The modern-day jelly bean dates back to the Civil War, when it was promoted to Union soldiers (1860s) by the first-known manufacturer, the Schrafft Candy Company. In the early 20th century, “jelly bean” was slang for a man who dressed stylishly (commonly referred to a “fop”). In other words, your basic man of style but no substance, which pretty much describes the actual candy, almost pure sugar, with a bit of flavoring.
Present at all Cabinet meetings were several large jars of jelly beans sitting on the conference table during President Reagan’s administration, as well as a fixture in the Oval Office and on Air Force One. Guests at Reagan’s 1981 inaugural parties consumed a whopping 40 million jelly beans (about 7,000 pounds). Gourmet Jelly Belly brand actually created a new flavor, blueberry, specifically for the event. Ronnie was clearly the jelly bean president (wouldn’t foodie Thomas Jefferson have loved that).
Jelly beans became a regular penny candy in the early 1900s and were the first confection to be sold by weight rather than piece. Later they were packaged in bags and sold in assorted flavors. In the 1930s, they exemplified Easter candy and sales skyrocketed each spring. There are a staggering 16 billion manufactured yearly just for Easter baskets and decorations. (That’s enough to circle the Earth three times.)
Simple in shape and flavor, manufacturing is anything but. It can take from 7 to 21 days to produce them, is rather labor-intensive, and a simple bag usually contains 8 different flavors. In honor of this all-American candy, there is a National Jelly Bean Day every year, which will take place on April 22 this year. Annually, we consume about 100 million pounds in the United States alone. (Dentists love that.)
Unquestionably the Rolls Royce of this popular candy is Jelly Belly, which positions itself as the “gourmet beans.” Very Cherry enjoyed the top position in popularity for several decades until 1998, when (drum roll) Buttered Popcorn moved into first place; other unique flavors include Champagne, Draft Beer, Pancakes and Cappuccino. Much of the allure of Jelly Bellies are their unique, fresh flavors, which deliver a burst of sweet delight in their small size and can be purchased in bulk by individual flavor. What more could you ask? (And since they are small, you can cram more into your mouth at one time, a definite plus)
So all you fans, do you pick out your favorites or just grab a handful, flavors be damned. Are you influenced by the colors, do you buy “designer” jelly beans, or just go for the regular? Perhaps you (sadly) have to avoid them because they wreak havoc with your dental work? No question, they are all-American, like so many other penny candies, and have fascinated children of all ages for decades. Okay, so they don’t have any nutrition, but sometimes we have to forget about intrinsic value and go for it. They’re just good, clean fun. Know what I mean?