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?

Mister Boomer’s Easter Flashback

As aging boomers can attest now that six-to-seven decades have elapsed in our existence, there are plenty of flashback memories from which to choose on any occasion. This week, as another Easter season passes, Mister B was transported to the early 1960s. The flashback in question concerned his father and attending church on Easter Sunday.

Lent, that 40-day period set aside before Easter for personal reflection and to ask for forgiveness for past transgressions, is also a time when many Christians “give up” something as a symbolic sacrifice for the season. It was encouraged in Mister Boomer’s parochial school, though not particularly practiced among the schoolchildren, who tended to offer up something that wasn’t that much of a problem for them to do without for a month and a half.

Mister Boomer’s family practiced the no-meat-on-Fridays rule, but other than that, it was not typical for family members to discuss “giving up” something for Lent. So it was with great surprise that one year, his father announced he was giving up cigarettes for Lent. Mister B recalls his mother reacting with skepticism. After all, Mister B’s dad had a two-pack-a day habit at the time. Yet he was resolute. From that day forward, he did not smoke, at least around the family.

If you’ve read Mister Boomer’s posts for any length of time, you know his feelings on smoking. There was nothing about it that Mister B could tolerate, even as a child. So cutting the cloud of smoke in the home (or car!) by half for a few weeks was more than welcome.

So it was, as Lent went on, his father held out while his mother continued to spew smoke. Unfortunately for Mister Boomer, though, Lent does not last forever. Easter Sunday was fast approaching, and Mister B and his siblings wondered what would happen to their father’s pledge. They would not wait long to find out.

On Easter Sunday, the family drove to attend services, parking in the smaller of the two parking lots that abutted the church. It was the early 1960s, and church attendance was at its highest, especially on major religious holidays. Securing a good parking spot was crucial to getting the rest of the day underway, lest extra time be spent in trying to exit.

After the service, Mister B’s parents shuffled the kids along so the family would be in the car and ready as soon as an opportunity to leave appeared. Mister Boomer cannot recall the reason for the rush, but more than likely it was the fact that a visit to both grandmothers would ensue, which meant two Easter dinners awaited that afternoon.

As the brisk pace brought the family to the church doors, Mister B saw his father reach into his suit jacket pocket and pull out a new pack of Lucky Strikes. As soon as he crossed the threshold and was outside, a cigarette was in his mouth and being lit with his Zippo lighter. He did not even wait to get to the car. Cigarette lit, Mister B’s father took a long drag and began coughing, though he never stopped the family’s brisk pace to the car. He coughed and coughed, but the cigarette remained in his mouth. There was the answer Mister B dreaded; his father would smoke again.

In fact, Mister Boomer’s father did continue to smoke for another three decades after that Easter Sunday. Still, for forty smoke-free days from his father, Mister Boomer had a moment to catch his breath.

Was giving something up for Lent part of your Easter tradition, Boomers?

More Easter reading from Mister B:
Boomers Loved Their Chocolate Easter Bunnies
Our Sunday Best for Easter