The mostly sweet, sometimes bitter, history of candy is about more than the cheap, industrialized food it has become.
Candy, its history and its importance in American culture, is the subject of a new book written by the owner of a Frederick candy store.
“Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure” was released on March 15. The author, Susan Benjamin, owns True Treats Historic Candy stores in Frederick and Harpers Ferry, which was named as one of Food Network Magazine’s top 50 U.S. “sweet spots.”
The book tells the story of the history of candy in America going back to the Native Americans. It is the 10th book written by Benjamin, but the first on this subject. Benjamin is a former communication strategist, who said “Sweet as Sin” is a book she thoroughly enjoyed writing.
“No one really knows about [the history of candy],” she said. “It’s a real secret. The ties between candy, sugar and United States history is important and remarkable.”
Benjamin, whose Frederick store is located at 237 N. Market St., became interested in candy about 10 years ago when she was doing some marketing research. Since then, she has given candy-tasting and talks at museums, historic societies, schools and other venues. In 2005 she sold candy to museums.
Her stores not only sell candy, but also tell the history of the product on the wrapper of each package. She opened the Harpers Ferry story in 2010 and the Frederick store in May of 2015. They are the only researched-based candy stores in the country.
But it’s the book that has really excited her.
Some of the interesting information in the book include:
- Abolitionists launched a boycott of sugar cane because of its role in slavery. Slaves would work 18-20 hours a day in the field harvesting sugar cane.
- Many people think candy has medicinal powers. Ben Franklin thought it was a remedy for smallpox .
- Chocolate, the most popular candy, originated in Mesoamerica about 4,000 years ago by the Olmec tribe and was considered a power food handed down by the gods. Aztec emperor Montezuma thought it had aphrodisiac powers and reportedly drank 50 cups of chocolate a day to enhance his performance with his 200 wives. Benjamin said that is most likely a myth.
- Life Savers, which were invented in 1912, were sold at saloons before and during Prohibition to cover the smell of whiskey on someone’s breath.
- William Wrigley originally sold baking powder in the 1890s and would give out sticks of spruce resin gum with it. He soon found the gum was more popular that baking powder and began concentrating on that. In the early 1900s he gave away sticks of gum to everyone in a U.S. phone book, figuring anyone who could afford a phone could afford gum.
- The first chocolate bars were given to soldiers as part of their rations during World War I. The military felt candy was good for energy and morale. But it became so popular that during World War II the military asked the Hershey Company to make a bar (Field Ration D) that tasted bad so soldiers wouldn’t eat it so quickly.
- Good & Plenty, which came out in 1893, is the nation’s oldest brand of candy.
- When Charlie Chaplin made the movie “Gold Rush” in 1925, the shoe and laces he ate were made of licorice.
- In 1920 candy maker Harry Burt tried coating a slab of vanilla ice cream with a chocolate coating, but found it was too messy to eat. So he put a stick in the middle and called the resulting treats “Good Humor Ice Cream Suckers.”
“It has surprised me the role that candy has played in American history,” said Benjamin, who has lived in Harpers Ferry the past 14 years. “It’s really eye-opening.”
In her research she discovered that candy helps Alzheimer’s patients because the smell and taste wake up their memories.
Candy was popular in the Depression because it was like an inexpensive meal in a bar.
Her agent had been suggesting for years that she write a book on candy, but Benjamin didn’t want to do it. Last May, the agent finally convinced her to write the book, and it was published by Prometheus Books.
“The research was so amazing I wanted to share it,” Benjamin said.
The book involved a lot of online research that had to be checked out. She also did a lot of traveling and talked with people involved with selling or making candy.
“There is so much to explore, the research is so interesting,” she said.
She does about 50 to 60 talks about candy a year. On April 2, she will be at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
She said the book was hard to write, but the most enjoyable book she has written.
“There is nothing I’ve done so creatively and professionally like writing this book,” she said, adding should wouldn’t mind writing a second one.