Novelty candy packaging has been customary since the 19th century, when chocolates were first sold in black cats around Halloween or inside turkeys around Thanksgiving. These papier mâché forms could be used to decorate shop windows or drawing rooms, while also enticing customers toward a particular brand of sweets.
Perhaps the most popular candy containers were shaped like St. Nick: These papier mâché and composition Santa Clauses were particularly elaborate, almost like dolls in appearance. Ranging from 5 to 11 inches in height, these figures often had furry beards and felt stocking caps covered in tinsel to represent snow. Usually they held tiny trees or bags of miniature ornaments. When Santa's head was removed, his hollow body could be filled with tiny, pellet-size candy before he took his place on the family Christmas tree.
Once emptied of candy, these beautiful containers might be saved as ornaments and hung on the tree for years to come. Others became toys that were used in play; containers shaped like suitcases and hatboxes were the perfect size to hold doll accessories. Yet many were destroyed in the opening process, or simply thrown away once their contents were consumed. The Barnum's Animal Crackers box, shaped like circus car, is an example of a treat-filled Christmas-present ornament that was regularly discarded.
Mass-produced candy-container ornaments also included miniature boxes, baskets, pails, or tea cups, often decorated with holly leaves or poinsettias. Some papier mâché containers were covered in wax and shaped like animals, fruits, musical instruments, or figurines like angels. Containers shaped like churches or homes were particularly popular as gifts from churches to their congregations or from Sunday school teachers to their pupils.
Some families also made their own hand-crafted ornaments to hold the goodies hanging from the trees, which made these containers some of the earliest Christmas presents. The simplest design was the candy cornucopia, which was made from a piece of paper rolled into the shape of a cone.
By the 1880s, ever more elaborate candy-box ornaments were mass-produced and offered via mail-order catalogs like Bernard Mayer or Butler Brothers (Sears Roebuck and Marshall Field's came later), with or without candy. Some of the most coveted containers today were imported from Dresden, known for its die-cut, embossed cardboard ornaments.
Meanwhile, in France, ladies of means were romanced with "boites á bonbons," cardboard boxes filled with the finest truffles or other delicacies and lavishly decorated with gilding, mercury glass, and ribbons. Humorously enough, the term "boite á bonbons" became slang for a bordello.
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