The Sweet Buy and Buy

By

The Author of Candy Freak Meets America’s First Chronicler of the Candy Bar

Ray Broekel, age 80, is the author of two books, The Great American Candy Bar Book (1982) and The Chocolate Chronicles (1985), both of which can be characterized, loosely, as illustrated history books. He is widely regarded as the world’s ranking authority on candy bars.

Broekel lives on a quiet street a few miles outside of Ipswich, just where the suburban streets give way to

rural routes. He met me at the door, wearing a sweatshirt with Looney Tunes cartoon characters and a

Chicago Cubs cap and large squarish glasses of the sort I associated with junior high school science teachers, which is what Broekel was before he became a full-time writer.

He led me down to a basement that I recognized immediately as the TV room of my childhood home: the same dispirited light and wood paneling and battered lampshades. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say the room was what I fantasized our TV room might have looked like, had I been allowed to decorate. The shelves were jammed with candy boxes. I recognized a few (Mounds, Reggie!). But most were brands the predated me (Winkers, Toppers, I Scream, Pie Face, So Big, Cocoanut Cakes) with giddy fonts which had faded over the years.

I tend to grow puppyish when afforded the chance to discuss candy, but Broekel exuded the grim intensity of an archivist. His chief priority was to make sure everything got seen. We walked down the hall, to a bank of shelves packed to overflowing with candy tchotchkes: fridge magnets, key rings, toys, Pez dispensers, piggy banks. This was not what Broekel wanted to show me.

What he wanted to show me was a pair of shoulder-high green file cabinets, tucked behind the shelves. He opened the one on the left. It was full of candy wrappers, alphabetized by company and filed in folders – hundreds, thousands of wrappers wedged together in crinkled sediments. Broekel didn’t know exactly how many he had, but he figured around 20,000. He opened the file cabinet on the right. “These are the foreign ones.” He opened the second drawer down. “More foreign ones.”

Back in the den, I asked Broekel if he’d always been interested in candy.

“Not really,” he said.

“But something must have inspired you to write about candy bars,” I said.

Broekel paused. “Nothing had been written about them.”

“Do you have a sweet tooth?”

“Not particularly.”

Broekel looked at me with his watery blue eyes. It was obvious that any effort to explore his personal psychology was doomed. So I asked Broekel to tell me about the most interesting candy bar he’d come across.

Broekel thought about this. “Vegetable Sandwich,” he said finally.

“What’s that?”

“I’ve got a picture,” he said.

He left the room and returned with a magazine article he’d written on ten candy bar classics. Number two was the Vegetable Sandwich, a bar introduced during the health craze of the 1920s. The wrapper showed a bright medley of veggies- celery, peas, carrots, cabbage. The legend read: A delicious candy made with vegetables. Dehydrated vegetables, to be exact, covered in chocolate. There is no need to elaborate on the wrongness of this product, though I feel duty bound to report that one of the manufacturer’s taglines was “will not constipate.” Amazingly, disturbingly, Vegetable Sandwich was not the only entry into the dehydrated vegetable candy bar derby. There was also the Perfect Bar (“We have combined in this confection dehydrated vegetables rich in vitamins and bran!”)

It is probably overstating the case to suppose that Broekel’s interest in candy bars stems from a need to reconnect to his childhood. But his history – which I did eventually wrestle out of him – bears mentioning. His family came to the United States from Germany in 1927, and settled in Evanston, outside Chicago. He was four years old. America was in the thrall of its first and most intense candy bar boom, fueled by the return of the doughboys. Nickel bars were ubiquitous. Every confectioner in the country produced at least one; the big companies produced dozens. The variety would have been especially dizzying in the Chicago area, then the nation’s candy capital. This was an era before the onslaught of the modern snack industry, with its avalanche of chips and cookies. Aside from Hershey, there was no such thing as a national brand.

It is virtually impossible for a consumer today to understand the candy bar landscape that a young Ray Broekel would have encountered. In fact, Broekel told me that there have been more than 100,000 brands of candy bars introduced in this country, nearly a third of them in the years between World War I and the Great Depression. Even if he is off by a factor of two (and I tend to doubt he is) the numbers are still boggling.

Reading over The Chocolate Chronicles, one is struck by the strange, incantatory poetry of the brand names: Love Nest, Smile-a-While, Alabama Hot Cakes, Old King Tut, Gold Brick, Prairie Schooner, Fat Emma, Subway Sadie, Oh Mabel!, Choice Bits, Long Distance, Big Alarm, That’s Mine, Smooth Sailin, Red Top, It’s Spiffy, Daylight, Moonlight, Top Star, Heavenly Hash, Cherry Hits, Cheerleader, Hollywood Stars, Strawberry Shortcake, Ping, Tingle, Polar Bar, North Pole, Sno King, Mallow Puff, B’Gosh, Dixie, Whiz, Snooze, Big Chief, Firechief, Wampum, Jolly Jack, Candy Dogs, Graham Lunch, Tween Meals, Hippo Bar, Old Hickory, Rough Rider, Bonanza!

