A Delicious History of Candy Corn
Well, it’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing, the nights are cooler, Halloween is upon us, and every store is stocked with candy corn. It’s my favorite time of the year, and all that candy corn is a big reason why. I wait all year long for the first sightings of the familiar, brightly-colored bags on the shelves, because candy corn has been one of my favorites since childhood. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Iowa and we love corn in all its many varieties there. Maybe it’s because those colors are so pretty to look at. Or maybe it’s just that good (but I know a lot of people would disagree with me there – it seems to be a love it or hate it kind of candy).
I love candy corn so much that one year I contemplated trying to make my own, but after seeing the complexities involved, I decided it was better for everyone if I don’t attempt something like that in the kitchen. Besides, I don’t know exactly what accidents our insurance policy covers. So, I won’t be sharing a personal candy corn recipe with the world anytime soon. But I am good at sharing the history – so I dug into the roots of this iconic candy to find out how it came to rule the drug stores every year at Halloween.
According to the National Confectioners Association and a few other online sources that I found (see below), corn in its candied version was invented by an employee at a candy company called Wunderle. Since the story was passed down orally, we don’t know a ton, but we do know that the inventor’s name was George Renninger, and that he came up with candy corn sometime in the 1880s.
At that time, many candy companies were making “butter candies” that were shaped like various plants and flowers, so a corn kernel wasn’t anything out of the ordinary… until Renninger thought of that famous tri-colored design. The bright yellow, orange, and white layers gave the corn kernels something special, and the design itself was considered revolutionary at a time when most candies were made and decorated by hand. The colors also made the corn candies easy to spot at a market and extra-enticing to children with a sweet tooth.
So, even though Pre-WWI Americans didn’t much care for corn itself (it was considered better suited to animal feed), they went nuts over the candied version and bought it in droves. The colorful treat soon spread to other companies. One of these was the Goelitz Company, which we know today as the makers of Jelly Belly jelly beans. They have made and sold candy corn since 1898.
As mentioned, in those days, candy corn was made by hand. The mixture was cooked in a giant kettle, and then it was placed into buckets known as “runners.” Employees took the runners and poured them over a tray that contained dozens of little corn-shaped molds. Once the candy was set in the molds, it was decorated and polished with its distinctive three-layered colors (imagine doing that by hand). The treat was dubbed “chicken feed” and by the 1920s, it was sold in little boxes with a picture of a rooster pecking them off the ground.
It wasn’t just sold at Halloween back then either. In fact, summer had the big market on candy corn. In the early 1950s, Brach’s still marketed it as a summer candy alongside their circus peanuts and citrus-flavored confections. It was also pushed around Easter time, as it made an adorable garnish for all the animal-shaped chocolates placed in Easter baskets. However, the bright orange and yellow colors were a dead ringer for fall. Its corn shape also conjured up images of the harvest, and it wasn’t long before the candy was more apt to show up at Halloween parties and Thanksgiving dinners.
In the late 1950s, candy companies began pushing Halloween as the king of candy holidays, and America on October 31st was never the same. Since it had already made a name for itself as the fall candy, candy corn fit into the emerging holiday like candy in a mold. Each year, it saw a massive spike in sales around September and October. Bowls at every Halloween party were bound to carry the tasty treat. Kids went home from trick-or-treating with both individually wrapped pieces as well as small packets of it. It wasn’t long before candy corn was crowned as the candy for Halloween. It ruled Halloween so much that in the early 2000s, it received its own holiday on October 30.
In the modern day, candy corn has remained so popular that companies returned to the original concept of marketing it all year round. They’ve changed the famous colors to suit specific holidays (pinks and reds for Valentines, Reds and Greens for Christmas… you get the picture). They’ve even begun releasing a host of bizarre flavors. I went in search of some unique candy corns for this article, and I was surprised at all the varieties I found. Maple syrup, footballs (flavored like fudge, caramel, and regular), and corns with a chocolate or fruity twist. I gave them all a whirl (see my assessments below) but I have to admit, it’s always been that classic flavor and color that I adore.
And I’m not the only one! There is in fact an insane demand for candy corn. Just ask Brach’s, which is probably the most well-known and best-selling makers of candy corn in the country. They produce over two billion kernels of it every single year, and a single day will see 15,000 pieces of candy corn come off their lines. It would be an insurmountable amount of candy in the old days, but today, the bulk of the cooking, molding, and packaging is done by machines. The kitchens are even run by computer commands.
What must George Renninger think of all this? Did he ever imagine that shaping a piece of corn in a mold and painting it with pretty colors would become such a sensation? What made him think to use those colors? What inspired him to do something different? Unfortunately, none of that was written down by Renninger or anyone else that we know of. So, I guess we’ll never know. And to a history enthusiast who loves candy corn, that is frustrating. But luckily, I have a delightful comfort food that will help me cope with the pain.
Time Magazine – “History of Candy Corn on Candy Corn Day”
The Atlantic – “Where Our Love/Hate Relationship with Candy Corn Comes From”
History Channel – Modern Marvels – Candy Episode/Candy Corn
All photos taken by M.B. Henry in one of the funnest photo shoots ever.
Your guide to the candy corn bizarre:
Lollies & Pop’s Classic (header photo) – (found at Lollies & Pops candy store) This candy store has their own recipe and the molds are done by hand! It makes the corn look extra pretty, as you can see. And it’s delicious, I actually recommend it over Brach’s. It’s my “go to” candy corn every year.
Brach’s Harvest Corn – (found at Target) It’s pretty similar to the classic, but it has just a hint of a chocolate twist. Not bad, but I wouldn’t stray from the classics for them.
Brach’s Marshmallow Pumpkins – (also found at Target) Are they truly candy corns? Probably not since they’re pumpkin-shaped. But they taste the same and are sold on the same shelf, so I included them. Except I don’t like them as much because the pieces are bigger.
Brach’s Football Candy Corn – (also found at Target) What a delightful idea for us football fans and our wild parties. All three flavors (chocolate, caramel, and regular) were tasty. However, I felt that the individual pieces were way too big and too rich. I probably wouldn’t buy again.
Brach’s Maple Syrup – (found at CVS) Um… no. Not for me. I know candy corn is sweet, but this stuff was “gag me” sweet. And I believe that maple syrup belongs on pancakes and sometimes on bacon. Nowhere else.
Brach’s Vampire Teeth – (found at Michael’s Craft Store) Had a nice strawberry flavor. Although I’m typically a “purist” when it comes to my beloved corn candies, I consumed a healthy amount of these. I would probably buy them again (shhhh, don’t tell the classic).