A commercial about M & M’s 75th anniversary sent me online to find out how the candy that “melts in your mouth and not in your hand” came into existence in the very year America entered the Second World War.
It seems that the son of the Mars candy company founder and the son of a Hershey executive joined forces to develop a chocolate candy enclosed in a hard sugar shell to withstand hot summer temperatures. They named the result for themselves – M for Frank Mars, M for Bruce Murrie – and sold it exclusively to the US military for its K-rations. Returning GI’s made the candy a postwar favorite that received a black M imprint in 1950 before the white M appeared four years later. The candy is still included in military MREs.
Now that it is Girl Scout cookie season, I googled another “story behind the story,” finding that the forerunners of today’s Thin Mints and Tagalongs were cookies baked in 1917 by an Oklahoma troop and sold at school as a service project. Later American Girl magazine printed a Girl Scout recipe for 6-7 dozen cookies that could be sold for 25 cents per dozen, and in 1933 Philadelphia troops sold their home-baked cookies at gas and electric company windows throughout the city.
The Girl Scouts of America saw the benefits of teaching their members goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics while raising funds for the organization; their baking went commercial in the mid 1930’s. The national sales campaign has been standardized and modernized: today’s customers can order online, and gluten-free cookies are available. Heck, Chris Rock sold $65,000 of GSA cookies to actors gathered at the Academy Awards a few weeks ago.
Another commonplace sweet treat went trendy some years back: gourmet cupcake shops popped up everywhere. Although the craze is cooling, the history of the cupcake, dating from the 1800’s, remains intact.
The first cupcakes may have simply been baked from leftover batter poured into pottery cups. However, they may have also been developed after Americans began to measure baking ingredients rather than weighing them European style. An early recipe called for 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour, and 4 eggs. Besides the fact that this recipe meets my personal requirement of no more than four ingredients, cupcakes were also called 1234 cakes or number cakes. Huge $3 cupcakes in exotic flavors may be falling out of current fashion, but tiny cakes in some form will always be popular.
Moving from edible to probably-best-not-eaten items, the backstory of Play-Doh is also fascinating. The modeling compound has been popular in an artsy, craftsy way with kids for over 50 years. However, this commercial version of the clay my mother used to make for us at home began as wallpaper cleaner, manufactured in Cincinnati in 1933. At that time, most homes were heated by coal stoves that left a layer of soot on wallpaper.
The company faced repurposing for its product when oil and gas furnaces became prevalent along with washable vinyl wallpaper. In 1954 a relative of one of the owners voiced her need for an inexpensive material from which her nursery school students could make Christmas decorations. Her kids loved the wallpaper cleaner, and eventually manufacturers removed the detergent while adding scent and color. The product sold just modestly well – until Captain Kangaroo began featuring it regularly on his show.
Many of us probably had at least one Little Golden Book on our childhood bookshelves; I clearly remember our copies of The Poky Little Puppy and Prayers for Children. Those titles and ten more became available in 1942. Prior to that time, children’s books – quite expensive at $2 or $3 each – often remained high on shelves out of reach of their intended audience. The Little Golden Book series, published by Simon & Schuster, was popular with parents; at 25 cents per, the 42-page volumes were inexpensive and durable enough to be handled by their children.
Keeping with the book theme: quirky Dr. Seuss wrote equally quirky children’s books in the former observatory he called home. Theodor Geisel, an ad cartoonist, decided not to burn the manuscript of his first children’s book, And To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, after its 27th rejection in 1937. Instead, a publisher looking for an alternative to tedious classroom primers challenged Geisel to write entertaining stories using only the 250 words included in those stuffy school readers. Perennial favorite The Cat in the Hat contained 223 words, while Green Eggs and Ham came in at 50 words. Kids all over America had – and still have – Dr. Seuss to thank for his lessons about reading as a fun and enjoyable pastime rather than a boring chore.
There are many other Paul Harveyesque “rest of the story” examples: Barbie was a three-dimensional version of paper dolls; the inventor of Q-Tips, with Q representing quality, devised the cotton swab after watching his wife attach cotton wads to toothpicks; John Lloyd Wright, son of the world-famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs; No Bake Cookies were also called Preacher Cookies because if a housewife saw the preacher coming, she could make a sociable batch very quickly. By the way, my mother always called them Cookie-Candy.
So many stories, so little space…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.