The Public Fight Over Chocolate Purity

Chocolate and sugar consumption were both generally trending upwards as the 20th century began, and attitudes about both goods were in flux. People were obsessed with pseudo-scientific categorization of their foods, in both moral and Humoral schemes. Chocolate and sugar, relatively recent imports that defied easy categorization, were a challenge. However, the Industrial Revolution brought these foods to the forefront of the consciousness of many countries, particularly America, as it allowed them to be mass-produced. Giant candy companies like Mars and Hershey grew to prominence and began to saturate the market. These companies had to try to shape their own public perceptions to combat prejudices and increase sales, though. In particular, the early 20th century was characterized by a war over the purity of chocolate between chocolate advertisements and American moralists, particularly those in newspapers. The fate of a potentially multi-billion-dollar industry hung in the balance.

The moral trepidation about chocolate and its big companies can be traced back to European roots. The Cadbury Company faced a debilitating scandal in the mid-1800’s when a Lancet study found that they were using brick dust and other impure items in their chocolate; furthermore, Cadbury was accused in the early 20th century of procuring raw materials from Brazilian islands Sao Tome and Principe, where slavery was still practiced (Lecture Notes). Though Cadbury earnestly tried to combat this stigma, the idea that chocolate companies were immoral remained omnipresent in society afterwards.

Cadbury’s issues of adulteration plagued its American cousins, too. In her article “Blame Candy” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Samira Kawash reports that, “candy makers were suspected of cutting corners… [and] boosting the bottom line by adding fillers like plaster or sawdust…, replacing chocolate with wax or nuts with cardboard, employing toxic dyes to create eye-catching colors.” American candy makers were accused of dishonesty, a practice that seemed especially immoral when one considers that their main consumer base was children. To make matters worse, as the same author reports in a different article for The Journal of American Culture, entitled “The Candy Prophylactic, Danger, Disease, and Children’s Candy Around 1916”, a sudden epidemic of infant paralysis in 1916 was incorrectly blamed on food adulteration in the candy industry.

Indeed, as Kawash notes, “if one were to read the daily papers, it was a miracle that any candy-eating child survived.” Indeed, investigation into contemporary newspapers reveals a multitude of headlines linking candy with death. Some include, “Baby Chokes to Death on Peanut in Candy” (Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1925), “Boy Eats Candy, Dies” (Washington Post, June 26, 1921) and “Seven Escape Death From Poisoned Candy” (Baltimore Sun, January 5, 1924). The immorality of candy did not even stop with adulteration of food. In 1937, New York mayor Henry LaGuardia declared war on New York penny candy sellers, claiming that they were taking advantage of children by selling them candy with the lure of potential prizes to lucky purchasers ( In the 1920’s and 1930’s, candy had an image problem.

In order to combat this problem with their reputation, larger candy companies utilized advertisements in print publications to communicate with their public and disseminate a narrative centered around the purity of both chocolate candy and its purveyors. This advertisement in the New York Herald in 1933 provides an example of such practices:

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This full-page advertisement painstakingly spells out to consumers why Loft candies are different. The banner at the bottom proclaims that “Pure Candies are Better For You”, and Loft reiterates this by proclaiming its candies are “absolutely pure” in the text of the ad. Furthermore, in its proclamation that it doesn’t charge consumers for the box, Loft distances itself from any demonizing accusations about cheating consumers.

The idea of Loft being a company that treats consumers right reappears in later Loft ads, like this one.

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The banner at the bottom proclaims that, “Loft has 150 stores to serve you right” and the emphasis on the ad remains firmly on the consumer, who is addressed with repeated use of the word “you”. Phrases like “You’ll find that Loft is the best candy for you” and the “Loft Guarantee” that “if you ever ate better candies at double the price, bring back the empty box and Loft will cheerfully refund your money.” The implication here is that Loft is not a company out for its own selfish aims—it simply wants to give you the best candy possible.

Large candy companies even went to lengths to deflect the negative stereotypes associated with candy onto their local competition. Though big companies were implicated in impurity accusations, they wanted to perpetuate the narrative that bigger company products were more reliable than shoddily-crafted corner store alternatives. One Mars ad provides an example of such practices.        

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With a full page to work with, this ad utilizes a multitude of tactics in order to get its point across. It underscores traditional notions of maternal mothers watching out for their children and paternal fathers understanding how business works. It makes the point that not only is the candy-maker in question immoral for cutting corners in his production, he is a bad businessman for not selling Mars bars, which would sell out quicker. The implications of the ad are strong. Mars bars are reliable and delicious—it is the alternatives that parents should worry about.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, American chocolate companies sought to distance themselves from notions of impurity and impropriety that had long pursued their brands. Newspapers and moralists were quick to blame candy companies for deaths and the degradation of society, and chocolate companies sought to break this narrative in their print advertisements. This war determined the future of the candy industry, which, thanks in large part to its less deadly current reputation, is thriving.

Works Cited: 

Kawash, Samira. “Blame Candy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 60.08 (2013). Biography in Context. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Kawash, S. (2010), The Candy Prophylactic: Danger, Disease, and Children’s Candy Around 1916. The Journal of American Culture, 33: 167–182. doi: 10.1111/j.1542-734X.2010.00742.x

“Penny Candy”, Food Timeline.

“Display Ad 58–No Title”. Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960); May 18, 1933; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Boston Globe.

“Display Ad 62–No Title”. New York Herald Tribune (1926-1962); Oct 20, 1933; Proquest Historical Newspapers: New York Tribune/Herald Tribune

“Display Ad 24–No Title”. New York Herald Tribune (1926-1962); Jun 3, 1933; Proquest Historical Newspapers: New York Tribune/Herald Tribune

“Search Results: ‘Candy’, ‘Death’; Publication date: 1920-1929”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers









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