Manufacturers had to work hard to distinguish their brands. The most common ploy was to link a bar to a figure from popular culture: Charles Lindbergh begat both The Lindy and Winning Lindy. Clara Bow begat the It bar. Dick Tracy had his own bar. So did Amos N Andy and Little Orphan Annie and Betsy Ross and Red Grange. Babe Ruth had a fleet of them, though the Baby Ruth, as any aficionado will tell you, was named after President Grover Cleveland’s daughter. Bars such as Zep and Air Mail were introduced to capitalize on the new allure of aviation. The Pierce Arrow was one of several bars named after a luxury car. The Big Hearted Al was named after failed Presidential candidate Al Smith. Other bars celebrated popular expressions (Boo Lah, Dipsy Doodle) exotic locales (Cocoanut Grove, Nob Hill, Fifth Avenue), dance crazes (Tangos, Charleston Chew), local delicacies (Baby Lobster) and popular drinks (Milk Shake, Coffee Dan). Candy bars pervaded every strata of culture. They were sold at burlesque halls and gambling dens and hawked by religious cultists such as John Alexander Dowie, whose followers raised money for their community by producing, among other bars, the Fig Pie.

Other brands invoked the glamour of hit songs (Red Sails), carnival attractions (Sky Ride), quiz shows (Dr. IQ), high culture (Opera Bar), even poets (Longfellow). The Longfellow is not to be confused with its inflammatory sounding contemporary, the Long Boy Kraut. This moniker, contrary to my initial wishes, was not coined to exploit anti-German sentiment, but because the bar’s coconut resembled pickled cabbage.

One can see, in this frenzy of brands, the birth of modern marketing, the beginning of the link made between what we consume as entertainment and what we consume as sustenance. And make no mistake: candy bars were viewed, especially during the Depression, as sustenance. They were America’s first fast food: cheap, self-contained, and (in the short-term at least) filling. For years, Broekel’s favorite bar, the Chicken Dinner, carried a picture of a steaming chicken on the label, an effort to convey its nutritional attributes.

In fact, the candy bar boom that swept the nation after World War I provided an ideal laboratory for the marketing techniques that would soon dominate American commerce. Because candy bars were cheap, people bought lots of them everyday. Because the ingredients were quite similar, there was no appreciably qualitative difference between one bar and the next. The most important thing was to get people eating your bar, to establish your taste as familiar and desired.

Names were one way to do this. But candy makers also resorted to publicity stunts. Most famously, in 1923 Otto Schnering, president of the Curtiss Candy Company, chartered a plane to drop thousands of Baby Ruths onto the city of Pittsburgh. (There were no injuries reported.) Long before McDonald’s and Burger King affixed game cards to their fries, candy companies were linking bars such as Put & Take and You Bet to the punchboard craze, a game of chance in which folks paid a few pennies to punch a prize board. No major aspect of the culture went unexploited. During Prohibition, the Marvel Company of Chicago made an 18th Amendment Bar, which boasted “the pre-war flavor” and pictured a bottle of rum on the label. World War II spurred a battalion of militaristic bars: Flying Fortress, Jeep, Chevron, Buck Private, Big Yank, and Commando.

What the best minds of the industry intuited was that establishing a solid brand name was the only way to survive over the long haul. This required advertising, a national distribution system, an aggressive sales force, and the means to produce huge numbers of bars. While their competitors floundered about, men like Milton Hershey and Forrest Mars were automating their factories, buying out competitors and stockpiling raw ingredients. As a result, the industry sped ahead on a kind of hyper-glycemic metabolism. Whereas the leaders of the auto companies, for instance, have consolidated only in the past decade or so, the candy giants had done so long ago.

I assumed Broekel would share my distress over the current state of the industry. But his logic was actually a lot subtler than mine. “My grandkids have more candy bars to choose from than I did,” he pointed out. “When I was a kid, you see, I only knew about the candy bars available in my area.”

This was the crowning irony of candy’s golden age: very few people actually experienced it in real time. Unless you were a traveling salesman with a sweet tooth, you probably never tasted even a fraction of the candy bars produced in this country. And now that our country consists largely of upwardly mobile nomads, most of the exotic brands are gone, anyway. What people want these days is a dependable oral experience, the comfort, as they hurl through airports and across state lines, of a few, familiar brands.


Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →