HARPERS FERRY, WEST VIRGINIA - For a lot of people, there's nothing better than a piece of candy.
Eye candy is everywhere at the True Treats Historic Candy store in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It features more than 400 confections which were popular during different periods in history — everything from ancient Greek chewing gum to 20th century classics. The first commercial candy appeared in 1806.
The unusual assortment at the only historic candy store in the United States in a house built in 1842, includes classic chocolate kisses, candy cigarettes, and even edible bugs.
That’s right, bugs — once considered a sweet snack. A popular novelty item at True Treats is a small bag of roasted bugs with crickets and mealyworms. There are also ant wafers, first introduced In the 1950s.
“The crickets taste a little bit like sesame,” said Susan Benjamin, the enthusiastic True Treats owner and candy historian. “I’ve had ants, and some of them are a little bit bitter, almost tart like lemon.” She can’t bring herself to try the mealyworms.
Not all bugs
But for people with more conventional tastes, there are fruit flavored candies, caramels and licorice. For chocolate lovers, an entire table is lined with the dark confections, including small round balls with nuts or raisins. The candies were popular from the 1920s to 1950s with people who played card games.
“People could pick up the candy with their fingers in one hand and hold the cards in the other,” Benjamin explained.
Surprisingly, sweets were first used as health food and for medicine. Malted Milk, a combination of malted barley, wheat flour and evaporated milk, was once a staple in infant formula.
Benjamin picks up a package of Turkish delight, small fragrant cubes of jelly, which she said “were made for a sore throat around the year 900, and became very popular worldwide.”
People also chewed on bark, branches and roots, which can also be purchased at the store.
“People first used the root from the licorice plant to brush their teeth,” said Benjamin, “and then in the mid-1800s, kids would chew it to get that delicious licorice flavor.”
Customer Anna Jo Smith was fascinated by the marshmallow root.
“You think of marshmallows as a more recent tradition, but marshmallow tea goes back centuries," she said.
Many of the candies have labels on them that explain their history.
“I think it’s fun to see the progression through the years of the different kinds of chocolates and candy,” said customer Angela Hoffman. “You get a little taste of different times.”
A bag of fruit-flavored crimson jelly hearts brings back memories for Emmanuel Montenegro.
“The last time I saw this was probably 18 years ago or so. And now it’s here and I can have it,” he said and smiled.
But other customers are too young to have grown up with any of the candy in the store, which opened eight years ago.
“I came here a lot as a kid,” said teenager Bev Soriano. “So while there is nostalgia, it’s also weird; yet I have so many fond memories,” she said as she left the store with some chocolate bars and a bag of sugary, pastel-colored candy hearts.
True Treats’ candy can also be ordered on-line.
For people who want to know more about candy’s guilty pleasures, Benjamin has written a book called "Sweet as Sin" about the intriguing evolution of confectionery treats.