November 20, 2017
It doesn’t matter if it’s your molar, your canine, or what, everybody has some kind of sweet tooth. Something that you may not be thinking about is how that sweet tooth has played a role in history. Susan Benjamin is the founder of True Treats Candy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and author of the book Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure. Susan has appeared on platforms from NPR to NBC, and she joined us on PreserveCast to share the rich history of candy in American culture, from pre-Colombian Native Americans to the working poor of the Industrial Revolution. Go ahead and spoil your dinner with this week’s PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] As the holiday season approaches, many of us, myself included, are beginning to feel their sweet tooth acting up. Something that you may not be thinking about is how that sweet tooth has played a role in history. Susan Benjamin is the founder of True Treats Candy in Harpers Ferry, West Virgina, and author of the book Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure. Susan has appeared on platforms from NPR to NBC and she joined us on PreserveCast to share the rich history of candy in American culture, from pre-Colombian Native Americans to the working poor of the Industrial Revolution. Go ahead and spoil your dinner this week with PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland’s studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. We are joined today by Susan Benjamin who has researched the cultural and political history of food for almost 40 years. She’s the founder of True Treats Historic Candy, the nation’s only research-based candy store. Her 10th book, Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure made the Smithsonian’s “Best Books About Food” for 2016. It is a fantastic pleasure to have Susan here with us today. Thanks so much for joining us today.
[Susan Benjamin] Well, I’m really happy to be with you.
[NR] We love to get to know who we’re interviewing and how they got involved in their niche within historic preservation and history preservation so how does one become a candy historian?
[SB] Well, I don’t know how anybody would become a candy historian and I must say there aren’t that many of us around. But my background has been really interwoven with history and research from the very get-go even though I wasn’t doing historic activities at the time. For example, I used to be a college professor in Boston and I taught literature and various writing and journalism. And all of that entails research and the research, especially with literature, is about history. How did the story – what was the setting of the story? How did it matter? And personally I’ve always been interested… I did write a novel that was in short stories, which I published in literary magazines – that was historic. And it’s just… there’s something about history – as everybody knows who loves it – it really is about stories. But it’s also about us. And it’s all around us, everywhere. I mean it’s in our DNA. But it’s in the buildings, the streets, the foods and everything we eat. So it just is central to my life but I say that knowing that it’s central to other peoples’ lives as well.
[NR] So with candy… candy in particular – there’s a lot of different ways you can go with history. How come candy?
[SB] Right. So I was researching language – I was a communication strategist some years ago – and I was kind of burnt out from it. You know, I’d been part of a Clinton initiative and I was doing a lot of media. I just wanted something new and I kind of played around and couldn’t really find it. And somebody asked me a question about candy. In fact, somebody in Harper’s Ferry. And just out of curiosity – because I’d been researching as an academic and as a strategist – here I found this untold story, a relatively untold story. That’s about North America. It’s about the people who live here, about the trials. The worst of all things suggests the reason for enslavement was cane sugar and the Native Americans’ chewing, which shifted with the spices that came up that also became our medicines, which became our candy. And it just went on and on, and people didn’t know about it. And I didn’t know about it. So it was the best kind of research because, in some levels, I was re-searching it using other people’s narratives and their documentation. But, in another level, I was able to search it and find stuff that was relatively unknown and, in some cases, not known at all.
[NR] So if you could – I mean, obviously, we would encourage everyone listening to this to pick up your book. But if you were going to try and explain to them what you think is maybe one of the more fascinating things you figured out about or learned through this research about the history of candy in America, what would be that nugget that you would share with them that you think would really surprise them?
[SB] Can I have two nuggets?
[NR] You can have as many nougets as you want [laughter].
[SB] Haha, thank you. So one is going to be the role of slavery in U.S. history. The reason that we had enslavement to begin with was the sugar cane. And as I mentioned, that became really important to U.S. history on a number of fronts. But the lives of those who were enslaved, as I researched it, were really gripping and remarkable. Particularly on those plantations… so much more devastatingly worse than I could have imagined, on the one hand. And on the other, it made me see the history of African-American culture as being one of survival as opposed to victimization. They survived. Some of them transcended these unbelievable circumstances in just a breathtaking way. So I would say that’s one of them. And it really made me see the nation and the role of African-Americans and how we are and who we are differently.
