Boomers Loved Easter Jelly Beans

Easter, that strange amalgam of the religious and secular, was celebrated by many boomers as a time to enjoy certain seasonal candies. Specifically, what candy corn was to Halloween, jelly beans were to Easter.

Historians do not agree on the origin of jelly beans, but many point to Turkey centuries ago, where a gel-like candy was covered in crushed pistachios. However, the more modern version of what we know as jelly beans — a concoction of sugar and corn syrup thickened with corn starch — was introduced after the Civil War. A couple of decades later, during World War I, the Schrafft candy company tried to boost jelly bean sales by suggesting people buy them to send to the soldiers fighting in Europe. Slowly, jelly beans carved a niche in candy consumption.

By the 1930s, jelly beans began to be associated with Easter. The reason, more than likely, was the bright colors of the candies as a reflection of spring, like Easter itself. During World War II, sugar rationing hit U.S. confectionery companies hard, with many going out of business. After the war came the Boomer Generation, and with it, a resurgence in candy sales.

As far back as Mister Boomer can remember, Easter baskets were part of his household’s Easter tradition. His mother was the main annual assembler of the baskets. Somewhere in the early 1950s, his parents bought baskets for Mister B and his siblings. Once emptied of their goodies after Easter, the baskets were stored in the basement, like Christmas decorations. Each year, “fresh” Easter grass was placed into them, followed by loose jelly beans, individually wrapped milk chocolate eggs, a marshmallow peep or two (or occasionally chocolate covered marshmallow eggs), and topped off with a boxed chocolate bunny. A single bag of jelly beans was all that was needed to split among the three children.

When asked what jelly beans tasted like in the boomer years, many boomers may be hard pressed to answer. To this day, Mister Boomer and his siblings say the red ones tasted “red.” There was hardly a discernible flavor to some of the colors at all, other than sweet. Orange was vaguely orange, and some say the green was vaguely lime. The black jelly beans were the exception, in that they had a licorice flavor. They were a favorite of Mister B’s mom, who was sure to filter out a few for herself before filling the Easter baskets.

For Mister Boomer, jelly bean flavors fell into a specific hierarchy of preference:
Red: top of the list
Black: pretty good
White, Yellow & Orange: OK
Green: meh
Purple: not so good
Light Blue: blecch! horrible!

Mister Boomer, always the pragmatist, didn’t want to eat his favorites first; rather, he would be sure some of his favorites lasted as long as possible. The light blue ones tested his discipline, though. They often ended up last in the basket.

Later-era boomers may recall when a new jelly bean arrived on the shelves in 1976. For early-era boomers, purchasing these new confections may have been for their own children. These candies were smaller, but packed a lot of flavor. They were labeled as gourmet and the flavors, matched to colors, were printed on the back of the package.

Called Jelly Belly, gourmet jelly beans were introduced by confectioner Herman Goelitz. The smaller size belied the explosion of flavor that accompanied each tiny bean. They reminded Mister Boomer of how the larger bulbs hung on Christmas trees in the 1940s and ’50s slowly but surely were supplanted by the smaller, brightly-colored lights of the 1960s.

Though gourmet jelly beans have not completely replaced the traditional jelly beans known by boomers, they have captured a wide audience of year-round jelly bean enthusiasts. In fact, many claim their popularity was boosted when President Ronald Reagan, a huge fan, kept them in a jar on his desk in the Oval Office. Reagan began munching the candies when he gave up smoking a pipe as Governor of California. When he became president, the then California-based Herman Goelitz Candy Company (now renamed Jelly Belly) shipped jelly beans to the White House every month. For his inauguration, the company created a blue jelly bean (blueberry) to accompany the red (very cherry), and white (coconut). Three and a half tons were given to guests.

How about you, boomers? Do you have fond memories of jelly beans at Easter, or did you dislike them the way some boomers will never touch a circus peanut?

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