The story of the jelly bean is remarkable, spanning cultures and centuries, involving sultans and ancient apothecaries, wars and great literary figures. It began around 226-652 CE in the Persian Empire where the ruling power, the Sasanids, enjoyed a sweet called “abhisa” made of honey, fruit syrups, and starch. By the 9th century, it appeared in the Arab apothecaries as a remedy for sore throats called “rahat ul-hulküm,” later shortened to “lokum,” meaning “throats ease” which many still use today. The sweet had a more or less humble life until the 1750’s when Sultan Abdul Hamid I fell in love with it and, according to legend, had his chefs prepare daily batches to satiate his many wives. Trade being what it was, word spread and folks in England started enjoying it, too, renaming it “lumps-of-delight.”
Then, in the mid-1800s, it took on a literary life, starting with Charles Dicken’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (1870) where character Rosa Bud announces: “I want to go to the Lumps-of-Delight shop.” Soon, the candy was called “Turkish Delight”: a name which has endured in the English-speaking world ever since. Most notably, the Turkish Delight appeared in C.S. Lewis’ classic, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” where it reigned as young Edmund Pevensie’s greatest passion. Thanks to the book and, more recently, the movie, most Americans seem to know the Turkish Delight although far fewer have tried it. Or so they think.
War and Love in the U.S.A.
In the mid-1800s an unknown candy maker panned the confection–a 16th century process of rolling a nut, seed, sugar crystal or other food in layers of sugar for a smooth shell. Soon after, in 1861, Boston candy-maker William Shrafft reportedly encouraged Bostonians to send his jelly beans to Union soldiers in period-style care packages.
Eventually that sweet become part of a new confectionery family known as “penny candy,” an inexpensive and fun sort of confection that allowed everyone, rich and poor, access to sweets. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle mentioned the candy on October 2, 1898 and soon a pound was selling at nine to twelve cents. It was in this new, penny candy guise that the panned delight took on a yet another name: the “jelly bean.”
But why “jelly bean”? Obviously it resembled a bean. But culturally, the name sprouts up everywhere; it referred to a fellow who shows up for a date well dress, nicely coifed, but has nothing else going for him. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story “The Jelly Bean” in 1922, in which he wrote: “’Jelly-bean’” is the name throughout the undissolved Confederacy for one who spends his life conjugating the verb to idle in the first person singular—I am idling, I have idled, I will idle.” And Phil Harris wrote a song “Jelly Bean (He’s a Curb-Side Cutie)” in 1940. In other words, this guy was useless.
The Jelly Bean Shines
The jelly bean won its most enduring acclaim around 1930, as an Easter candy, reasons unknown except that, since the late 1800s, candy-makers were busy finding a niche at religious events, the stripped candy cane (late 1800s) an excellent example. About 40 years later, enter the Jelly Belly. Candy distributor and entrepreneur, David Klein, came up with the idea to infuse the entire bean with flavor, not simply the shell. And those flavors – why settle for overly sweet, washed out fruit flavors? Why not make them bold, unusual, delicious? As for the name – Klein was watching blues musician Lead Belly perform on the 1970s sitcom “Sanford & Son.” Only, Klein thought the name was “Jelly Belly…” And the rest is food marketing history.
Since then, the jelly bean has made appearances everywhere, from movie theater concession stands to corner store displays. They showed up at a presidential inauguration in1981 and were the first candy to go on a space mission in 1983. In fact, people ate enough jelly beans last year to circle the earth five times, so says the Jelly Belly company on their Web site.
Which leads to the not altogether happy ending of the jelly bean story. Klein was a candy genius but not a candy cook. So he hired his friends at the Herman Goelitz Candy Company to make the candy for him. The Goelitz family was so inspired they decided to buy Klein out (aka steal) the candy, concept, name, and flavors. After a five-year legal battle, and a movie on the subject produced by Amazon, Klein received a small settlement. The multi-billion dollar company Goelitz family company is
now called “Jelly Belly.” Their multi-billion dollar owners have left Klein a scant legacy – he can publicly acknowledge he invented the candy.
Of course, events like these, large and small, are part of the landscape of human experience and demonstrate the timeless importance of comfort foods like candy.