And then the other is what candy and sugar has meant post-Industrial Revolution and how important it’s been to people in spreading the word of love. And I mean, literally, grandmothers who gave to grandchildren those sour balls and the Necco wafers and so on. They were really a gift of love that was born out of shortages from wartime or when they didn’t have money for personal reasons or because of the Depression, whatever it may have been. Being able to afford these candies really was a sign, a symbol of well-being. And as I mentioned, when they passed them along to the children and grandchildren they loved… [it was] a real symbol of kindness and love and belonging and all of that.
[NR] Yeah. It’s as you were saying, all of history is sort of stories. And the story of candy is kind of caught up in just the story of who we are, and love, and the good things, and also terrible things like slavery. It’s kind of all intertwined in there. So let me ask you this. We previously interviewed some folks who were involved in sort of experimental archaeology, actually involved in hands-on doing things and learning through doing. Have you done a lot of that, as well? I mean, obviously, you mentioned that you have a candy store of your own. So presumably, you’ve actually gotten involved in the hands-on of making candy. Do you learn a lot through doing that?
[SB] Well, you know, what’s interesting is I have a candy company more than a store. What I love most about what I do is Harper’s Ferry. But I also travel a lot. I go to historical societies and museums where I give talks. And then when I’m there I have the remarkable opportunity to meet people who live there and have their own story.
I usually sit at museums and then work my way out, interview everybody from elderly Native Americans to people whose families had candy stores in the late 1800s and they talk about them. So my learning about history is really going to the places where history occurred and then immersing myself in it. And so that’s more it.
The part about cooking, I think, making historic candy is really, really difficult if it doesn’t exist already because sugar is so temperamental and the recipes, some of them don’t break things down at all. I mean, it’s not like ounces and tablespoons and so on. So we leave that more less to the experts who really are ensconced in candy making. And that’s what they do with the exceptions of Native Americans because what we would get from say the Lakota in South Dakota would be things like the bitter root that they chewed or some of the barks that they used, which really don’t entail cooking but entails harvesting. Having said that, I still interview those people and whenever I can and really get to know their culture and perception as well.
[NR] And we’ve mentioned a few times, I mean, for people who aren’t familiar or Harpers Ferry, how would you describe where your store is located? And maybe how did you end up in Harpers Ferry?
[SB] Well, I wound up moving from Washington D.C. where I was doing my communication strategy work to Shepherdstown, West Virginia. And at a point when I decided to switch careers and really immerse myself in the history of sugars and sweets, at first I started selling to museums. Then I said, “I really want to go direct and share this with people,” and decided to open a store. And the obvious place was Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which I have to tell you is to me the most remarkable small national park I’ve ever been to. It is history. I mean, you breathe the history in the air and everything you look at is about the history and the buildings are historic and it’s not “hands off” at all. I mean, you really immerse yourself in being there. What better place to open a historic candy company than there?
And I have to tell you -and this is kind of about history but kind of isn’t – it is so gorgeous there that every time I go even in the foggy, rainy, snowy, horrible weather, I’m just so surprised! Every time I’m there, it’s just beautiful to look at. And seeing the mountains and then the historic community there and the area… it’s just always beautiful and its perfect for anything historic. I just love it there, it really works for us.
[NR] And are you in a historic building? Was it originally a candy store?
[SB] No. It’s very funny because I am in a historic building. It was built in 1843, but it was not a candy store. And that’s important because across the street from us – it’s a little street, it’s more like a little alley – is the National Park Services’ historic candy store that really was around… started in 1857. And I did talk about it in my book Sweet as Sin, but I can tell you the story, briefly. The family of the guy who owned the confectionery is still around. You can look at the confectionery as you go around to the various museums in Harpers Ferry. And I was delighted to meet the great-grand children who happen to show up in my shop [laughter]. They didn’t know about me, I didn’t know about them, but I was able to interview them. Add that candy or that confectioner, he was the first civilian casualty in Harper’s Ferry. He was a Union supporter and he was an abolitionist-leaning guy that wound up, strangely enough, being shot by a Union soldier and he died in his candy store. So that’s pretty, pretty amazing to me that we wound up there.
[NR] Pretty fascinating candy history there in Harper’s Ferry. Why don’t we take a quick break here? When we come back, let’s dive into some specific candies, and maybe talk about some of your favorites, and some of the cool stories behind them. And then also maybe talk a little bit about your book Sweet as Sin, which might make a great holiday gift as we approach the holidays here. And we’ll do that when we return right here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] Susan and Nick are talking about candy history. And Susan, in particular, noted how candy in the United States has a lot of roots in Native American culture. And given the time of year that’s got me thinking about the first Thanksgiving dinner, where traditionally we remember the Native Americans and Europeans ate and celebrated together.
