Confectionary Kernels and America’s Least Most Awful Choice

On September 9, 1950 the town of Midland Park, New Jersey experienced a holiday tragedy the likes of which had been previously unknown. The effects would be felt by retailers across the nation and by perhaps as many as tens of disappointed little Halloween goblins and ghouls.

Because right in the middle of the process of making a batch of candy corn, a beeswax-lined kettle caught fire and burned the Goelitz Confectionary Company New Jersey factory to the ground. The good news is that all of the employees managed to escape the blaze unharmed. And the other good news is that 2000 pounds of candy corn was consumed by the blaze, which meant no one else had to eat it.

I would rather set this on fire than eat it. photo credit: Great Beyond Day 293/365 – Candy Corn via photopin (license)

Candy corn has been around since at least the late 19th century when it was allegedly invented by George Renninger of the Wunderle Candy Company. The weird pretend vegetable candy had its wider debut in 1880, when Goelitz Confectionary first mass produced packages of it and sent it out into the world marketed as “Chicken Feed.”

Obviously there can be no accounting for the questionable culinary tastes of 19th century America. But the really strange part is there still seems to be a small, enthusiastic remnant of the population that loves the stuff. These are the folks who at parties, gobble handfuls of candy corn mixed with peanuts and insist it’s just like eating a PayDay candy bar (which in this blogger’s humble opinion, is also gross) or who design specialty candy corn cocktails, because nothing says, “Mix me with vodka!” like corn syrup and fondant.

These are the same people who are responsible for candy companies feeling the need to produce up to 15 billion kernels of candy corn every year, including buckets of them in red, white and green for Christmas (a traditional corn holiday) or red, white, and pink for Valentine’s Day (so you can tell the one you love, “Here, I got you this corn.”).

I don’t even know what to think of this.

I know I typically try to avoid a whole lot of controversy on this blog, but I do realize at this point, I will have to concede that a few of you reading may find yourself in the candy corn camp. Even my dad, who is one of the wisest people I know, is generally right about most things, and is a loyal reader of this blog, also occasionally enjoys candy corn.

But highly scientific market research into American candy preferences suggests that candy corn is by far the most divisive candy on the market. People who don’t like it, really don’t like it and probably have their fists raised as they nod along with this post. And I suppose the tens of people who love it, really do love it. They can’t wait for retail Halloween to roll around every July so they can stock up, make themselves a candy corn martini, and munch some PayDay mix.

They’re the people who in 1950, were dismayed at the September Goelitz fire because even though the handful of other companies that produced the confectionary kernels tried their best, there was a candy corn shortfall that year.

Goelitz decided not to rebuild its New Jersey factory, though they still produce a good share of the candy corn on the market. Today, the company is known as Jelly Belly, the same ones responsible for the vomit flavored Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean, easily the third worst candy in the world.

Oh no! This is an option I hadn’t considered. This may change things. photo credit: giveawayboy It’s that time again… via photopin (license)

So, you may ask, what’s the second most awful candy in the world? Well, actually I admit there may some room for debate on that front. As much as I dislike candy corn, Halloween offers us another terrible alternative in the form of that weird brown taffy that comes in the orange and back wrappers. Honestly, it’s kind of a toss-up and if you try to give out either one to Trick-or-Treaters, you might deserve the egging your house is sure to receive.

But, since the American* public is facing another looming similar situation in which it will have to attempt to choose the least terrible of the worst alternatives imaginable, I figured we all could use a little practice. To that end, I’d like to conduct a brief and highly scientific poll. So, what do you think? Is candy corn the worst candy on the market? And if not, why, do you think, are you so clearly wrong?


*I realize that candy corn is more or less an American problem, but Non-Americans are more than welcome (and even encouraged) to participate in this important debate, too. I suspect, no matter the outcome, our houses are all getting egged.

