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?

Boomers Occasionally Heard the Name “Oscar”

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has once again awarded Oscars for outstanding work in a wide variety of categories in film in its annual telecast. Mister Boomer has written some interesting tidbits about Academy Award presentations during the boomer years (see Boomers Watch as the Oscar Goes to… and Boomers Saw Great Movies Win Oscars), so he was not all that enthused about another post along those lines. Instead, he wondered about the actual name, “Oscar.” He wasn’t concerned about the statue, but the name itself.

There were very few boomer boys named Oscar, but boomers knew the name. Etymology of the male name have been traced to Irish, English and Norse origins. The name was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, and reached its popularity around 1890. With the exception of Sweden (where it remains a popular name since two of the country’s kings were named Oskar), the number of males named Oscar worldwide has steadily declined throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. During the boomer years in the United States, less than half of one percent of boys were named Oscar. There was a slight uptick in the early 2000s, but that trend has not held in recent years.

So, how did boomers know the name, “Oscar?” Who were some of the famous Oscars that boomers knew in their time?

Oscar Hammerstein was a composer, producer and director who worked in musical theater as well as movies. Together with his writing partner, Richard Rogers, the duo wrote the music for Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music. If boomers did not see a live musical that Hammerstein developed, they certainly saw the movies made after the plays. In fact, Hammerstein is the only Oscar to have won an Oscar — and he won two of them. What may be of interest to boomers, however, is that he did not win an Oscar for what may be the best known of his movie scores among boomers: The Sound of Music. However, he did win a Grammy for the original cast album of the Broadway musical, and a Tony award for that theatrical presentation. Hammerstein’s presence was certainly known to the parents of boomers, and therefore seeped down to their boomer children in the form of show tune albums being played in the house, and later, the movies themselves running on television. Hammerstein died in 1960.

Born in Montreal, Canada in 1925, Oscar Peterson was a famous jazz pianist. If boomer parents were into jazz in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, their boomer children probably heard his records played at home. Today he is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. He continued to perform sporadically after he had a stroke in 1993, ultimately passing way in 2007.

Boomers got to know the work of Oscar de la Renta (1932-2014) in the 1960s. He was the head in-house designer for Elizabeth Arden in New York, before moving to Jane Derby in 1965. He bought the company after Derby died in 1969, and changed the name to his own label. Boomers may very well have seen prominent women wearing his fashions in Life, Look and other magazines of the age. His long association with creating dresses for First Ladies started when he designed a dress for Jackie Kennedy when she accompanied her husband on an official visit to India. He continued to create dresses and gowns for Jackie, then went on to dress Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. Oscar de la Renta launched his own fragrance, named OSCAR, in 1977, and branched out into sunglasses and designer eyewear a year later.

Oscar F. Mayer (1859-1955) was the real person behind Oscar Mayer meats. His son, Oscar G. Mayer (1914-2009), took over the family business after his father’s death. He continued running the family business until it was bought by General Foods in 1981 (Kraft is the current owner). Oscar G. is credited with expanding the company’s exposure by reviving the Wienermobile, which his father had introduced in 1939, and sponsoring the company’s famous commercials of the boomer era. Is there a boomer anywhere who can’t sing the commercial jingles for bologna and hot dogs from the 1960s and ’70s?

Oscar Madison was a character in The Odd Couple, which began as a Broadway play by Neil Simon (1965), then became a film (1968) before becoming a TV series (1970-75). Walter Matthau portrayed Oscar in the film (opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix Unger), and the TV incarnation of Oscar was played by Jack Klugman (opposite Tony Randall as Felix).

Oscar the Grouch appeared in the very first episode of Sesame Street in 1969. Boomers young and old may recall Oscar as the Muppet who lived in a trash can, created by Jim Henson and Jon Stone. The first Oscar was orange, but later he was changed to green.

Meanwhile, back at The Academy Awards, the statue awarded by The Academy is nicknamed Oscar. The origin of how it got its nickname is disputed by some, but the most widely accepted story is that it was first said by a woman who worked for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1939, Margaret Herrick was a librarian there. She established the first library records of films for the organization. The story goes that Margaret, upon seeing the statue, remarked that it looked like her Uncle Oscar, and the name stuck. After Herrick’s retirement in 1971, the Academy renamed their collections library after her. Today, the Margaret Herrick Library holds more than 80,000 screenplays, plus tens of thousands of movie posters and press clippings, plus millions of publicity photographs.

Does the name “Oscar” bring back any memories for you, boomers?