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10 Sweet and Colorful Facts About Mike and Ike

Through wars, presidential administrations, and even a manufactured breakup, the famous candy duo has seen it all in 75 years together. Here are a few facts about the early days, their public split, and whether or not Mike and Ike were real people.

1. THEY DEBUTED IN 1940.

Sam Born, a Russian immigrant who made a fortune by inventing a machine that inserted sticks into lollipops, started the Just Born candy company in 1923. The name was meant to imply freshness, and the original Just Born logo was a slightly creepy picture of a baby lying on a candy scale. In its early years, the company relied mainly on acquisitions for revenue. Then in 1940, eager to harness the growing demand for fruity, gummy candies, Just Born came out with its first major brand—Mike and Ike.

2. MIKE AND IKE DON’T EXIST.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just like Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker, Mike and Ike are fictional food characters. As for where the names originated, nobody knows—not even the company (or so they claim). Popular theories include a reference to Dwight Eisenhower, to a popular vaudeville act, and to a 1937 song titled “Mike and Ike (The Twins).” In response to a question on its website about the names’ origin, Just Born cheekily claims that Mike and Ike are “the founders of Mike and Ike candy brand.”

3. JELLYBEANS AND MARSHMALLOWS HELPED THE COMPANY GROW.

In 1953, Just Born purchased the Rodda Candy Company, which specialized in manufacturing marshmallows and jellybeans. Rodda’s jellybean expertise helped Just Born expand Mike and Ike into new fruit flavors and additional varieties like cotton candy. The marshmallow Easter Peeps that Rodda workers painstakingly made by hand, meanwhile, were automated by Sam Born’s son, Bob, and became a mainstream hit.

4. THE FIRST FLAVOR ADDITIONS INCLUDED ROOT-T-TOOT AND JACK AND JILL.

Mike and Ike’s original fruit mix, which contained cherry, orange, lemon and lime candies, carried the brand through its early years. Starting in the ‘60s, the company began introducing new flavors like Root-T-Toot, Jack and Jill and Jolly Joe’s. The first was a root beer flavored candy that featured a smiling steamboat on the package. The company discontinued it in the '70s, and then brought it back as a limited anniversary edition in the late '90s. Apparently that went over well, since a few years later Just Born released a Root Beer Float flavor. Earlier this year, the company brought Root Beer Float back once more, along with the popular Cotton Candy flavor. In all, there have been close to 40 different flavors of Mike and Ike.

5. THE FIRST MIKE AND IKE WERE A PAIR OF DANDIES.

For years, Just Born resisted depicting Mike and Ike in physical form. Then in the '60s, the company updated its Original Fruit packaging to show two mustachioed gents. One wore a top hat and resembled a redheaded Willy Wonka, while the other was a stouter, Dr. Watson-esque figure donning a green bowler. Was this a nod to the brand’s vaudeville origins? Perhaps. The characters were certainly a far cry from the two dudes representing Mike and Ike these days.

6. THEY’RE BIG AT THE MOVIES.

Mike and Ike is the best-selling non-chocolate candy at movie theaters, and has been for years. Most movie theaters carry the 5-ounce theater box, but super fans can also upgrade to the 1-pound and 1.5-pound boxes.

7. THEY WENT THROUGH A VERY PUBLIC SPLIT.

Three years ago, the fictional characters announced (via a very pricey media campaign) that they were going their separate ways. Mike, the musician, and Ike, the artist, just couldn’t see eye to eye on the direction the company was going, and decided to pursue separate interests. Or something. The campaign was a way for the brand to enter the national conversation, and to appeal to the much sought-after teen demographic. It unfolded on product packaging, with one or the other name scribbled out, and across national ads, the company’s Facebook page and fake Tumblr accounts given to both characters. "Instead of all this hassle, now I’m just gonna jam,” Mike wrote. “Been laying down heat with my friend Blaze.” Kids these days.

8. THE CAMPAIGN BOOSTED SALES.

Just Born spent $15 million on its breakup campaign in 2012. Just for perspective, the previous year the company only spent $125,000 on advertising. So a lot was riding on the faltering bromance—and according to most reports, it succeeded. Sales of Mike and Ike saw their biggest increase in more than a decade, the brand’s Facebook page tripled its number of fans, and Barack Obama (among others) became a follower of the company’s branded Twitter account.

9. THEIR SPLIT ANGERED THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT.

Although Just Born never specifically said Mike and Ike were gay, that’s the way some interpreted the duo after announcing their split. One of the most vocal critics was Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. In a radio address, he claimed the company had a political agenda and was “sexualizing candy.” And despite the fact Mike and Ike were never joined in matrimony at any point in their 70-year relationship, Perkins also claimed the candy duo was “chipping away at the value of marriage.”

10. THEY EVENTUALLY GOT BACK TOGETHER.

The manufactured breakup eventually came full circle, and Mike and Ike repaired their friendship/romance/whatever. The company celebrated the reunion with sleek new packaging and a new flavor called Strawberry Reunion. There was also a very dramatic movie trailer that aired on national TV.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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