Chocolate bars may look uniquely American, but they have their origins in World War I rations of chocolate given to European soldiers. The US military followed suit, helping its doughboys develop a sweet tooth that they would take home after the war. Throughout the 1920s, thousands of small regional confectioners emerged to keep up with demand, creating a candy boom bursting with bars with catchy names based on popular phrases, pop culture icons, and even food freaks. dance. (Hello, Charleston Chew.) The goal of the most ambitious new candy makers? To grab a bite to eat at a confectionery company dominated by Hershey, the biggest chocolate maker on the planet.
The military history of chocolate
While the history of chocolate consumption dates back 4000 years to the ancient cultures of what is now Mexico and Central America, the American history of chocolate has strong military associations.
In the early decades of the United States, candy was quickly recognized not only as a sweet treat, but as a valuable means of supplying troops. During the Revolutionary War, chocolate, a favorite treat of George Washington, became part of his soldiers’ rations. It has been prized for its combined shot of caffeine and sugar; it even served as an occasional payment to American troops in lieu of money. Candy also played a role in the Civil War, used as “a quick supply of energy and a lot of sugar,” says Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak: A journey through the chocolate belly of America.
While the first chocolate bar was created by Joseph Fry in Britain in 1847, and Cadbury began selling individual boxes of chocolate candy there as early as 1868, it would take the outbreak of world war to that the chocolate bar really takes off.
READ MORE: Soldiers’ rations throughout history: from living pigs to indestructible MREs
World War I: the Candy Bar is born
During World War I, the British Army gave soldiers chocolate to boost morale and energy. The Mayor of York sent a box of chocolates from his hometown confectioner Rowntree to residents in uniform, and in 1915 every British soldier overseas was given a “Box of King George Chocolate”.
Not to be outdone, the American Army Quartermaster Corps solicited donations of 20-pound blocks of chocolate from home confectioners, which they then cut and wrapped by hand. When American GIs returned from the war with an insatiable appetite for chocolate, they returned just before Prohibition began – when Americans actively sought out alternatives to alcohol to boost their energy and mood, soda to ice cream to candy. By the late 1920s, more than 40,000 different candy bars were made in the United States, says Susan Benjamin, candy historian and author of Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Delight.
READ MORE: The Origins of M&M in Wartime
Marketing of chocolate bars: it’s all in the name
During the candy bar boom, almost every major city had a set of confectioners who made as many types of candy bars as possible, filling them with everything from nougat, marshmallow and nuts to dehydrated fruits and vegetables. (Yes, really.) Because the lack of widespread refrigeration and transportation issues remained a barrier to national distribution, regional brands dominated every market, creating bars with names that appealed to local pride. The Charleston Chew takes its name from a local dance craze. The 18e The Bar Amendment was born in Chicago during Prohibition. “It was the birth of modern marketing. Since most of the bars used the same six or seven ingredients, people were furiously trying to figure out how to differentiate their brand, ”says Almond.
Confectionery companies have often named their popular bars after pop culture icons: “Charles Lindbergh fathered both The Lindy and Winning Lindy. Clara Bow spawned the It bar. Dick Tracy had his own bar. Just like Amos ‘N’ Andy and Little Orphan Annie and Betsy Ross, ”Almond says.
A chocolate baron known for his marketing genius was Otto Schnering of the Curtiss Candy Company. He had the audacity to rig the bar’s name Baby Ruth – claiming he named it after President Grover Cleveland’s daughter, while also enjoying the popularity of baseball legend Babe Ruth. (The slugger then attempted to go into the candy business himself with something called “Ruth’s Home Run Candy,” but Schnering boldly sued him for copyright infringement – and won.) A marketing coup, Schnering chartered a barn biplane in 1923 to make aerial tours over US cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh while dropping payloads of Baby Ruth bars, along with tiny parachutes. Schnering later arranged for his Butterfinger candy bar to be featured in the 1934 film Shirley Temple. Baby take a bow, pioneer of the art of product placement with one of the biggest stars of the time.
READ MORE: Babe Ruth vs. Baby Ruth
Later, during the Great Depression, with Americans having less disposable income for candy bars, some manufacturers changed their marketing campaigns to position candy bars as an inexpensive meal replacement option. “Sweets have basically become fast food, especially [later] back in the days of depression when people needed fast energy and cheap calories, ”Almond says. “Candy bars like ‘Chicken Dinner’ or ‘Club Sandwich’ sent the message that if you don’t have the time or money for a full meal, candy bars were a quick and affordable way to eat.”
Candy Bar consolidation
WATCH: Combat rations in WWII
The Depression slowed the chocolate gold rush considerably, as the scarcity and high prices of raw candies like sugar contributed to the bankruptcy of many independent regional confectioners or to takeovers with larger manufacturers. Hershey, for example, struck a deal to help support the popular but financially foundational Reese’s Cups. With the outbreak of World War II, the shortages became even more pronounced. And the military ordered rations of chocolate from America’s biggest producers, ending the regional candy bar boom.
READ MORE: How Hershey’s Chocolate Helped Power Allied Troops During World War II
In 1937, the US Army commissioned the Hershey Company to create the “D-Ration Bar”. It was supposed to weigh only four ounces, provide a burst of energy, not melt at high temperatures, and “taste a little better than a boiled potato” to keep the soldiers from eating it too quickly. The resulting product was not known for its taste. Hershey introduced a more palatable product for the Pacific Theater, the “Tropical bar”, in 1943. By the end of World War II, Hershey had manufactured over 3 billion ration bars.
After World War II, improvements in manufacturing, transportation, and refrigeration further challenged hyper-regional confectioners. The large companies bought the smaller ones and ensured national distribution. Today, most American chocolate bars are made by the “big three”: Hershey, Mars and Nestlé, although individual bars like Baby Ruth, Butterfinger and PayDay date back to the heyday of the American candy bar.