M&Ms: A Crunchy, Colorful History
Have you seen the news? Despite all the craziness going on around the world, what with wars, climate changes, and pandemics, M&Ms somehow managed to snag a fair share of headlines lately. That’s right – M&Ms. The candy that’s been around so long, and that has become so familiar on store shelves, that we don’t usually think twice about them. Unless you’re me. I think twice about them. I think about them every day – in large part due to the giant M&Ms dispenser in my house (see photo). My husband got it for me for my birthday last year, because M&Ms have long since held a top spot on my favorite candies list. And their recent hijinks and Superbowl publicity stunts (ornery little things!) only made me like them even more.
So as I happily crunched on my latest pack of the sweet, rounded little goodies (strawberry shake flavored. Mmmm), I got to thinking. And you all know what happens when I get to thinking. Yep. That’s right. I decided it was time to take a look at the history of M&Ms and find out how it all began. To learn how these candies went from quietly accompanying soldiers in World War II (I always find an excuse to mention that) to starring in their own movies and dive-bombing their way into the headlines. And I have to tell you, it’s kind of a fun story.
M&Ms came into the world thanks to a gentleman named Forrest E. Mars. While traipsing around the Spanish Civil War battlefields in the 1930s (not the safest place to traipse, but that’s a whole other post I suppose), Mars saw some Brits snacking on a button-shaped and delightfully colored candy they referred to as “smarties.” A primitive version of what would be the M&M, “smarties” were chocolates coated in a hard shell, using a process then-referred to as “hard panning.” This consisted of hardening sugar syrup and coating it around chocolate, which helped prevent the delicious goodies from melting in hot spots. Like a civil war, for example.
Mars was so taken by the idea that when he returned to the United States, he patented his own process of hard-panning, built himself a candy factory in New Jersey, and put it into production in 1941. A Mammoth&Monumental (ha! See what I did there) undertaking, so he brought on a few helpers. One being Hershey’s chocolate –pretty much essential to any project involving chocolate. Especially given the strict rations on chocolate at the time (thanks to… World War II! I mentioned it again!). With Hershey at his side, Mars founded M&M Limited chocolate factory – with one M representing himself, and the other representing Bruce Murrie – son of Hershey’s owner William F.R. Murrie.
Almost as soon as they went into production, M&M Limited got one heck of a customer – the US Army. Like so many others at the time, they were taken with the idea of a sweet treat that soldiers could take into tropical climates without it melting. So they bought up… well, most of the inventory. In fact, throughout World War II (my last mention, I promise), the newly branded “M&Ms” were sold exclusively to the US Military. And believe me, they were a smash. Word quickly spread about the delicious little chocolates and their thin candy shell, and demand back home exploded. Especially after the fan favorite Peanut M&M was introduced in 1954.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, M&Ms became the toast of the town and Mars ended up moving his factory to a much bigger location in Newark. However, even those large holds were soon bursting with colorful M&Ms, and he ended up building a second factory in Tennessee to take on some of the load. While business always seemed to be booming, M&Ms would launch to all new heights in the 1980s.
Heights like outer space. Mars must have felt “out of this world” when in 1981, his M&M candies were chosen by the first US Space Shuttle mission to be included in their snack supplies. He must have been further elated when the Olympics, in 1984, made M&Ms (both the plain and the peanut versions) part of their “official snack foods of the Olympics.” With those two priceless pieces of endorsement, M&Ms went global late in the 1980s, and soon, people all over the world were snacking on and enjoying those shell-coated chocolate candies.
By the 1990s, M&Ms were an American staple, seen all over the place (like the NASCAR race track starting in 1999) and even getting mentions in some of the iconic movies of the decade (Like Tommy Boy! “They have a thin candy shell! Surprised you didn’t know that…”). So I suppose it makes sense that this was the time for M&Ms to really start shaking things up. Does anyone remember 1995? Back then, the colors of the M&Ms looked slightly different. There was a tan M&M, and M&Ms gave us all a jolt when they announced they would be doing away with the tan and replacing it with blue. They also started bringing on a host of new flavors – with peanut butter being a real crowd pleaser. There also came M&Ms to mark certain holidays – like red/green mint M&Ms for Christmas (and does anyone remember when they were stamped with a Christmas tree?), and pastel-colored goodies filled with almonds for Easter.
But the biggest change for M&Ms in the 1990s was the introduction of the beloved spokescandies, with the original crew being red, yellow, blue, and green. Each one was given distinct character traits as well as a personalized style and look. The first time I really remember seeing the characters in action was the famous commercial, aired around the holidays, when the red and yellow M&Ms meet Santa. “He does exist!” The red M&M cries. “They do exist…” Santa gasps in return. Then both parties pass out. Classic.
From then on, the spokescandies were a phenomenon. They’ve appeared in hosts of other commercials, have starred in their own short films, and done their own comedy routines. I’ve encountered Spokescandy mascots running around in Las Vegas (Hello, Ms. Green!) and Los Angeles, in addition to them having a heavy presence at any M&Ms World Store. They’ve also had new friends join the gang – Orange, Purple, and Brown.
Along with shaking up their advertising campaign, M&Ms also started really shaking up their flavors. By the 2000s, it seemed that “anything goes” became the motto as all kinds of bizarre flavors started entering the fold. Toffee, Mocha, Brownie Batter. Cherry, Mint, Cookie. Pretzel, Caramel, and Key Lime. I once spotted a popcorn flavored bag of M&Ms. There’s even a candy corn flavor that comes out around Halloween, which you won’t hear me complaining about (click here). Although, I think the biggest favorite for my husband and me was cherry. They released it at Valentine’s Day one year and we went through about three bags of them. We were devastated when, despite all our high hopes, cherry was a limited edition that was never put on store shelves again. I think the only place you can get it is M&Ms World, and I don’t exactly have easy access to that anymore.
M&Ms have also begun interacting with the public a lot – inviting people to create their own personalized M&Ms through their website. You can choose your own colors, packaging, and what image you want to appear on the hard candy shell. They’ve also started polling the public when it comes to new flavors and colors. People really get into it too. When it came time to release a new color in 2002, over ten million people worldwide responded to a public vote on the issue – choosing between aqua, pink, and purple (purple was the undisputed champ).
In the here and now, M&Ms continue to make a colorful splash wherever they go. Whether it’s trolling us all with the stupidest publicity stunt ever, or continuing to wow us with crazy and creative new flavors (like the Strawberry Shake flavor that I’m STILL eating as I write this. Come pry it out of my hands, I beg you). M&Ms have certainly woven their way into the fabric of our hearts, and I think it’s safe to say they’re here to stay. And I’m glad the spokescandies are back. I can’t quite imagine an M&Ms World without them!
M&Ms Official Website
NOTE: I want to thank everyone who reached out to me after my last post with your thoughts and good vibes. I really, really appreciate it and it means a lot! Unfortunately, the universe seems to have declared open season on me – the latest being a tumble down the stairs, laying me up with a nasty sprain in my foot/ankle. So once again… apologies for being a bit behind on my blogging! But the good news is lots of friends gave me M&Ms to cheer me up over the last few months. So yum. 🙂 Be safe out there everyone!
Looking for a read to celebrate Women’s History Month? I sincerely invite you to check out my novel – “All the Lights Above Us” – a story of D-Day, told from the perspective of five different women of different ages and backgrounds. Learn more about it here.