And That’s Why You Shouldn’t Mess with a Babylonian Pig

This year my oldest son began middle school. It’s going well, for the most part. He’s thriving in the world of increased social opportunities, having found a group of buddies that all seem to get one another pretty well. And despite the increase in workload, he’s enjoying the academic challenges middle school is bringing. He’s even almost a little more organized and responsible than he used to be. Well, he’s working on it anyway.

We’ve had a few hurdles to jump, but it’s more or less off to a good start. Or at least I thought it was until he came home the other day and as he ran down his list of homework and other tiny scraps of information he occasionally lets slip out, he casually mentioned that his classmates had sentenced him to death.

Actually I’m pretty impressed with his skills if he managed to run off with one of these things. photo credit: jpellgen Largest Boar via photopin (license)

As you can imagine, a number of follow-up questions flashed though my mind. The answers to some of them were that he stole a pig, his accuser was a landowner, much wealthier and more important than he was, and that she tried to shoot him as he fled the scene, but the law didn’t seem to care about the attempted murder. Just the pig thief, even though he requested leniency and so did a number of character witnesses who swore he would never do such a thing unless he were starving. And, you know, he’s a middle school boy, so he might feel like he’s starving most of the time.

Finally, after enjoying my mystified expression for a moment, he went on to explain that his social studies class had been studying Hammurabi’s Code. Just in case it’s been as long since your middle school social studies days as it has since mine, I’ll explain.

What a constitution looked like in 1754 BC. CC BY-SA 2.5,

In 1901, while working on a site in the ancient city of Susa (in modern day Iran), Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier discovered a stone stele, over seven feet tall, covered in cuneiform script. When translated, the 44 columns and 28 paragraphs were shown to contain a total of 282 laws, which, dating to somewhere around 1754 BC, form one of the oldest written codes of law known.

Established under the Babylonian king Hammurabi, the laws cover a wide range of issues, including contract terms, liability, fraud, divorce, and the theft of a pig by a starving sixth grader in social studies class.

The code is also the first good example history has thus far offered up of a system of presumed innocence, with court proceedings that allow for both prosecutor and defendant to present evidence. Of course it’s not all rosy, because the code also spells out a hierarchical application of the laws. For instance, a doctor successfully treating the injuries of a high-ranking man will make more money than if he successfully treats a slave, but he will also face a much stiffer penalty for unsuccessful treatment of a wealthy man, and if it’s say, your run of the mill freed man, well, it officially just doesn’t matter.

And if a landowner steals livestock from another landowner, he is required to pay ten times the value of the stolen property to rightful owner. If, on the other hand, a starving middle school boy steals a pig from the rich girl who owns the desk next door, the punishment is unquestionably death.

As his mother, I might complain about this sad injustice, perhaps start a tablet writing campaign to the Babylonian elders, or petition the king for a pardon. But, I suppose the law is the law, and I’m completely thrilled that my kid has such a great social studies teacher. At least for the few days he has left.

Being Discovered for Discovering a Viking Discovering Boston in a Metal Bra

In 1837, Carl Christian Rafn published his book Antiquitates Americanae. In it the Danish historian most known for his work translating Old Norse literature, suggested a location for Vinland. What many scholars assumed to be only a land of legend, Rafn placed in North America. And at least one North American was listening.

Eben Norton Horsford. Brilliant chemist. Not as brilliant archaeologist. Responsible for Boston’s “Dude in Metal Bra” statue. By Unknown – [1], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Harvard professor and wealthy inventor of double-acting baking soda, Eben Norton Horsford, became obsessed with the notion. This brilliant chemist turned less brilliant amateur archaeologist confidently declared his discovery of the onetime foundation of a home belonging to Leif Erikson. Conveniently, the foundation stones were discovered along the banks of the Charles River, not far from Horsford’s Cambridge, Massachusetts home.

