Halloween is happening this week, so naturally it got Mister Boomer thinking about his boomer days of trick or treating. In an era when products proudly carried the label “sugar,” candy wasn’t seen as the great evil it is today. Back then, high fructose corn syrup wasn’t added to practically every product, though, so sugar consumption was undoubtedly lower per child. Candy wasn’t usually an everyday treat, either. The biggest complaint parents had against the onslaught of sugary Halloween treats was possible tooth decay.
In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, trick or treating began immediately after dinner. For Mister B and his siblings, that meant around 6 pm. The younger children were accompanied by a parent or older sibling, but by the age of eight, most of the neighborhood kids were on their own. They usually traveled in packs of four or more, and the streets were filled with kids and adults all the way to 9 pm.
When it came to candy gathering, a small plastic pumpkin wasn’t going to do the trick. Only the little tykes carried those. For the rest of the kids, regular cotton pillow cases were the receptacle of choice. The goal was to fill the pillow case. It was a Herculean task that Mister B never accomplished. In fact, the closest he ever saw was a neighbor boy who literally ran from house to house for the three designated hours, and was able to fill three-quarters of his pillow case. Mister Boomer could count on filling half the case pretty regularly.
Mister B loved the whole idea of being able to walk up to a stranger’s front door and receive candy just for simply saying, “Trick or treat.” After a quick “thank you,” it was on to the next house. The whole gamut of 1950s treats found their way into Mister Boomer’s pillow case. There were very few kinds he didn’t like; however, he preferred candy to popcorn balls or apples, and definitely didn’t want pennies.
Naturally, though, Mister B had his favorites. Among the loot was Milky Way, Snickers, Three Musketeers, Baby Ruth and Payday candy bars, Good ‘n Plenty, Necco Wafers, Smarties, rolls of Lifesavers, Mary Janes, Squirrels, Junior Mints, Slo-Pokes, Turkish Taffy, Tootsie Rolls, Tootsie Pops, Dots, Boston Baked Beans, assorted gums, including Bazooka bubble gum, Juicy Fruit, Fruit Stripe, Chiclets and Black Jack, malted milk balls, Dum Dum suckers and many more. Mister B leaned toward the chocolate candy bars as his favorites, but to this day, he asks the question of why anyone would want to limit themselves to just one favorite? His younger self could probably never answer the question, but yet there were certain kinds that were separated and hidden away from the grabbing hands of Brother Boomer.
Among the bounty that Mister B chose to isolate to savor at his leisure were Chunky bars (with raisins), other chocolate bars, Smarties and one hard candy — root beer barrels. Mister B was not a big fan of hard candies, but root beer barrels were the exception that made the cut to the favorites column. He had always been a fan of root beer, that tasty concoction that enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the boomer era. Mister Boomer even had a neighbor who brewed his own, and he shared some with the families whose children played with his boys. Stronger than store-bought root beer, it was extremely flavorful. By contrast, root beer barrel candies were a pale comparison, but the fact that the candy took a while to melt on your tongue meant a continuous bombardment of sweet, root beer-like flavor could be enjoyed.
The Internet is great for finding just about anything these days, but when it comes to the origin of root beer barrel candy, the info is stingy at best. It is generally conceded that Charles Hires is credited for introducing a bottled root beer at the 1878 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Root beer, like beer or liquor, was produced by farmers in small batches for years — probably decades — before Charles Hires delivered his first bottle. The drink is like beer or liquor in that there is no one recipe. Different regions might flavor their version with local plant and herb extracts, and individuals within any given region might add their own touches to perfect their flavor.
By the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution was underway and manufacturing of all types began in earnest. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S. was completed in 1869, which meant goods could be transported to all parts of the country. Many industries where processes were accomplished by hand were revolutionized by the assist from newfangled machinery. The candy industry was among them. Mister Boomer, therefore, believes that since root beer was already a known flavor in most parts of the country, the first root beer barrel candy was probably produced in the late 1800s.
Root beer, the drink, has ridden the wave of popularity many times since then. It became popular during Prohibition as a substitute for beer and liquor. A lot of the flavors and foods that were enjoyed in the 1950s were carry-overs from before the War. Our parents had suffered though the Great Depression and the second World War, so any comforts they had from their childhood were brought into the post-War era so they could share them with their children. It is Mister Boomer’s supposition that root beer barrel candy was one such treat.
The world of the root beer barrel — and commercially-produced root beer — came to a temporary halt in 1960, when the Federal Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras oil and safrole from commercially-made products. They were key ingredients to making root beer, but had been labelled as possible carcinogens. The major brands of root beer — Hires, Dad’s and A & W (which was then sold only in their drive-in restaurants) — had to scramble to substitute for the banned ingredients. It wasn’t long before root beer — and Mister B believes, root beer barrel candies — were back on the market, but by then the public had moved their loyalties to colas.
Root beer barrel candies are still produced today under a variety of brand names. Almost all of them label it as a nostalgia item. How about it, boomers, do have a nostalgic memory of root beer barrel candies?