Cruise down a commercial highway in West Allis, Wisconsin, and you might not notice Half Nuts. Hidden between a bait-and-tackle shop and an empty lot is one of the country’s last vintage candy shops. Step inside and you’ll see a store decked from floor to ceiling with hundreds of old-school sweets. Think Necco wafers, BB Bats, wax lips and lollipops the size of your face. And the shop has a pretty impressive selection of chocolates. (Got you drooling? Settle your sweet tooth with my favorite copycat candy recipe for chocolate truffles.)
During a recent visit to Half Nuts, I had an opportunity to glimpse the Willy Wonka-esque arrangement and meet owner (and fifth-generation candy maker) Mary Ziegler. Shoppers often tell her they haven’t seen some of these candies since they were 5 years old. As a 20-something, I found these candies all but foreign. It was time for a sweet, sweet investigation. Itching to get a taste of the past, I asked the shop staffers to help me pick out some of the most popular candies.
Read along as I unwrap a few sticky truths (and incredibly sweet factoids!) about some of the country’s most-beloved vintage candies.
Tear open the checked wrapper and you’ll find sugar-sweet white taffy with a peanut butter center-yep, you heard that right-peanut butter! I was sure the supersticky combination would be next to impossible to eat. Thankfully, the candy melts in your mouth in the most satisfying way. Now I’m an Abba-Zabba believer-and I’m in good company, too. John Wayne was a big fan of the candy. In an interview with Closer Weekly magazine, his daughter Marisa reminisced, “He used to keep a stash of Abba-Zaba taffy in his drawer.”
Marpo Yum-Yum Marshmallow Ice Cream Cones
This petite treat definitely deserves a candy comeback. Nestled atop of a sugar-wafer cone is a fluffy scoop of “ice cream.” OK-it’s just a bite-sized marshmallow, but its pastel coloring makes it absolutely adorable. This fat-free candy was created in 1936 under the name Captain Cone’s Fun Time Treats-though the jury’s still out on just who Captain Cone actually was. Though that mystery remains unsolved, I was absolutely tickled to realize this candy had a shape-shifting effect; in the winter (or when humidity is low), the marshmallow’s texture is hard and brittle. On the flip side, when it’s hot and humid, the marshmallow turns pillowy soft. Either way, it’s absolutely delicious.
Though you can still find this chocolate-covered candy in stores, Charleston Chew has a rich past. The bar was launched in the ’20s by the Fox-Cross Candy Co.-a business that started from a bit of misfortune. Owner Donley Cross originally was a Shakespearean actor. During a performance he fell and injured his back, ending his stage career. Looking for other employment, he decided to start a candy company. A few years later, the Charleston Chew was born. (The candy was named for a popular dance of the time, the Charleston.)
P.S. I discovered the best way to eat a Charleston Chew is when they’re frozen-kind of like our favorite freezer desserts.
Another confection I was introduced to was candy buttons. These simple yet delightfully sweet hard candies attached to a strip of paper. Though mine were rainbow-colored, the original candies traditionally were red, yellow and blue. The big secret: The blue buttons are actually lime-flavored.
If you’ve ever had these, you’ll find the paper wrapping tends to stick to the bottom of each button. The trick? Lick the back of the paper wrapper until it’s moist. Wait a second and the candy buttons will slide right off.
Pro tip: You may not want to share your buttons once you’ve licked the wrapper!
If I told you to think of a small, square taffylike candy today, Starbursts might come to mind. Flip the calendar back 80-some years and the answer would have been Kits. In 1924, Fair Play Caramel Co. rolled out a candy product that featured three small squares of taffy in four flavors-peanut butter, chocolate, banana and strawberry. Suggested retail at the time? A mere penny. Just the right price for a kid.
Mary Ziegler says Kits are among many of the low-cost candies the industry calls a “change maker”-a common candy-selling tactic still used in stores today. You’ll recognize change makers as those bins of 20-cent candies sitting next to the register. The idea is that when you receive your change back from a purchase you’ll spend it on a handful of those candies.
When I asked what the wildest candy was on Half Nuts’ shelves, a helpful clerk pointed me to Zotz. I took a bite and immediately knew why. It was like a scene from a Harry Potter movie! The candy sputtered and fizzed in my mouth. The hard candy shell contains a mixture of sodium bicarbonate (similar to baking soda) and citric acid. Made in Italy, the product came to the States in 1968, where pranksters quickly made it popular. It reminded me instantly of another popping product I’ve tried.
Another crazy candy from the past: Fizzies. Drop this candy tablet into a glass of water and you’ll get a fruit-flavored sparkling soda. If this reminds you of Alka-Seltzer, you’re not far from the truth. The candy was launched in the 1950s by Emerson Drug Co.-famous creating Bromo Seltzer, an effervescent tablet intended to relieve heartburn, indigestion and upset stomach. The scientists who created Bromo Seltzer wondered whether they could create a candy with the same basic structure. Ironically enough, Fizzies had the opposite effect-they created upset stomachs instead of curing them.
You didn’t think I’d skip over this one, right? Long gone are the days when kids can recreate a scene from Grease with a pack of candy. But whatever happened to these nefarious confections? As smoking fell out of style, so did candy cigarettes. Back when they were popular, the candy copycats cleverly mimicked the look of the real thing. Research has shown that candy cigarettes may have swayed children to become smokers as adults and desensitized them to the dangers of smoking. North Dakota banned the product entirely from 1953 to 1967. Despite all this, candy cigarettes remain one of Half Nuts’ best sellers.