by Jessica Kosinski
This issue is devoted to the general store. When I think of a general store, several images come to mind right away. Near the top of the list are the jars of candy. Back in the days when kids safely roamed the streets alone and simple pleasures had more value, jars of candy lined the counters of general stores. Commonly known as “penny candy,” it was a sweet treat kids everywhere looked forward to. They often used their allowances or birthday money to purchase their favorite treats, and a dime or quarter went a long way. It could fill an entire paper sack with penny candy.
Today, penny candy in its truest form is almost impossible to find.
Many of the classic candies are still available. In fact, thanks to online ordering, they are incredibly easy to find. But finding them at penny candy prices is nearly impossible. Even so, walking into general stores here in New England still makes me think of penny candy and the collectibles related to it. Let’s take a peek at the history behind penny candy and look at the things you can collect today that can take you back to the days when candy cost a penny and life was simpler.
When I was a kid, there was a Woolworth’s in the mall not far from my house here in New England. I used to go there with my mom, but at that time I never would have guessed penny candy started out there. When they first opened, Woolworth’s stores were known as Woolworth’s 5¢ & 10¢. The first penny candy, the Tootsie Roll, debuted there in 1896. Soon after, the store implemented an entire aisle of penny candy, and a trend later popularized in general stores was born.
The second wrapped penny candy to be introduced was Sweethearts candies, which were sold by the Civil War candy company Necco Wafers. Hershey’s Kisses became the first chocolate penny candy when they entered the market in 1907. Other popular penny candies included bottle caps, licorice, candy corn, bubble gum and jaw breakers. The term “penny candies” refers to the fact that the pricing was originally a penny per piece of the candy, even though much of it was sold in bulk by the pound, rather than by the piece.
The General Store Penny Candy Experience
Going to the general store for penny candy was a real experience in the early days. Some general stores had long counters of penny candy jars. Others had shelves with candy jars stacked up to their ceilings. Kids would congregate around the displays and debate which candies they wanted. Sometimes they would share their spoils with their siblings and friends. It was an experience later immortalized in television shows and movies like The Waltons, but one that is almost unheard of in modern society today. If you are a child of the penny candy era, you can still relive those moments by collecting penny candy memorabilia.
Collecting Penny Candy Jars
When you think of penny candy jars, you may envision glass containers somewhat resembling fish bowls with metal lids in the front. Such jars are somewhat slanted to make the candy easy to scoop out. They have been commonly used for candy, cookies and other goods in general stores and other establishments for many years. In fact, they are still made today by companies like Anchor Hocking. That makes weeding out the older jars from the new difficult. Sometimes markings on the jars can indicate age or maker. It can also be difficult to find older general store candy jars with their original lids. Expect to pay more for older jars with their lids in excellent condition than for jars with chips, cracks or missing lids.
Penny candy jars that are more unique tend to cost more and be more difficult to find. Some jars had elaborate shapes and even featured etched glass. For example, in 2011 an elaborate glass penny candy jar made by the Crawford China Co. in 1902 by special order for Aunt Jane’s Candy Treats in Wilson, Kansas sold for approximately $200. Many general stores had custom jars with words or advertisements on them. Some had special stands or unique shapes. Those unique qualities make such jars fun to collect, but they can also be much harder to find, especially in great condition. That makes them perfect if you are a collector who enjoys a challenge.
There are other ways to celebrate your love of penny candy. One fun option is to collect penny candy advertisements you can display. Many companies produced advertising posters or other forms of penny candy advertising, such as candy boxes.
One company known for its prolific penny candy advertisements was the Curtiss Candy Company. It was founded near Chicago, Illinois in 1916. Curtiss is known for producing many candies we still know and love today. However, thanks to several sales and mergers, those candies are now sold by Nestlé. They include the Butterfinger and the Baby Ruth. A popular early Curtis advertisement featuring images of both candies proclaimed “Use your cents. Buy Curtiss penny candies.”
One of the best sources for penny candy advertising of all types is obviously the Internet. Sites like eBay frequently feature all sorts of penny candy display boxes and advertising posters. For example, in June 2019 a tin 5 cent Curtiss penny candy general store display box sold on eBay for $350. However, when buying online you need to ask a lot of questions and make sure product descriptions are accurate. You may also need to request insurance in case of damage occurring during shipping. Hunting for such advertising products in person at local antiques shops and flea markets eliminates those problems. It also eliminates the need to pay shipping costs or wait for your penny candy collectibles to arrive. However, you have to be quite a bit luckier to come across penny candy advertisements or other penny candy collectibles that way.