You may have seen this meme floating around the interwebs lately. You know the familiar, often hard, taffy wrapped in black and orange waxed paper.
The meme reads "These rock-hard candies taste like a mixture of molasses and child abuse. Their manufacturer is so ashamed of them that nobody is even sure what they're called, and rumor has it they're only made in the dead of night in a hidden factory operated by the souls of the damned. Every adult who gives them out turns into a bat and vanishes the next day. The moment a kid eats one is the moment their childhood ends."
Well, I hate to burst the meme-maker's bubble, but these candies DO have a name - Mary Jane Peanut Butter Kisses - and a rather long and storied history.
The oft-maligned candies are a molasses taffy stuffed with a bit of peanut butter. And there are two versions, actually - the original Mary Janes, which were rectangular; and the Mary Janes Peanut Butter Kisses - the more familiar, roundish shape that resembles salt water taffy.
Originally invented in 1914 by the Charles. N. Miller Candy Company, Mary Janes were supposedly named after his aunt, but the mascot was - and still is - a precocious little girl.
Charles H. Miller opened a confectionary shop in Boston, MA in 1884. His son, Charles N. Miller, was the one who invented Mary Janes - a molasses taffy made just at the soft ball stage, with peanut butter folded in the center.
Molasses taffy dates back to the mid-19th century. Molasses is boiled until thickened, then when partially cool, it is pulled to incorporate air into the cooked sugar mixture and give it lightness and chew.
Mary Janes are softer than many types of taffy, in part because the cooking process is halted earlier. Peanut butter was also being popularized at the turn of the 20th century, and many Halloween candies from that era incorporate peanut butter into the mix.
At some point, the small rectangular candies wrapped in an iconic yellow and red printed paper were succeeded by the "kisses" - the rough rounds wrapped in black or orange waxed paper. It's unclear whether the black and orange wrappers were to part of a marketing scheme to associate the candies with Halloween, or if they became associated with Halloween because of the wrappers. Either way, they are a staple old-time candy that still finds its way into candy jars and trick-or-treat bags from time to time.
Some of their endurance is likely because they are so inexpensive. Even in the period, they were inexpensive, and one of the advertising slogans the Charles H. Miller Company came up with was, "spend your change on Mary Janes." They're still sold in "penny candy" stores today.
Wrapped in waxed paper, both the original Mary Janes and the Peanut Butter Kisses do tend to dry out and harden after a time, which is probably what makes them the bane of childhood.
Mary Janes were in danger of disappearing from store shelves on several occasions. In 1989, Miller's was sold to Stark's Candy Company, which in turn was acquired by Necco (New England Candy Company) in 1990. Throughout the mid-2000s, Necco underwent a series of sales to various investment firms until it finally declared bankruptcy in 2018. It was purchased by the Spangler Candy Company (famous for Dum-Dums, candy canes, and Circus Peanuts) and the rights to produce Mary Janes was licensed to the Atkinson's Candy Company in 2019. Located in Texas, Atkinson's is most famous for "Chick-o-Stick" candy, and makes a variety of other, old-fashioned, peanut-butter-based and taffy candies including Peanut Butter Bars (a type of peanut brittle layered with peanut butter which I adore) and Slo Poke.
The history of Mary Janes reads like a miniature summary of candy company history in general - old, family companies are "gobbled" up by larger ones. But some of the originals, including Spangler, which was founded in 1904, and Atkinson's, which was founded in 1932, seem to hang on. Nostalgia likely plays a leading role in their continued success, as does the inexpensive nature of their offerings. You'll notice that neither company has much in the way of chocolate (which is more perishable and difficult to work than pure sugar) as part of their offerings. Hard candies, caramels, and chewy taffy-based treats are the name of the game.
As for whether or not Mary Janes constitute child abuse? Perhaps if all you've ever had were hard, stale ones, you might agree. But now that Atkinson's is producing them again, I encourage you to buy yourself a fresh bag and give them a try. And if you really can't stomach them and end up with a bag you're loathe to throw away, you can always turn them into a peanut buttery caramel sauce.
What do you think? Do you have a favorite candy that other people hate? Tell us in the comments!
The Food Historian blog is supported by patrons on Patreon! Join us for awesome members-only content like free digitized cookbooks from my personal collection, e-newsletter, and even snail mail from time to time!
Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.