Other, more established archaeologists, determined that the alleged Viking foundation stone was more likely a pile of relatively insignificant rocks. But that didn’t stop Horsford from producing a great many books  about the huge amounts of evidence he found made up of a Viking settlement in the Boston area that predated Christopher Columbus by about five hundred years.

At least a few North Americans listened to him, too.  That’s why, since 1887, there has been a statue of a young, thrusting Leif Erikson on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that Vikings ever visited Beantown.

This might be a pile of construction rubble at my neighbor’s house. OR it could what’s left of the foundation of an Old Norse Starbucks. You be the judge.

Legitimate archaeological evidence did finally surface in Newfoundland in 1960, which places Vikings in North America a good 500 years before Christopher Columbus made the trip. And since 1964, the sitting US President has issued an annual proclamation, calling for the October 10th observation of Leif Erikson Day.

But despite all that, I have to admit, I never knew there was an alleged Viking connection to Boston. That little tidbit of fabricated historical fun I picked up from middle grade author Rick Riordan, of Percy Jackson fame. As the mother of two voracious middle grade readers who both gravitate toward the fantasy genre, I have become a big fan of Mr. Riordan’s work, which playfully borrows from the world’s great mythological stories and introduces a new generation of thoroughly modern young heroes.

One of his newest series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, is set in Boston, where the hero, who dies at the beginning of the book only to find himself in Valhalla, discovers that Boston is a stronghold of Norse Mythology, which he probably should have always known because of that statue of the man with the leather bra.

This summer, as part of a crazy road trip adventure, my family and I spent about half a day in downtown Boston. The first thing my oldest son wanted to do was to set out to see if we could find the “dude in the metal bra.” And since the request was inspired by literature, what could we do? Of course, we found him!

Then in a moment of pure inspiration, I got famous. I decided to tweet a picture of the statue to Rick Riordan. My buddy Rick (who I happen to know reads my blog whenever he’s not busy writing a gazillion books, which, just to be clear, is never), liked and retweeted my tweet. And soon some of his followers (he has just a few more than me), also liked and retweeted my tweet. Even now, several months later, I get a new notification every week or so that someone else has found and liked my tweet of discovering Leif Erikson discovering Boston in a metal bra. It’s gotten more action than anything else I’ve ever sent out into the Twittersphere, and the activity stats tell me that it’s been seen by around 45,000 tweeps.

So the naysayers may tell you that the Vikings never settled in Boston, but I know better, because I’ve seen the proof. Thanks to the wonders of instant Internet fame, so have nearly 45,000 of my closest friends.

And that’s the almost sort of true story of how Leif Erikson and I became famous discoverers in Boston.

A Celebration Worthy of a Slice of Non-Satan-Spit-Poisoned Pie

Centuries ago, though no one is quite sure when, Michael the Archangel engaged in war with the forces of evil. It was a great battle that ended with the expulsion of Lucifer and his minions from Heaven.  And to add injury to insult, the story goes, Lucifer fell directly into a large, thorny blackberry bush and got so mad he spit on the otherwise delicious fruit.

Michael defeating the Dragon. I suppose a day like this would be enough to make anyone a little cranky. But why is that the blackberries’ fault? Jerk. By Sultan Edijingo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Originally, the story of this epic battle was extrapolated from a few verses in the twelfth chapter of Revelation and explored by a number of writers including John Milton. Today, the interpretation of those verses is widely debated by Biblical scholars with most assuming that they don’t really refer to a Heavenly battle in the distant past, but instead represent an end-of-days battle to come.

But sometime in the fifth century, a basilica near Rome began to celebrate the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, also called Michaelmas, on September 30, the traditional day the battle was won. It’s been celebrated to varying degrees ever since.

How exactly the blackberry bush became a part of the legend isn’t entirely clear, but the tale emerged from England where Michaelmas was widely considered the marker of the change of seasons from summer to fall. Since Revelation contains oh-so-delightful imagery of Satan spewing a river of dragon drool, and since blackberries, which usually peak in August, are pretty iffy by the end of September, I suppose it stands to reason that the two are somehow related. I guess.

