The wonderful thing about candy, particularly when each piece is individually wrapped, is that you can put it anywhere. You can fill jars, bowls, baskets, vases, bags, buckets, and piñatas with candy. Pretty much any vessel of any solid material will do.
The first documented "candy containers"—officially small molded-glass toys filled with small candy pellets—were made for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, shaped like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. But Christmas was probably a bigger influence on the development of these novelty gifts.
Early Christmas trees, which emerged as a Christian tradition from 18th century Germany, were covered in edible goodies like apples, nuts, and dates. (Think of the popcorn and cranberries on a string we use today.) As the Christmas tree spread to the United States and England in the 19th century, it was generally covered in sweet treats...
Soon, families were making their own hand-crafted ornaments to hold the goodies hanging from the trees, some of the earliest Christmas presents. The simplest of which were candy cornucopias, which were made of a piece of paper, wrapped into the shape of a cone.
By the 1880s, ever more elaborate candy-box ornaments were mass-produced and offered in mail-order catalogs like Bernard Mayer or Butler Brothers—and later Sears Roebuck and Marshall Field's—with or without candy. Some of the most coveted today were imported from Dresden, known for its die-cut, embossed cardboard ornaments.
Some were simple cornucopias, boxes, baskets, pails, or tea cups, decorated with holly leaves or poinsettias. Others, made of papier mâché covered in wax, might be shaped like animals, fruits, musical instruments, or figurines like angels. Christmas candy containers shaped like churches or homes were particularly popular as gifts churches would give to their congregations or Sunday school teachers to their pupils.
Papier mâché and composition Santa Clauses were particularly elaborate, closer to dolls. Ranging from 5 to 11 inches in height, these Father Christmas figures might have felt clothing and stocking caps (covered in tinsel to represent snow), furry beards, and in their hands, tiny trees or bags of miniature ornaments. Generally, Santa's head would come off, and then his hollow body could be filled with tiny, pellet candy before he was hung on a tree.
Once emptied of candy, these beautiful containers might be saved as ornaments and hung on the Christmas 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. Others were destroyed in the opening process, or simply thrown away once they were empty. The circus car Barnum's Animal Crackers box is an example of a treat-filled Christmas-present ornament that was regularly discarded.
The Victorians loved holidays in general, and celebrated Hallowe'en, Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, and Easter with as much relish. As such, similar toys and paper-mâché candy containers were made in the appropriate shapes, whether it be hearts, turkeys, baby chicks, bunnies, or spooky jack o'lanterns for trick-or-treating.
In 1880s France, meanwhile, ladies of means were romanced with "boites á bonbons," or cardboard boxes lavishly decorated with gilding, mercury glass, and ribbons and filled with the finest truffles or delicacies. Humorously enough, the term "boite á bonbons," also became slang for a bordello.
By the turn of the century, novelty glass candy containers were being churned out by dozens of U.S. glassworks, mostly located in Pennsylvania. These toys, made from molded glass, were sold filled with candy pellets, held in place by metal caps or strips, or cardboard caps. The now-collectible pieces were originally intended for children, who would play with them long after the pellets were gone.
Boys were drawn to the trains such as the three-piece New York Central Train or Overland Limited, as well as the other vehicles like cars, buses, and trucks. The glass guns were perfect for a game of "cowboys and Indians." Tanks, jeeps, ships, and airplanes let boys play military and war games. Girls tended to go for nursing bottles for their dolls, Flossie Fisher metal and glass doll house furniture, as well as household toys like telephones, lanterns, rolling pins, irons, and toy dinnerware.
Candy containers also came in the same holiday themes as the paper-mâché candy boxes. Some were shaped like the popular comic-strip characters of the day, while others depicted animals and plants truer to nature. The earliest of these were designed by craftsmen, who would create a mold for each design, and each piece was pressed or blown one at a time. When they were cool enough, a woman at the glassworks would hand-paint each piece.
Glass toys went out of production during the Depression, between 1929 and 1939, and came back in full force during World War II. Even new automated factory assembly lines couldn't even up with the popularity of these candy containers, and thousands were produced a day. Due to wartime metal shortages, these were now closed with cork or wood stoppers or waxed cardboard strips. In the '50s, glass containers were ditched in favor of new plastics, a cheaper material. By the '70s, they went out of production all together.
The most prolific manufacturers of novelty candy containers were Westmoreland Glass, Jeannette Glass, Victory Glass, West Brothers Co, T. H. Stough, L. E. Smith, J. H. Millstein, and J. C. Crosetti Co.
Originally sold at five-and-dimes and through catalogs like Sears Roebuck, such glass toys now can sell for anywhere from ten to several thousand dollars, depending on rarity. (Animal shapes tend to be common, while the more elaborate pre-1900 containers are the most sought-after.)
Collectors have to be wary of modern reproductions, made in Taiwan without the closures or other metal parts. Many repros are made in colored glass like cobalt and pink. They might be made of swirling slag glass or have an iridescent carnival finish. If the seller calls these Depression glass, you can bet they are fake. Most common reproduction shapes include guns, trains, and dog heads, particularly Boston terriers.
The much more grown-up concept of confection or candy dishes probably has its start with the 18th-century European aristocracy, who liked to indulge in palate-cleansing desserts after their overly spiced meals. Known as sweetmeats, these desserts—usually preserved fruit, trifles, sundaes, or chocolate—would be served in individual ornate stemmed glasses, much like ice cream dishes. Smaller comfit glasses were employed to serve dry sweetmeats like chocolate, salted almonds, or cachous (breath mint lozenges).
Unlike comfit glasses, candy dishes—like their larger cousin, the console bowl—were placed on coffee tables, dining tables, and other furniture and filled with treats for everyone in the room to share. The top glassmakers of the 20th century, regardless whether they specialized in art glass or Depression glassware, made candy dishes in their popular patterns, whether that was cut glass, iridescent, or engraved. These include Lalique, Fenton, Fostoria, Waterford, Cambridge, Baccarat, Murano, Westmoreland, and Anchor Hocking.
Candy dishes similar to cookie jars were also made of ceramics, by the likes of Lefton, McCoy, Hull, and Reed and Barton, as well as in metals like sterling silver. In all materials, they were produced with and without handled covers.
One of the most common glass designs used as a candy dish is the "hen on nest" design. From 1880 to 1910, as many as 84 companies put out 174 variations on this concept. After that, 13 companies made hen-on-nest covered dishes in carnival glass.
Of the recent candy dishes, one of the most popular is the Chessie box, made by Fenton for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1970. The first of these covered candy dishes, which featured the railroad's beloved sleeping kitten, Chessie, were unmarked and made in amethyst carnival glass and only given to heads of state and friends of the railway.
Employees expressed interest in the candy dish, and so the railroad ordered more for Christmas gifts, and these were marked "December 1970 Chessie by Fenton." In 1977, Fenton got permission to produce the Chessie box for its regular line in different colors. That's when the mold number changed from #T9180 to #9840.
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