Halloween mystery: Love it or hate it, was candy corn born in Philly?

There’s surprisingly little in the way of hard evidence for the claim.

sept 15 candy corn
Pail: Shane Confectionery; Background: Flickr/Rodger
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Was candy corn invented in Philadelphia? That’s what they say, and depending on how you feel about the Halloween niblets, that’s either one of the most awesome Philly firsts, or one of the saddest. If it’s actually true.

Legend has it that the miniature white-orange-yellow cones were first made by a man named George Renninger while he was working at the Philadelphia-based Wunderle Candy Company.

Apparently a very dedicated and talented confectioner, Renninger is credited with inventing the whole genre of “butter cream” soft candy, which could be easily molded into almost any shape. And, the story goes, during one harvest season in the late 1800s, he was inspired to create a method for layering different colors into a single mold shaped like a kernel of corn. Voila! Candy corn was born — although it wasn’t widely popularized until a decade or so later when the Goelitz Candy Company (now Jelly Belly) started making and selling it.

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But though the Renninger origin story is repeated in dozens upon dozens of Halloween candy explainers, it turns out there’s very little factual evidence to support it.

The 132-year-old National Confectioners Association starts its candy corn fact sheet by mentioning Renninger’s invention, but attributes it to “oral history.” An NCA spokesperson had no further insight, and suggested reaching out to Jelly Belly.

Jelly Belly spokesperson Jana Sanders Perry first ping-ponged the suggestion (“Have you talked with the NCA?”) and then fell back on the same claim.

“We’re still doing research to find out if we first made candy corn in 1898 or 1900 — there’s conflicting evidence,” said Perry, “but what we know for sure is that we did not invent it.” She described the Renninger/Wunderle story as “oral tradition that’s been passed down through generations of the Goelitz family.”

There’s even more definitive oral affirmation out there. Samira Kawash, author of Candy, A Century of Panic and Pleasure, tells the Renninger story and cites an article in the September 1946 issue of Confectioners Journal. In a piece titled “Not How Cheap but — How Good,” Fred and Horace Wunderele described how their father Philip got his candy company off the ground, and gave credit to George Renninger for helping him do it. They don’t exactly mention “candy corn,” but do talk about Renninger’s general inventiveness with regards to butter cream.

Which brings us to the most enticing piece of evidence so far: The photo of a Wunderle candy pail bearing the a label that reads “The Best Butter Cream Corn” (see pic at top).

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The pail is part of the extensive collection of artifacts at Shane Confectionery in Old City, run by candy history geeks Ryan and Eric Berley. The brothers are so into the history of candy that they actually have an archivist on staff, Laurel Burmeister — who provided the final proof needed to definitively link Renninger to Wunderle: A 1910 patent application for a candy box, filed by one George Renninger (of Glenside, Pa.) and assigned to none other than Philip Wunderle (of Edgehill, Pa.).

Was candy corn invented in Philly? Seemingly, probably, most likely yes. So whether you love the tri-colored kernels or consider them Halloween’s worst scourge, you have Philadelphia to thank.

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Tagged

Food, History