Pretty Pinstripes & Bad Journalists: The Questionable History of Candy Canes

The history of the candy cane is similar to the history of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" carol: too much myth, not enough primary sources, lots of internet untruths.

Firstly, an Indiana candy-maker did not invent candy cane to celebrate Jesus--not the colors, not the shape (J for "Jesus"), not the anything.

Candy canes pre-date this story.

Secondly, there is an enduring myth that a choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral in 1670 "invented" the candy cane to keep his choirboys quiet during Christmas Eve mass.

As the story goes, the sugar sticks needed to be licked, not bitten, thereby preventing rowdy boys from talking or picking on each other. But since the faith would frown upon this use, the nameless choirmaster bent the candy sticks on one end to imitate a shepherd's crook, to remind his pupils of the Nativity.

This is a lovely, somber story... but a story nevertheless.

No documentation exists recording this event. In fact, it's first referenced as an anecdote around the middle of the 20th century.

But it's been repeated. A lot. By writers and journalists who (this writer opines) should know better.

Illustration of peppermint leaves & flowers, 1897.


When researching peppermint history (as one is wont to do), one will occasionally see a claim that it was used to harken back to the use of hyssop, a Biblical mint flavor.

This is, unfortunately, more unsubstantiated nonsense.

The peppermint leaf, which is considered a natural hybrid mint, was first differentiated by botanist John Ray in 1696, and alternatively reported to have been first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. An astute reader may notice that both those dates occur later than the popular origin story in Cologne, Germany.

Of course, peppermint had been cultivated for thousands of years in its native areas of Northern Africa and the Mediterranean. It was employed as a digestive aid and confection flavor for thousands of years.

Once it was commercialized in England, and later in the United States, both the peppermint leaf and its oil were used to mask the ugly flavors of otherwise gag-inducing "medicinal" tonics.


Advertisement for pepperment oil by W.H. Schieffelin & Co., 1897. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Sugar candy sticks--regardless of the incorporation of peppermint--have been around for many hundreds of years, throughout cultures. There is no lightning moment, when these became candy canes.

The most probable is far less glamorous or piety-inspiring than the above stories: you can hang them on trees if you put a crook in them. As you may recall from the history of the Christmas tree, food was often used to decorate firs, e.g. apples.

In 1837, we finally find verifiable source material for candy sticks, judged in a competition held by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association. And in 1844, we have a written recipe for peppermint sticks in America.

Child eating peppermint stick while standing on pier, 1909. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The National Confectioners Association officially recognizes a German immigrant named August Imgard as the first to decorate Christmas trees with candy canes in America.

Imgard had emigrated from the Bavarian mountain region to the exotic land of Ohio, in order to establish a business as a tailor. In 1847, he was apparently homesick enough to set up a Christmas tree that would make his distant family proud.

So he put a blue spruce on a rotating table and decorated it with the candy, as well as kuchen (cakes), paper ornaments, and gilded nuts. He also asked the local tinsmith to construct a star for a topper, and while the tree rotated on its table, a music box played. It was a smash hit, with people traveling from miles away to view it.

August died in 1904. Every year, a pine by his grave is lit up with Christmas lights.

It should be noted that Imgard's decorative candy canes were pure white.

All candy canes were, actually, until the turn of the nineteenth century. The origin of the red stripes is lost, no matter what you might read about the red representing Christ's blood. That's a pervasive and evidence-less myth, too.

The red pinstripe probably just occurred alongside candy canes becoming decorative. Red is an enduring Christmas color throughout the centuries, and red and white pair well together. That's about all we've got.

Further written mentions of candy canes are abundant in children's literature. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about getting red mittens and a beautiful notched candy stick for Christmas. And in the short story, "Tom Luther's Stockings" from the Bostonian periodical Ballou's Magazine in 1866, we see candy canes again.

"Tom stared at him with a puzzled smile; then pointing to some mammoth candy canes displayed in a shop window across the street, he said, insinuatingly: 'My little dear, just take me to the young lady, and you shall have those and enough candy to get sick for a month.'"

Excerpt from the periodical "Ballou's Magazine," 1866.

In the short story "Benny's Letter," published in the periodical "The Nursery" in 1874, the titular character Benny Holbrook writes to Santa.

"Dear Santa Claus, -- next Christmas please bring me a drum, and a pair of rubber boots, and some oranges, and a pencil that marks red and blue, and one that marks black, and some almonds, and a writing-desk, and a rubber-ball, and some candy, and a pistol that shoots paper caps, and a safe with a frog to swallow the pennies like the one Robbie Kendall has got, and some figs and grapes, and a new sled with Gen[eral] Grant on it, and please bring me some writing-paper and a candy-cane."

Excerpt from the periodical "The Nursery," 1874.

Benny, damn.

So. Why all the untruths about candy canes? It appears to be a multi-generational effort to inject Christianity into an otherwise secular holiday item.

But wherever they came from: they sure are pretty.

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