A penny might still buy an intangible thought or two, but if it's a piece of candy you crave, you'll definitely pay more.
You'll hand over 3 to 5 cents for a "penny candy" today, but years ago a single cent could satisfy a child's sweet tooth."In spite of inflation the term has stuck," said Edward Bjornson, executive vice president of the National Candy Brokers Association in North Andover, Md. Bjornson said food brokers still define penny candies as individually wrapped or unwrapped treats with names like Walnettos, Mary Janes, Jaw Breakers, Candy Buttons and Squirrels.
"At one point in our history, the sales of penny candies accounted for almost 35 percent to 50 percent of the profits at most independent food stores," said Ray Broekel, author of "The Great American Candy Bar Book" and "The Chocolate Chronicles."
According to Broekel, penny candy dates back to the 1880s and early 1900s, when entrepreneurs Perley G. Gerrish and Otto Schnering founded two of the country's earliest candy companies.
Gerrish's company, which is still located in Cambridge, Mass., specialized in Squirrels, which were made out of chocolate, nut and caramel. The only difference in the product today is that Squirrels now retail for a nickel each and are often sold by the pound in cellophane bags, said Gerrish's son Hollis.
The popularity of penny candies peaked during the Depression when Schnering, a Chicago businessman, opened a regional plant that mass-manufactured nickel and penny Baby Ruth bars.
The mass production of penny candies during World War II helped many brands go national during the '40s and '50s, said Broekel, who also produces a newsletter titled Candy Bar Gazebo.
More than a few adults - particularly those thirtysomething or older - have fond memories of times spent in a neighborhood store with their noses pressed against a display case as they carefully picked out a dime or a quarter's worth of candy.
But sales plummeted during the '60s as small mom-and-pop grocery stores gave way to supermarkets and convenience store chains.
- The fact that so few businesses stock penny candy has forced nostalgia buffs to seek out other sources. One is The Vermont Country Store's mail order division, which stocks chocolate babies, root beer barrels, cinnamon and butterscotch hard candies, rock candy and chocolate drops. The candies come in two- or three-pound containers and retail for between $3 and $15. (For information, call 802-362-2400.)