If there was a celebration, there’s no doubt candy played a role. And if it was any real kind of party, I’m sure there was music, too. And I personally am really into music history so I figured we could talk a little about the music of Eastern woodlands’ tribes in Maryland. Before Europeans arrived in Maryland, there were many tribes of indigenous people with complex communities and languages. While these tribes differed in a lot of ways, they shared many aspects of their culture, like music. [Native American music playing]
Specifics of the music of Maryland’s earliest people, like the tune or the name of songs, have largely been lost because nearly all pre-Colombian music was remembered through an oral tradition, passed down from person-to-person and not written. Yet, there is still plenty that can be learned from the material record and written reports of early Europeans about what the music of the first residents of this land sounded like.
For pre-Colombian Marylanders, there were really only two kinds of instrument: percussion and the human voice. Some folks had wood or bone flutes but these were not considered as important. The percussion instruments could be either drums made by stretching animal hide over a wooden frame to create a vibrating membrane or different variations of rattles made by sealing seeds or little rocks into hollowed out wooden instruments. The main type of drum was several feet in diameter and played by a group who all sat around the drum in a circle and played together. That unit of people is called a drum.
Individual drums were less prominent but displayed their own fascinating techniques. Water drums were made by partially filling a wooden or clay frame with water and then plugging the hole, allowing the hyde membrane to get wet when playing. These water drums allowed the individual to customize the pitch and timbre, the unique sonic qualities of their instrument, to fit the needs of the moment. As with all stages in the music-making process, the construction of instruments held significant symbolic meaning that varied among the different tribes. For example, for some modern members of the Northeast Maryland and Delaware Lenape tribe, oral tradition maintained that the way the leather ties that secured drum head form a seven-pointed star is an important symbol representing their ancestors.
Well, I don’t want to talk too long. So let me drum up a little excitement. You can tune in later this month to hear the thrilling conclusion in which we talk about the human voice, the other kind of instrument for Eastern woodlands’ tribes, on PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to email@example.com and we’ll try to answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. We are joined today by Susan Benjamin who is a candy historian. Her 10th book, Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure made the Smithsonian’s “Best of Books About Food” for 2016. Before we took our break, we were talking about some of the things that she’s learned and interesting aspects of candy history, where she’s located in historic Harper’s Ferry, and the interesting aspects of how candy is really just intertwined into all of our stories. But we haven’t really dove in, other than talking a little bit some Native American candies, into specific candies. And I’m curious, when we talk to a candy historian, someone who really knows the stuff inside and out, do you have… I mean, it’s probably like picking a favorite child. Do you have a favorite candy?
[SB] I get asked that a lot and it’s really like exactly that, like picking a favorite child. So I’m thinking that I want to talk about something which I think really demonstrates what candy is. And it’s one of these historically fluid kind of things, which would be the hard candies –
[SB] – and those would be the sour balls, what’s known as stained glass that we carry at the shop, which is just a molded hard candy more or less and so on. And they’re interesting because they started as medicines. They would boiled sugars and then people would put peppermint and whatever herbs and spices they wanted in them, sassafras, whatever it may have been. And that’s basically one of the really important medicines that we have.
Now in the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution was gaining steam, pre Civil-War. And at the same time marketing was starting to pick up. So marketing and industry are really parallel and, of course, continue to be so today. At that time, those medicines started to transform into pleasure foods, into candy. And that was really revolutionary, historically; because it was the first time working class kids – as they were referred to by the well-to-do -“the lower classes” – in really bad ways, they would call them urchins and horrible things. But it was the first time that they were able to have access to the middle class. Because they could go into the apothecaries and maybe the general store and buy these things that were marketed – for the first time ever – were marketed to them, to kids. And that was the beginning of candy as we know it today.
A really important footnote is: the well-to-do really hated that. They thought that these kids, if they went out and bought stuff, they would have power. And they would think that they could have even more power, and they weren’t able to do that because they were just the lower class. There were all sorts of deaths and murders, all of those kinds of nefarious things, that they blamed on candy. Even though when you read the old articles about it, the original articles, it had nothing to do with candy. And that is also the reason, I believe, one of the reasons why we have such a mistrust of candy. Even though many of them, particularly the older ones really are a lot better for you than most of packaged food and certainly other fun foods like, say, an ice cream cone today.