Or maybe it’s just that with the shifting of the seasons, from long days and ripe berries, into long nights and barren fields feels a little unfair. And Lucifer is just the kind of jerk that might add injury to insult and spit poison all over the last vestiges of summer goodness.

Or it could just be an excuse to eat blackberry pie and celebrate a holiday with a ridiculous name, because by tomorrow, blackberries the world over will be covered in poisonous Satan spit, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to take any chances.

The wisest course of action, then, is to bake your last summer pie of the season today, in honor of Poisoned Blackberries Day. Because Satan is a jerk.

Actually you should probably eat the whole thing because it’s a pretty important day. Also, just to be safe. photo credit: David Gallagher Apple Blackberry via photopin (license)

But if that’s not reason enough for you to celebrate, then perhaps you could bake a pie in recognition of another equally ridiculous and even less well-known event that also occurs today. Because this is my 200th post on this silly little blog that pretends to be about history. I think a milestone like that deserves a slice of non-Satan-spit-poisoned pie.

Twenty Years of Fillin’ Up Dates

It was 1896 when young office worker Artie Blanchard met the love of his life. He spotted Mamie at a casual dance on North Clark Street and recruited the guy next to him to be his on-the-spot wingman. Impressed with Artie’s wit, Mamie gave him the chance he was looking for and they had their first date, right there on the dance floor.

Of course they didn’t call it a date at the time, because no one did. In fact, the thing itself was still a pretty novel concept. With a swelling of immigration into American cities, what had long been a somewhat public event carried out in the parlor or on the front porch swing under the careful supervision of parents, was in the process of morphing into something new. Courtship was becoming dating.

And no one had quite decided yet what to call it. That is, until Artie came along. Though he and Mamie eventually decided to marry, the beginning of their relationship was a little rough and at one point, she stopped seeing him entirely, preferring the company of another young man. Artie confronted her, saying, “Well, I s’pose the other boys fillin’ all my dates?”

How you doin? George Ade, the inventor of the “date.” And possibly the online dating profile pic.      [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The scene occurs in Artie: A Story of the Streets and Towns, a series of columns written by American humorist George Ade that appeared in the Chicago Record. The series, like most of Ade’s writings, takes a humorous look at the changing manners of the common working city dwellers, including a laugh-out-loud discussion of the intricacies of flirtatious communications involving stamp placement, handkerchief manipulation, and how one chooses to hold an umbrella.

And if we can take the word of author Moira Weigel in her book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (and we probably should because odds are she did way more research than I did), Ade also coined the word “date,” as it pertains to young men and women going out for dinner and a movie, or anonymously chatting one another up on a dating website, or swiping right, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days.

Because the typical first date has gone through a few changes since the early days of Artie and Mamie. And sometimes a couple may even have a hard time retrospectively pinpointing exactly when that first date occurred.

In some ways that’s true of me and my husband, though this day is the anniversary we celebrate. Today we have been together as a couple for twenty years. That’s right, TWENTY YEARS! For those of you keeping track at home, I am not yet forty, which means we have been together for more than half of my life.

But what happened twenty years ago today wasn’t probably a classic first date. We didn’t go dancing or to the theater. We didn’t grab a cup of coffee. He didn’t swipe right, though I’m sure he would have if such a thing as Tinder had existed.

M. F. E. O. photo credit: Sunset via photopin (license)

We were college students with mutual friends and all of us tended to hang out in a group. On September 22, we were doing just that, when something that had already become obvious to our friends, started to become obvious to us. You see, even though we liked being with all of our friends, what mattered most to each of us was that the other one was there. Something changed that day.

The next afternoon we took a walk across campus, the first time we’d gone anywhere together alone. And maybe that was our real first date. I don’t know.

