The Wild West of Yester-Year

Visions of Sugar Plums: Candy on the Frontier
By Rachel Kovaciny

Christmastime and candy go awfully well together, don’t they? As I write this article, I’m sipping hot chocolate with a peppermint stick melting inside it. In another week, I must decide which fudge recipe to use this year. My kids haven’t started begging for candy canes yet... but it’s only a matter of time.  


Candy is everywhere in our day and age, not just when there’s a holiday on the horizon. We can literally acquire and eat it any time we want. But was that true back in the Old West? In one of my books, Cloaked, I wanted to have the heroine check out the candy counter at a small-town store in Wyoming Territory in the late 1800s. I did a fair amount of research into what kinds of candy people not only made and ate during the Old West, but what kinds they could buy pre-made at a store. What sorts of sweets did people eat back then? Can you guess? No Snickers bars or M&Ms or Kit Kats. Chocolate was making inroads in the candy industry during the Cowboy Era, but it hadn’t become ubiquitous the way it is now. Whitman’s introduced their first box of pre-packaged chocolate candies in 1854, though they had sold fruit-and-chocolate confections for a decade in Philadelphia. Cadbury’s introduced special chocolates for Valentine’s Day in 1868, but they didn’t ship well, so only people living on America’s east coast enjoyed them.


The frontier had few chocolates but plenty of hard candy! They were easy to ship and store. By the mid-1800s, there were nearly 400 candy factories in the US, mostly turning out hard candies like peppermint sticks! It was probably comparable to the one that’s almost disappeared in my cup this evening, though they didn’t always have red stripes. People liked peppermint drops and lemon drops. Hoarhound and anise candy were also popular—I’ve had both. If you like strong black licorice, try to find anise candy. It’s marvelous (but only if you like strong black licorice). Lavender, rose, and cinnamon were also popular flavors for hard candies.


Then there were sugar plums, the mysterious old sweets mentioned as dancing through the dreams of young children in the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which you might know as “The Night Before Christmas.” I always assumed sugar plums were candied fruit, but they didn’t involve fruit at all! Instead, they were small and round like a plum, but were hardened balls of sugar that sometimes contained a nut or a seed at their core. Sugar plums were originally a luxury because their manufacture was labor-intensive, but mechanization in the 1860s made them readily available to just about anyone. As for candies you could chew, licorice whips and twists were out there. The Twizzlers company got its start in 1845, though they made black licorice, not the chewy red candy we associate with that name now. They invented caramels in the 1880s. Before that, you could get butterscotch candy, which the English invented in the early 1800s.


The most popular chewy candy was taffy. Having a “taffy pull” was a social treat people looked forward to! You must pull or stretch taffy, over and over so air can get into the candy and make it chewy instead of hard and sticky. This is a messy chore, but if you have a bunch of friends or relatives over to help it can be fun instead of tiring. Young people were especially fond of attending “taffy pulls,” where they could spend time with people of the opposite gender in an informal, enjoyable setting... but still under the watchful eye of the adults.  Whether they favored hard or chewy candy, ranchers, pioneers, and cowboys had options to satisfy a sweet tooth. Though the forms and flavors have changed, our enjoyment of candy has not!