[NR] Interesting. So we still have this negative connotation and that’s all kind of tied up and wrapped up in hard candy. What other kind of candies… do you think there’s anything that would surprise people when they came into your store? Something that normally is sort of an interesting one that people are fascinated by?
[SB] Yeah, sure. But I just wanted to clarify. The boiled sugars, the hard candies, were one of many different candies that came out at that time.
[NR] Oh, okay.
[SB] So they weren’t the only ones. But they were prominent and they were important particularly because they came directly out of the medicines. Some of the candies that people don’t even realize, the candies that they find in the store, would be such things as licorice root. And licorice root is really amazing because it did come over in the 1600s with the British. People chewed it as a toothbrush and used it as a medicine and so forth, particularly Native Americans and enslaved people, but others as well. In the mid-1800s, all of a sudden you have this wonderful situation where [laughter] it turned into penny candies. And kids would go in there and spend their penny or whatever it may be. And they would buy the roots and they would chew them. And in fact, I did. I’m not from the 1800s. But I even did that when I was a kid living in Massachusetts. Well, that root was one of the earlier candies. And then, of course, it became the licorice we know today. Another one, which is fabulous which people just are always amazed by is the circus peanut, which is that bright orange marshmallowy thing. You know what I’m talking about?
[NR] It’s actually one of my favorites. My and mom and I used to… I have very fond childhood memories of eating way too many of those.
[SB] Okay, so you’re going to love this story. So it is of the marshmallow family, kind of. The marshmallow goes back 4,000 years at least. Came from the marshmallow root. The marshmallow root plant does grow around here in some places. And people really just used it as medicine. As I mention, that everything was medicinal or healthier, it killed you. So, of course, it was used as a medicine. And then with the beginning with gelatin, instant gelatin, in the 1800s they started replacing things like the marshmallow with gelatin so everybody could have it. Previous to that, the marshmallow was way too hard to work with. So the marshmallow came around as kind of like the Jet-Puff marshmallow but without the puff. So it was a firmer kind of really tasty marshmallow. And then it morphed into all of these different guises, including the circus peanut.
The circus peanut was made, believe it or not, in the late 1800s and was used for circuses! So they called it that. And it was a fun candy and it was kind of goofy candy, so no one trademarked it. And eventually, in 1963, the circus peanut became the prototype for the Lucky Charms cereal. So we carry [laughter] all the generations. We have the licorice root, and we have the circus peanut, and then we have the Lucky Charms, or knock-off of them, without the cereal it’s just the charms. And there you get a really great glimpse of what has happened to us in our history around food. It’s pretty amazing. It started as a root and it ended as a Lucky Charm.
[NR] Yeah. And it’s funny, you started off this conversation by talking about how candy can be seen as sort of a form of love and handing a piece of candy to a loved one. And I have a little 16-month-old daughter at home. Although she hasn’t tried a circus peanut yet, I cannot wait to give her one [laughter]. And I can’t wait to tell her all about that story, too. I mean, there is sort of that inter-generational love associated with candy. I guess the one question I have, speaking of peanuts, the elephant in the room here is: what about chocolate? Where does chocolate fall in all of this? Do you talk about that much? Do you carry it? Where is it in all of this?
[NR] No, we totally ignore it and I never talk about it.
[SB] Yeah, of course I do, yeah. So chocolate – I recently read- is I believe it’s second to caramel in people’s favorite candies. But chocolate is, again, another remarkable story that it originated in Mesoamerica and was used as a drink as most people know. And also was a Native North American – well, I should say semi-Native North American food because the boundaries weren’t there and the Aztec and others got hold of the chocolate because of its proximity to what we now we call the U.S. to where they were living. So they had it going back thousands and thousands of years. The Spanish kind of discovered it. If you looked at it from your Eurocentric perspective. They went in, there was Montezuma with all of his wives and his chocolate and he was drinking it. And here’s the bad part for many of your listeners: there really isn’t much evidence that chocolate is an aphrodisiac. But we came to think of it that way because of this incredible Montezuma. The Spanish, of course, they went and killed all of them and stole their chocolate. And they brought it back to Spain, kept it for themselves, this secret, so nobody would steal it from them and they could hold on to it for about 100 years.
Then through the intermarriage of royalty, it spread all around Europe, most notably into France and then to other parts of Europe. And then the colonists would, of course, bring that to Africa and other places where they used bondage workers to grow the cacao there. But it started in Mesoamerica, and it’s had a remarkable story.
[NR] When in American history do you find it becoming an edible? You were talking about it being a drink very early in colonial history. But when does it become this edible? Would you find it in the 1850s in Harper’s Ferry?
[SB] Well, yes. I want to be really clear when you said colonial history. That isn’t North American history. So we actually start, kind of defiantly so, with the Native Americans and to say that chocolate was really important to the diets of those North Americans. And it was in parts of the Southwest and other areas, so the chocolate’s always been there.
When the Europeans came and the colonists amongst them, they did have – I mean, there’s a little debate about it, but they did – an eating kind of a chocolate. I’ve had that chocolate. I actually sell it at the shop and get it from Grenada. They would grind up the chocolate and it gets kind of pasty. Then they would mix cinnamon and nutmeg, whatever kinds of spices they had owing to the spice trade. Maybe they would have cane sugar and so forth. So that was the first eating chocolate. But most of the development, most of the machinery, and most of the ingenuity occurred in Switzerland and in England and so forth. So in the U.S., as it became to the U.S., we did have chocolate and we did have eating chocolate. But primarily and this is really important to U.S. history – the chocolate was drinking chocolate. And the likes of, say, John Adams really proclaimed the importance of drinking chocolate, saying it was good for health and vitality and far better – get the reasoning behind this – far better than tea. Obviously, there was the relationship between the colonists and the British with tea. While there were three important drinks at the time – coffee, tea, and chocolate – chocolate was, to some, really the best to have because it came more or less locally. It came from Mesoamerica and was available to us here and wouldn’t require any British involvement to get.
[NR] Interesting. Candy and chocolate and it’s all tied up in politics and all of these various aspects. It’s hard to pull it apart. It’s such an interesting connected piece of our story. So if people want to learn more about this, obviously, we would recommend that they pick up your book, Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure. I presume that they can get that on Amazon or they could come to your store, I guess, [that] would be the other place. Right?
[SB] We’re all over the country, so I would imagine most bookstores have it, too. If they don’t, you could order it through your local book [store]. So you could get it from us, and you also could get it on Amazon. Yeah, it’s pretty much all over the place, or at least right now it is. So by all means, yeah, and that’s fine. If you want a signed copy, then just give us a call at our Harper’s Ferry location or go online on our website and just send us a message. I can sign it and address it to anybody you like. And our website is TrueTreatsCandy.com.
[NR] And you can buy candy on your website?
[SB] Oh, yeah, absolutely.
[NR] And if people are salivating like I am, they can come and visit you too, in Harper’s Ferry, right?
[SB] Yeah, yeah. We have everything on the website, and if we don’t, you can ask us. We can customize packages because it is so personal. And definitely read the book. I wrote it in a fun way so that it would be a page turner that people could enjoy. And then I would say there are other good books out there. One is Deborah Cadbury’s book, The Chocolate Wars. And if you are a history buff and have access to something like Newspapers.com, then go and just start reading the old publications. They have things that go back really far. And there are a lot of different websites now that are scanned into really old, old cookbooks and documentation about food. And if you do that, you’ll see how they made it, and really important culturally, is if you go to those old newspapers, read the ads. And read the articles because they really go into great depth about candy. It was really a monumental concern in many different ways. And you’ll just be fascinated. I mean, it’s so much… I like Facebook, but this is even better than Facebook. It’s really cool.
[NR] Very cool. Well, before we go, we try and ask the most difficult question for any historian, for anyone who loves buildings and places, which is: what is your favorite historic building or place? So I know it’s a tough one, but do you got it?
[SB] Well, I’m going to answer it as a group. I would say stand in the middle of High Street in Harper’s Ferry, and everywhere you look you’ll see historic buildings. And they’re just all gorgeous and remarkable. The buildings where we’re in from 1843 is just – oh my gosh, it’s so wonderful – the sloping spires, this feeling of it, the architecture’s obviously really typical, and if you just look down that street, you can see the ravages from the floods in the architecture, the changes from 1700s style to 1800s in a single building. And I would say that: just stand in the middle of the street and look. And if you love historic preservation and architecture, boy, you’re going to be in a great place.
[NR] Yeah. I have to agree. I’ve spent a lot of time in Harper’s Ferry and I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly. Well, Susan, this has been a real pleasure. If anyone listening to this isn’t salivating, you need to check your tastebuds because this has been a lot of fun. I would encourage them to go out, visit Harper’s Ferry, get a chance to take a look at your store, pick up your book, and thank you for all the good work that you’re doing to document this to really remember this important aspect of our story. And what a fun aspect it is. Thanks so much, Susan.
[SB] Thank you.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!