The Revolutionary Story Behind Mary Jane Candies

These small, molasses sweets have been around for more than 100 years, but beneath their sticky exterior, Mary Jane candies contain a revolutionary tidbit.

In 1884, Boston entrepreneur Charles H. Miller decided to try his hand at candy-making. Like many young businessmen, Miller didn’t have a lot of working capital when he entered the confectionary market, and so with no storefront or workspace, he opted to make candy in the kitchen of his own Boston home, with help from his three sons. After spending 30 years handcrafting candies in their home-based shop, Miller's son, Charles N. Miller, came upon the perfect flavor combination that would solidify the family name in candy history: a sticky mixture of peanut butter and molasses.

Mary Janes were sold out of dime stores as penny candies starting in 1914, and the Charles N. Miller Company thrived off of marketing the taffy-like sweets as being inexpensive treats. Early slogans persuaded sweet-tooths to “use your change for Mary Janes.”

Rather than naming the sticky candies after an historical figure or family pet, Miller chose to honor his favorite aunt by naming the chews after her. Or at least, that's the company line. Some have contested the validity of Miller’s name choice, suggesting that the story about his aunt is a lie and rather, Miller selected the name as a ploy for free advertising from the popular early century Buster Brown comic strip, which featured a character named Mary Jane. (While Buster Brown was created 12 years before Mary Jane candies—and the style of girls shoes actually are named after the cartoon lass—there’s no hard evidence to support this theory.)

The molasses chews were wrapped in yellow wax paper donning one red stripe, and featured a small girl named Mary Jane. Despite 100 years in production, the outside (and inside) of Mary Jane candies has remained virtually the same as when Miller first concocted the treat more than a century ago, except for specialty editions like full-sized Mary Jane bars, some covered in chocolate, and the occasional Halloween mix.

But besides his confections, what made Miller's Boston house-turned-candy shop so special was an earlier occupant, one who is best known in textbooks for his midnight ride that warned fellow colonists about incoming British Redcoats. That's right—American folk hero Paul Revere lived in the North End home at 19 North Square for 30 years (including in 1775, when he made a name for himself on that famous ride).

Fast forward more than 200 years, and Miller’s candy company was sold to Stark Candy in 1989. Within a year, the recipe and rights for Mary Jane were sold to NECCO, the same company that produces Conversation Hearts and NECCO Wafers. And in a move that brings the fun link between the candy and the legendary patriot full circle, NECCO continues to produce Mary Janes—unironically—in Revere, Massachusetts.

Even as an occasional dentist, we think that's a connection Paul Revere could rally behind.

Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Make Your Own Mouthwatering Pizza With Tomatoes From Frank Pepe’s

eugenesergeev/iStock via Getty Images
eugenesergeev/iStock via Getty Images

If you live in a rural area, the hunt for a quality slice of pizza—especially at a late hour—can be enough to make you consider moving to a pizza capital like New York. But what if you had the secret ingredient for a perfect pie right in your own kitchen?

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Italiana, the iconic New Haven establishment recently crowned America’s best pizzeria, is selling cans of its hand-selected tomatoes that you can purchase online or at any of its locations across Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.

Like any good "secret" ingredient, the tomatoes that Frank Pepe’s chefs use in their critically acclaimed sauces are a little different than your regular grocery store pickings. Food & Wine reports that each year, Frank Pepe’s grandsons (now restaurant co-owners) conduct a blind taste test of several different tomato varieties harvested from farms in Naples, Italy, and decide which ones are worthy of being used in their pizza products. According to the pizzeria's website, “It’s not just a matter of taste, but of the tomatoes’ density, texture, and transition of flavor once they are cooked.”


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Of course, there’s more than one reason Frank Pepe’s pizzas are considered the gold standard in America. To achieve that famous “crisp, charred, chewy crust,” the pizzas are baked in a coal-fired oven rather than a wood-burning one. There’s also the fact that Frank Pepe and his ancestors have been perfecting the Neapolitan art of pizza-making for nearly a century (the pizzeria was founded in 1925). In other words: Don’t be disappointed if your first crack at a heavenly homemade pizza doesn’t come out exactly like the mouthwatering pictures on Frank Pepe’s website. Having said that, the magic of hand-chosen Naples tomatoes is sure to make your creation considerably better than any of its frozen, store-bought brethren.

You can order a pack of three cans of tomatoes for $10 here.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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