While modern candy aisles offer an array of colorful sweets, there’s a timeless allure to those simple old-fashioned candy that has stood the test of time.
Old-fashioned candy in the 1800s: Penny candy
The 1800s saw candy as a luxury item, often handmade and rich in sugar and natural flavors. Penny candy counters eventually democratized these sweet treats, making them accessible to everyday people.
Old-fashioned hard candy like peppermint sticks, lemon drops, and horehound candies were early favorites at confectionery shops, general stores, and street candy carts.
Among these, Necco Wafers hold the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously produced candies in America. They were introduced all the way back in 1847 — and somehow these simple, flavored discs still remain available today.
The oldest old-fashioned candy that’s still around
While Necco Wafers originated in 1847, Good & Plenty didn’t hit the market until 1893… but since Necco didn’t always use that name (being called “hub wafers” in the really early days), Good & Plenty wins the title for being the oldest branded candy still in production in America.
And what of the candies that have faded into history? Candies like horehound drops or molasses chews were popular in the 1800s but have largely vanished from the market, their flavors and textures relegated to historical footnotes. (While there are still old-fashioned sweets like marshmallow Circus Peanuts and spiced jellybeans out there, we wouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t around too much longer.)
Early 1900s: The candy boom
The roaring 1920s significantly influenced the candy landscape, introducing treats that would become century-old classics. Charleston Chew, for instance, made its debut in 1925, and was named after the era’s popular dance.
By this time, the Baby Ruth and Milky Way bars had already appeared on the scene, fulfilling America’s growing appetite for chocolate. The 1920s, with its booming economy, opened up the floodgates for candy as a mass-market commodity, forever altering its position in American culture.
Candy comfort food during the Great Depression
Even during the economic hardships of the Great Depression, candy remained a relatively affordable luxury. Brands like Mars capitalized on this by producing affordable options like Snickers, which debuted in 1930.
In a time of such economic strife, candy served as a small escape from the harsh realities of life — a sweet respite that was easy on the pocket.
World War II and beyond: Candy for the troops
The 1940s marked another significant period for candy, as many chocolate brands found their way into military rations.
For example, Hershey’s produced Ration D Bars, designed specifically for the US Army. These hard, dense chocolate bars could withstand extreme temperatures and served as an energy-boosting snack for soldiers. (They also limited the amount of chocolate civilians could buy.)
M&M’s, too, were appreciated for their resilience in various climates, courtesy of their hard candy shell.
What is penny candy?
The term “penny candy” emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way to describe small, individually priced candies that could be purchased for just one penny. This concept became particularly popular in the United States after the Civil War, when a greater emphasis was placed on mass production, and consumer goods became more accessible.
The idea behind penny candy was simple yet revolutionary in the snack world: make candy affordable and available to the masses, including children.
Candy stores and general stores would often have large, glass jars or wooden barrels filled with various types of candy, and for a penny, customers could select a handful. Children could walk in with just a few cents, and walk out with a bag full of sweets, ranging from peppermint sticks and licorice, to salt water taffy and caramels, to lemon drops and gumdrops.
The affordability of penny candy made it extremely popular during economic downturns. For instance, during the Great Depression, candy remained a luxury that many could still afford, thanks in part to the penny candy concept.
Penny candy also served as an introduction to the world of commerce for many children, teaching them the basics of buying and budgeting. The term has since become nostalgic, a remembrance of simpler times when pleasures could be bought for just a penny. Although inflation has made the concept a bit of an anachronism, the appeal of small, affordable, and varied sweet treats lives on.
Grandma’s candy bowl: The ultimate old-fashioned candy
Grandma’s candy bowl often seemed like a time capsule of sweets, filled with an assortment of flavors and textures. Strawberry Bon Bons, wrapped in strawberry-patterned foil, could always be found, along with butterscotch candies and peppermints.
Werther’s Originals were a staple, offering a creamy, caramel-flavored escape. And then there were the aforementioned Circus Peanuts — the peanut-shaped, orange marshmallows that people either loved or… questioned.
Vintage candy honorable mentions
Certain candies have not just historical value but also a deeply rooted position in popular culture. Cracker Jack, with its molasses-flavored popcorn and peanut blend, was introduced in 1896 and soon became renowned for including a toy prize in every box. Red Hots, the spicy cinnamon-flavored candy, appeared in the 1930s and continues to maintain a loyal following.
How technology shaped retro candy trends
The 19th and early 20th centuries were periods of significant technological innovation, which directly influenced the candy industry. Machinery allowed for mass production and consistency in quality.
Packaging evolved, introducing sealed wrappers that ensured longer shelf lives and hygiene. This technological revolution allowed candy to transition from an artisanal treat to a mass-produced, widely distributed product.
The historical trajectory of candy in America from the 1940s changed throughout societal shifts, economic phases, and technological leaps. As time marches on, many of these old-fashioned candies continue to delight new generations, proving that some things — especially the yummy ones — will never go out of style.
Antique Whitman’s candy box – Mixed sugar plums (1854)
Old-fashioned candy: Acme Licorice Pellets candy (1900)
Old-fashioned Charms candy from 1919
11 luscious flavors: Raspberry, lemon, horehound, lime, orange, butter, wild cherry, peach, grape, clove & assorted
Vintage NUT Tootsie Roll candies from 1919
Grape and Peppermint flavors of Blatz chewing gum from the 1920s
Old-fashioned candy: Vintage 20s Aromints candy (1926)
Fragrant! Discontinued Life Savers Violet flavor (1927)
Vintage 1920s candy counter at a shop in Washington DC
Discontinued Baby Ruth Gum – Real Mint flavor (1920s)
Old Tootsie Rolls chocolate candy (1920s)
Vintage 20s Beech-Nut fruit drops, mints and chocolate drops
Flavors: Orange, lime, lemon, chocolate, spearmint, peppermint & butterscotch
Old-fashioned candy: Atlantic City salt water taffy machine & kids loving the candy (1920s)
Opera singer Florence Macbeth is shown here handing out candy to some children (as an apparently disapproving man looks on)
Butterfinger, Baby Ruth & more vintage Curtiss candy (1933)
Great Depression era sweets: Dip, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, Buy-Jiminy, Baby Ruth Lime Drops, Baby Ruth “Pepper Mints”
Vintage 30s Tempters candy-coated gum (1935)
Flavors: Cinnamon, spearmint, peppermint, Tutti-Frutti, wintergreen
Old-fashioned candy: Beech-Nut gum (1930s)
Butterfinger, Baby Ruth and more vintage Curtiss candy (1933)
Varieties shown: Dip candy bars, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth candy bar, Buy Jiminy Now peanut bar, Baby Ruth lime drops, Baby Ruth peppermints
Vintage 30s candy bars on a store display in Missouri (1938)
Old-fashioned candy brands shown include: Denver Sandwich, Peanut Bar, Jolly Jacks, Snickers, Milky Ways, Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, Keep Kool, KokoNut Roll, Toasted Coconut Waffle, Beich candy (on sticks), Bubble gum
Old-fashioned candy shops in Miami – Sweetest Day (October 1938)
New Jersey candy shop stocked for Easter (1939)
Hertshey’s chocolate bars during WW2 (1943)
Hi-Mac, Shur-Mac and Big Yank 40s candy bars (1947)
Old-school candy counter display from the late 1940s
Norris Exquisite Candies – Della Robbia mints gift box (1948)