Sweet Treats

Photo by Leonie Schoppema, Pixabay
Photo by Leonie Schoppema, Pixabay

Today on Museum Bites we’re wrapping up our tour of the Grand Rapids Public Museum with a trip through candy land! Our desire for sweet treats stretches far back in history. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics describe the art of candy making, and excavations of Herculaneum, a Roman city decimated by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, reveal a confectioner’s kitchen, complete with pots and pans for whipping up delicious treats.

Fast forward to today. Despite being the quintessential junk food, candy is powerful stuff.  In addition to a sugar high (and eventual crash!), candy signifies our love and affection on Valentine’s day, fills our baskets on Easter, and protects us from trickery on Halloween. We crush it on our smartphones, gobble it down in dark movie theaters, and showcase it in decorative jars and tins. Join me for a short but sweet look at the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s classic candy containers. We begin with Necco.

Necco Hard Candies (c1910), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Necco Hard Candies (c1910), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Colorful Confections:  Candy at the turn of the century was a luxury of the rich. This brilliant red and gold tin (c1910) once held a colorful collection of Necco hard candy. The woman emblazoned on the front hand feeds doves and is dressed in a Marie Antoinette-style dress, giving this container a flare of elegance. But it begs the question, is she feeding the birds Necco hard candies or hoarding them in the pockets of her voluminous dress?

Created in 1901, the New England Candy Company, aka Necco is best known for its multicolored wafers. Necco also manufactures the iconic Valentine’s Day sweethearts, as well as candy buttons, Clark Bars and a host of other sugary treats.

Fun Dated Fact: The “Fax Me” sweetheart made a huge splash when it was introduced for Valentine’s Day in 1995.

Buyer Beware!  Our next sweet treat hails from the Battle Creek Food Company. The salmon-colored tin (c1920), trimmed in gold, touts the Paramels pleasing taste and handy packaging.

Paramels (c1920), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Paramels (c1920), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

“Convenient for the desk drawer and the traveler.”

But buyer beware this caramel convection is, in fact, mineral oil (think: laxative) dressed up to look and taste like candy. The Battle Creek Food Company was a subsidiary of the Battle Creek Sanatorium, a health spa popular in the late 1800s. The 19th-century American diet relied heavily on meat and included little if any fruit or vegetables. This resulted in a population plagued with dyspepsia and constipation. To cure this epidemic, John Henry Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanatorium served up bowls of granola along with a steady diet of fruits and vegetables. Paramels were also on the menu and doled out as an insurance policy, to ahem…move things along. Today, we have similar candied medicinals including fruit-flavored cough syrup, gummy vitamins, chocolate ExLax, and so much more.

Click on this Museum Bites Battle for Breakfast post to learn more about John Henry Kellogg and the wonders of the Battle Creek Sanatorium.

Lunch Tootsie Rolls (c1930), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Lunch Tootsie Rolls (c1930), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Slow Your Roll:  The Lunch Tootsie Rolls candy box may be plain but it is an entertaining read. Who knew there was a lunch version of the Tootsie Roll? The manufacturer is also quite emphatic about the cleanliness of the product, “Made clean – Kept clean – Wrapped dustproof.” There is nothing about superior taste, but at least buyers were reassured they were getting clean candy.

Tootsie Roll Industries was created in 1896 by Leo Hirschfield. He named the sweet treat after his daughter, Clara who was nicknamed Tootsie. Tootsie Rolls initially sold for a penny and a sweet-crazed public happily gobbled them up. The company flourished and in 1931 the company added the Tootsie Roll Pop to its squeaky clean product line. In 1970, the world was prompted to ponder how many licks it would take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. Click on this 1970s Tootsie Roll Pop commercial to discover the answer.

Schraffts Chocolates (c1950), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Schraffts Chocolates (c1950), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Fancy Feast:  Our final candy container is the pretty in pink Schrafft’s Chocolates (c1950). Decorated with dainty flowers and silver rims, this exquisite candy box holds the promise of decadent treats inside. They harken back to the 1950s, an era when the economy was robust and a glamorous, urban lifestyle was touted in movies, books, and television. Think Grace Kelly sipping champagne and savoring Schrafft’s chocolates while seated in the Plunging Neckline Chair featured in last week’s Cheers for Chairs post.

Schrafft’s, however, was not just about candy. Founded in 1861 by William F. Schrafft, the company originally made candy canes and gum drops. After 30 years in the candy biz, Schrafft sold his company to Frank Shattuck, one of his devoted salesmen. Shattuck promptly opened a new factory, expanded the product line and eventually opened Schrafft restaurants.  In the 1960s, Schrafft’s was a popular New York City stomping ground for the ladies-who-lunch crowd.

Everyone wore hats and handmade suits. And if you were a lady, it was safe to sit at the soda fountain and drink gin from a teacup.

~ Frank M. Shattuck (2004), grandson of Frank Shattuck

Necco Sweethearts, Photo by Skeeze, Pixabay
Necco Sweethearts, Photo by Skeeze, Pixabay

Today candy aisles are bursting with all kinds of flavors to satisfy even the fussiest of sweet tooths. You’ll still find old favorites like Tootsie Rolls and Necco sweethearts, however, Schrafft’s chocolates and Paramels are no longer on the menu.

That wraps up our tour through the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Next week we’ll tour the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art. In the meantime, wishing you a sweet and candy-filled Valentine’s Day!



Grand Rapids Public Museum

Museum Bites: The Battle for Breakfast

National Geographic News


New England Historical Society


Shurtleff, W. & Aoyagi, A. (2014) History of Seventh-Day Adventist Work with Soyfoods, Vegetarianism, Meat Alternatives, Wheat Gluten, Dietary Fiber and Peanut Butter (1863-2013)


Smithsonian Magazine


Tootsie Roll Company

YouTube – Mr. Owl Commercial (1970)


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