What I do know is that twenty years, a happy marriage, and two kids later, we’re still fillin’ up one another’s dates. And I suppose we have the eloquent George Ade and his somewhat less eloquent pal Artie to thank for it.

Take a Walk, Ya Scurvy Dogs

A couple weeks ago, I had a run-in with a pirate. It was a sunny, post-tropical storm day in Charleston, South Carolina, a place that takes great pride in its pirates. We’d been in the area to celebrate the wedding of a niece and decided to take in a little bit of the colorful local history.

That’s when the pirate showed up. He was everything you’d expect with tall boots, a real sword, and a trusty parrot sidekick named Captain Bob. He knew everything there was to know (or at least everything I’d ever think to ask) about the swashbuckling personalities that graced the waters from North Carolina to Barbados during piracy’s Golden Age.

Eric the pirate and Capt. Bob of Charleston Pirate Tours.

We walked with our pirate companion quite a few city blocks and along the oceanfront park where convicted buccaneers were once hanged for their crimes. This same site today still hosts scores of Charlestonians engaging in unsavory acts. Like yoga.

But the true treasure of the experience was the vast knowledge shared about real people from history including Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate who gave up a life of privilege in Barbados to play pirate with his hired friends. And Anne Bonny, a society girl gone wild, with a preference for scallywags. And that most famous of all pirates known sometimes as Edward Teach, or less commonly as Edward Beard, or more commonly as Black Beard. Boy, that guy didn’t turn out to be quite what we (or Wikipedia) thought.

You might begin to wonder how I, a respected practical historian, could simply trust the word of a pirate, not necessarily assumed to be the most honest of men. But I think I did mention he had a parrot, right? Also, never once did he utter the sound Arrrr.


My only previous encounter with live pirates, at the St. Louis Renaissance Fair. These were somewhat less concerned with historical accuracy.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. He did say it once, when he informed us that to the best of his knowledge (and that of everyone else that knows about these things) pirates didn’t actually say Arrrr.

That, along with that uniquely gruff Piratey accent and the stubborn reluctance to correctly use a possessive pronoun or conjugate the verb “to be,” is an entirely fictional construct, popularized mostly by British actor Robert Newton in his role as the one-legged Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island.

It turns out that though they were probably a little more well-versed in nautical terms for boat riggings and sea monsters than was the average landlubber, pirates most likely talked like, well, guys of their era. Their language, like ours, was shaped by their various heritages and experiences, and would not have been particularly uniform.

And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that no pirate ever said the words “Shiver me timbers!” without getting laughed off the plank.


Actually plank walking has a somewhat dubious history, too. Illustration by Howard Pyle, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Now I know that like me, this revelation must concern you somewhat. After all, International Talk like a Pirate Day is rapidly approaching (on September 19, which you no doubt already knew) and you haven’t a thing to say.

The holiday, begun sort of unofficially in 1994 by two guys playing racket ball and talking like guys of their era, became slightly official when columnist Dave Barry gave it a rousing stamp of approval in 2002.

What started as friends having a little fun irritating the heck out of their coworkers, has blossomed now into a truly international event prompting (if you can believe the handy pirate map on the holiday’s official website) perhaps dozens of organized events designed to annoy the heck out of way more people’s coworkers.

But beneath all of the irritation, the day really is about having fun, together with your friends, talking like average guys of your era, the kind of guys who think that pirates said things like, “Arrr, treasure I ain’t got nor knows wheres, but ye be cutthroats and ye better serve up yer peace or I’ll feed ya piecemeal to the rats, ya scurvy dogs.”

So join in the fun and celebrate the day like Long John Silver would, says I. Plunder some booty, shiver some timbers, and irritate the heck out of your coworkers with your creative grammar and imaginative slang. But if you ever find yourself in South Carolina, look up Charleston Pirate Tours and take a walk with Pirate Eric and Captain Bob. I promise it’ll be worth ye the hour, me mateys.


