Sugar candies were among the first products marketed directly to children. Widely available by the 1830s, these treats were crafted in a dazzling array of colors and shapes, including pressed-sugar dolls, horses, guns, stars, hats, cigars, gin bottles (a questionable choice for kids), and so on. They were notable for their cheapness—the original penny candies could be a dozen for one cent—and for the sometimes poisonous things they were colored or flavored with (like arsenic in green dye).
|A candy vendor on Hester Street on New York City's Lower East Side, c.1890|
Of course, reformers were concerned. Babyhood Magazine c.1879 gave worried mamas a long list of experiments to perform on candy to see if it was adulterated with poisonous flavors or colors, or stretched with additives. There was also a concern that candy would lead to “intemperance, gluttony, and debauchery,” and that children who indulged their early appetites for sugar might be more prone to sexual misdeeds or alcoholism later on.
Other concerns stemmed from the making of cheap candy and chocolate in sweatshop conditions, with women or girls dipping sugar mice in chocolate by hand and then licking their fingers, standing from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. because the boss thought sitting made them “lazy.” As with many other products, concern about candy was based on questions of consumers' health, the misery of workers, or both.
|Young women at work in a candy factory in the early 20th century|
Mass-produced candy wasn’t sold only to immigrant children in America. Like pickles and a few other cheap edible pleasures, candy was a strong contrast to the often bland diets of the poor. It figures prominently in tales of tenement and immigrant life—both in novels (the smallest sisters in All-of-A-Kind Family, the classic children’s novel of the Lower East Side, agonize happily over penny candy purchases) and in memoirs and oral histories. 97 Orchard Stree resident Josephine Baldizzi remembered sugar-coated almonds (confetti), torrone (either nougat or a kind of nut brittle), and 1-cent Hooter bars (her favorite—an American candy bar rather than the traditional Italian candies), and American peppermint drops.
Candy-making also became a business in which immigrants could compete. One of the candies that comes to America with immigrants and goes on to be a Lower East Side success story is halvah (also spelled halva, halwa, helwa. . . .). Its root is the Arabic word for “sweet,” and versions of halvah go back about 3,000 years. Its long history results in arguments about its ingredients, flavorings (vanilla, chocolate, orange, carrot), consistency, and historical origins. Some people also like to eat it; others say it’s “just right for spackling the walls.”
|Halvah for sale by the pound|
There are two general styles of halvah. The one that comes from India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan is semolina-based, though it includes oil, flour, and sugar (or honey). The other widely-known version is based on ground seeds or nuts and is Romanian, Russian, Greek, Israeli, Turkish, and Lower East Side Jewish.
Halvah was originally sold by “Turkish, Syrian, and Armenian street vendors”, according to author John Mariani, but the variety best known on the Lower East Side was brought here by a 22-year-old immigrant from Minsk, then the Ukraine, named Nathan Radutzky. He started making it in 1907, and it was sold on pushcarts and in delis. His company moved to Brooklyn and was renamed Joyva by his sons after World War II. These days they also make chocolate-covered jelly rings, marshmallow twists, and a hard sesame candy with a well-known logo: a drawing of a Turkish guy.
|Joyva's chocolate-covered halvah|
Halvah’s popularity is attested to by references to it in literature and popular culture. In a play called The Centuries: Portrait of a Tenement House (Emanuel Jo Bansshe, 1927) an immigrant in need of a job is given the suggestion (among others) that he go sell halvah. In The Garret, Carl Van Vechten reports that some patrons of the Yiddish theaters are driven crazy by other patrons eating during the plays, often fruit or candy—and especially halvah. While it wasn't as iconic as lox and bagels, no one ever felt the need to explain what halvah is at that time.
--Posted by Educator Judy Levin