A Delicious History of Candy Corn
Well, it’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing, the nights are cooler, Halloween beckons, 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. Candy corn has been one of my favorites since childhood. Perhaps because I grew up in Iowa, and we love corn in all its many varieties there. Or 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 I shouldn’t attempt something like that in the kitchen. Besides, I don’t know exactly what accidents our renter’s insurance covers. So, I won’t be sharing a personal candy corn recipe 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 autumn.
According to the National Confectioners Association and a few other online sources I found (see below), corn in its candied version appeared thanks to an employee at a candy company called Wunderle. Since the story passed down orally, we don’t know a ton, but we do know 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 made “butter candies” shaped like various plants and flowers, so a corn kernel wasn’t anything out of the ordinary… until Renninger slapped on that famous tri-colored design. The bright yellow, orange, and white layers gave the corn kernels something special. It was also revolutionary at a time when candy makers did their decorating by hand. And for a sales perk, the colors made corn candies stand out on store shelves, extra-enticing to children with a sweet tooth.
So, even though Pre-WWI Americans didn’t much care for corn itself (they mostly used it for 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. In addition to every candy bean flavor you could ever want, they have also made and sold candy corn since 1898.
Back in those days, people made candy corn by hand. They cooked the mixture in a giant kettle, and then placed it into buckets known as “runners.” Employees poured the runners over a tray containing dozens of corn-shaped molds. Once the candy set in the molds, they decorated and polished it with its distinctive three-layered colors (imagine doing that by hand). Companies dubbed the treat “chicken feed,” and by the 1920s, it appeared in little boxes with a picture of a rooster pecking them off the ground.
They didn’t just sell it at Halloween either. In fact, summer stole the big market on candy corn. As late as the 1950s, Brach’s still marketed it as a summer candy alongside their circus peanuts and citrus-flavored confections. Candy Corn also performed well at Easter time, as it made an adorable garnish for all the animal-shaped chocolates in Easter baskets. However, the bright orange and yellow colors were a dead ringer for fall, and its corn shape conjured up images of the harvest. It wasn’t long before candy corn showed 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 lasting impression on fall, 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 carried the tasty treat. Kids went home from trick-or-treating with individually wrapped pieces as well as small packets of it. Candy Corn soon wore the crown of the ultimate Halloween treat. In the early 2000s, it even received its own holiday on October 30.
In the modern day, candy corn remains 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 released a host of bizarre flavors. I went in search of some unique candy corns for this article, and I couldn’t believe 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 most.
And I’m not the only one! There is still 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 every single year, and a single day will see 15,000 pieces come off their lines. It would be an insurmountable amount of candy in the old days, but today, machines do the bulk of the cooking, molding, and packaging. 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, Renninger, nor anyone else, never wrote it down 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 to 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).