A Troublesome Apple and an Ample Supply of Butt Glue

It all started with an apple. Or perhaps it started when Eris, the goddess of discord got her toga in a bunch because she wasn’t invited to a wedding. The problem with offending the goddess of discord is that she’s pretty good at causing trouble. The story goes that Eris crashed the wedding, but only long enough to present a golden apple to the fairest of them all.

The world’s first beauty contest, maybe ever so slightly more risqué than the swimsuit competitions of today. The Judgement of Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904, Pubic Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three formidable goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) stepped forward to claim the prize. Zeus wasn’t about to wade into that hornet’s nest by declaring a victor, so he passed the responsibility off to Paris, who faced a very difficult choice. None of the goddesses was keen to hand over the title of fairest and so they bribed their unfortunate judge. Hera offered him the opportunity to rule, Athena offered him victory on the battlefield, and Aphrodite offered him the love of Helen, who was quite a beauty queen herself.

Paris chose the pretty girl because, like Aphrodite, she appeared well-poised and graceful in a swimsuit and high heels and could clearly benefit from a scholarship. She also wanted world peace and “like such as, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq, everywhere like such as…”*

Alas, world peace was not to be, since Helen was married to Menelaus of Sparta, and he didn’t agree that Aphrodite should be given the title of Miss Olympus. War broke out and because the Trojans couldn’t resist a good looking giant wooden horse any more than Paris could resist a pretty girl, it didn’t end well for Troy.

Given the bloody history, then, it isn’t all that surprising that outside of a few small May Day festivals, there really wasn’t much in the way of beauty contests for thousands of years. Then along came P.T. Barnum who, in 1854, thought it would be a great idea to parade women in front of a crowd to judge their beauty.

Margaret Gorman, 16-year-old, 1921 winner of the Bather’s Review, and the first Miss America, without even a single glob of butt glue to keep her swim suit in place. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It turned out it was a pretty good money-making idea, just a little ahead of its time. But what ended in angry protest in 1854, started to catch on almost seventy years later in Atlantic City, as the Inter-City Beauty Contest in which women competed for applause and a chance to parade around in their swimming suits the next day in the “Bather’s Review.”

From these humble beginnings emerged the Miss America Pageant, which is ongoing and will wind up with the crowning of a new beauty in a glued-on bathing suit this Sunday, September 11.

Now, I’m not a big pageant fan myself, and I have never competed in one (frankly, it just wouldn’t be fair to the other ladies), so I have mixed feelings about criticizing them. I do think that, with a few unfortunate exceptions, the contestants of most of the larger pageants today, are smart, talented, and highly-motivated women who are working hard to find a platform from which to make a positive difference in the world.

I don’t begrudge them that opportunity, but here’s my question. If we have so many smart, talented, and highly-motivated women in the world (or even the universe, though I think that pageant is rigged as only Earth girls have ever been crowned), why is it that we need to see them in a bathing suit and high heels? Does their poise and athleticism while half-naked make them somehow more likely to be forces for positive change? Or does their successful application of butt glue somehow make them more worthy of college scholarships?

Homer: a practical history blogger before his time. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tough questions, I know, and not easily answered by world peace and, like um, South Africa. Too tough for me, a lowly blogger of all things historical, and, evidently mythological. Because, yes, in addition to being among the four fifths of Americans who can identify the United States on a world map, I am also aware that the Trojan War may not have happened at all. And if some version of it did, it most likely didn’t start with an epic godly beauty pageant.

But then again, on the rare occasion that I have flipped on the television and watched part of the Miss America Pageant, I have usually found myself asking if it’s for real, too.


*Actual excerpt from an actual response given by a contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant while answering the question, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” In her defense, it was a pretty high pressure situation and a FIFTH OF AMERICANS CAN’T IDENTIFY THE U.S. ON A WORLD MAP! Likely this beauty contestant is not among them. I suspect she can also find, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq.