Americans have a taste for sweet foods. According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes three times the daily recommended intake for sugar.
We’ve been eating sweets for quite some time, due both to the prominence of sugarcane in the Americas and our tendency to mask unpleasant flavors with sweetness, which Americans did with both substandard food before the era of the Food and Drug Administration, and with cheap liquor during Prohibition.
While Americans have long eaten sweet food, our tastes have changed over time. As an example, the first popular chewing gum in America was made from tree sap. Called “The State of Maine Spruce Gum,” it was invented in 1848 and tasted of sweetened spruce trees.
Spruce isn’t the only unusual flavor used for gum. Black Jack gum, which was developed in 1871, had an anise flavor and was produced until 2013, when the machine that made it was destroyed. Fans of the gum still buy old packs of it online.
Admittedly, American tastes never got as avant-garde as they did elsewhere. As an example, in Australia, musk is a popular flavor for confections, and LifeSavers even manufactures a musk version to suit tastes Down Under.
Historically, Americans have demonstrated a limited taste for floral candies. In fact, the still-popular Jujube candy included lilac, violet, and rose flavors when it debuted in 1920.
Pop Culture Trends
Aside from odd flavors, American candies have a habit of latching onto popular trends and taking names from culturally significant figures. Baby Ruth candy is a terrific example, although it was not named, as most suppose, after baseball player Babe Ruth. Instead, it was allegedly named after President Grover Cleveland’s daughter Ruth.
Once-common candies include wax bottles and lips, Necco Wafers, baseball cards with gum in the packaging, and other current rarities on the market. Those long-time favorites began losing favor in the late 20th century.
Many pop culture references are short-lived, likewise for the candies that borrowed from them. As a result, we can no longer buy Domino’s Pizza brand bubble gum (which came in a pizza box);
The Real Ghostbusters Slimer gum; candy-filled plastic Max Headroom heads; Super Mario Chocolate ’n’ Crisps; or Punky’s collection of “ugly tangy speckled candy bites,” inspired by the punk rock movement (and produced by Willy Wonka’s).
Omaha Regional Sweets
There were local candies as well, often with their own local spokespeople. Council Bluffs had its own company, Woodward’s Candy, which made butterscotch and pure sugar sticks, among other items.
Woodward’s used two former vaudeville performers as spokespeople, Jean and Inez Bregant, who met when performing at Coney Island. The Bregants were “little people,” and according to their bio on findagrave.com: “Jean, age 35, was 46 inches tall and weighed 66 pounds; Inez was 18 years old, 43 inches tall, and weighed 45 pounds.”
The Bregants spent years hawking the candy around the Midwest, especially in Omaha, where they were frequently seen lauding Woodward’s at J. L. Brandeis and Sons.
The Bregants eventually went on to own a grocery store in Council Bluffs, living in a tidy little house on Fourth Street. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, and can still be seen today.
Want to rediscover nostalgic candies? Try Hollywood Candy (hollywoodcandy.com) and Old Market Candy Shop (oldmarketcandy.com), both in the Old Market; Candy Wrappers
(omahacandy.com) in West Omaha; Smej’s Snacks & More (smejssnacks.com) in northwest Omaha; and Candyopolis in Oak View Mall and Westroads Mall.
This article appeared in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.