surprisingly short time.” Some popular homemade favorites were old-fashioned molasses candy, taffy, butterscotch, caramels, and cream candies.

Illustration from “Candy-Making.” Our Young Folks, May 1869. ‘‘‘This is cool enough for pulling, now,’ said the [candy] artist, gathering up the lump of peppermint candy in his hands, and suddenly throwing it over a great hook set in a stone post beside the table. Then, before it had time to cling or drop, he pulled it toward him in a great shining band.”

Candy pulls—also called “candy frolics”—turned candy making into a party, especially for young people. “Who has not taken part of a taffy-pull?,” the Ladies’ Home Journal asked in October 1891. “How the jokes go round, and merry laughter resounds as hands, smothered in flour or butter, seize the shining brown mass and pull it with infinite patience until the taffy takes on cream-white color. Our parents derived much pleasure from the taffy-pull. It is one of the recognized institutions of the country.” For “excellent taffy,” the author suggests boiling a quart of molasses and half a pound of butter for about half an hour, then adding half a teacup of vinegar and letting the mass cool for pulling.   

Santa Claus Sugar Plums label, U.S. Confection Co., New York, ca. 1868. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Historically, sugarplums were sugar-coated seeds or nuts (comfits or dragées). In 1830, Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language defined sugarplums as “a species of sweetmeat, in small balls,” and a sweetmeat as “fruit preserved with sugar.” But by 1875, a few years after this label was printed, Webster’s had changed the definition of “sugar-plum” to “a species of candy made up in small flattened balls or disks.”

“Whatever treasure the Christmas stocking may contain, the child’s stocking that holds no sugar-plums will be empty indeed,” Mrs. Henry Brown observes in “Sugar-Plums” (The Cosmopolitan, December 1886). She advises making candies at home, not just as a fun family holiday activity and to save money, but to ensure that the sweets are as “pure and wholesome as possible.” (Mrs. Brown uses “sugar-plums” loosely to mean candies in general.) Homemade treats, which were sometimes presented as festive Yuletide gifts, could be arranged in pretty packaging. In “Christmas Candy,” (Good Housekeeping, December 1897), Grace Clark suggests placing sweets in pasteboard boxes “covered with crepe tissue paper and tied with gold bullion cord.”

Who doesn’t love to sample a luscious piece of candy? And from Clement Moore’s visions of sugarplums to the Land of Sweets in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker to Shirley Temple’s Good Ship Lollipop to the Gumdrop Mountains of Candy Land to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the magic of candy has inspired our imaginations . . . and probably always will.

Margaret Highland, BPMM Historian

Visit Bartow-Pell this month for Home Sweet Holidays and enjoy beautiful candy-coated trees throughout the mansion and in the carriage house. 

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3 Responses to Sugarplum Fantasy: Visions of Candy Long Ago

  1. Thomas Casey says:

    Margaret, As I like to say….You hit a timely Home Run ! I am sending this out all my Postcard Collector friends….We love this. You have really lifted the Holiday Cheer. Many Thanks Tom & Sharon Casey

  2. Pingback: A Moss-Green Silk Watch Case, Gilded Walnuts, Bird’s-Nest Ornaments, and More: Christmas Crafts in Victorian America | mansion musings

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