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Nickels and dimes now needed for penny candy

| Sunday, Aug. 11, 2002

"Candy is powerful stuff. It's all about fun," claims Jon Prince of McKeesport Candy Co. Regardless of age, candy is sure to evoke a sequence of childhood memories. Baby boomers may recall candy cigarettes and Swedish fish. Their parents probably grew up sucking on Tootsie Rolls and Nik-L-Nips. Generation Xer's may light up at the mention of Pop Rocks and Jolly Ranchers (green apple was, by far, the best flavor).

Today, “penny candy” – candy once sold for one cent from neighborhood stores – might retail for a nickel or dime.

In the good old days, a trip to the corner store was quite a treat. Children surveyed the candy enclosed behind a glass case very carefully before choosing their prizes. “The concept is rooted more in memory than practicality,” says Prince. “Years ago penny candy was a staple. When a child had a quarter in his pocket, he'd buy 25 pieces of candy and have a wide variety (of candy) in his pocket." But unfortunately, says Prince, there are few places where you can find candy for a penny today.

“The disappearance of penny candy can be attributed to changing of economic times and the disappearance of drugstores with an independent vision,” says Prince. “The small shop has all but disappeared. The concept of corner drugstores is gone.”

However, there are many independent stores still striving to offer the candy to customers – candy that leads to conversations that begin with “I remember when...”

A little atmosphere can take you back in time

Two couples sit at an old wooden booth at Klavon's ice cream parlor in Pittsburgh's Strip District reminiscing about life in the 1950s. The atmosphere of Klavon's, which includes original fixtures from its opening day in 1923, is enough to spark a trip down memory lane faster than you can say, “those were the best days of my life.” Inspiring the release of memories is Ray Klavon, who serves up hand-scooped sundaes in a white apron and one of those paper service hats that unfolds to look like an upside-down canoe.

The couples' conversation quickly changes to penny candy, which conjures up images of walking to the neighborhood drugstore with change in your pocket. The spare change went a long way back then and would provide a seemingly endless supply of candy.

Don Krieger, 62, used to make a day of walking to Oakland to buy penny candy.

Vincent Pusateri recalls the days he and a group of friends would walk from Panther Hollow to St. Regis to buy candy. Pusateri would fill a bag with his favorite candies, which included licorice records.

“My parents used (penny candy) as a method to read,” says Catherine Pusateri. “We would get three books from the library, and we were allowed to eat our penny candy while we read our books. We are avid readers because of penny candy.” Pusateri was a fan of candy necklaces. “You could never decide if you wanted to eat it or wear it,” she says.

Klavon recalls his own memories of penny candy. The fact that his grandparents owned the store gave him access to an unlimited supply of penny candy. “We used to play Holy Communion with the sugar wafers – we were so bad. And if we didn't have sugar wafers, we used Necco wafers.”

A new generation of penny-candy lovers is emerging. Ally Ayoob, 6, claims sugar wafers as her favorite. She stopped by Klavon's with her mother and two sisters after a dentist appointment. Ally picked out four wafers – pink, yellow, white and orange – because “she hasn't had them in awhile.” She also picked out a bubble-gum cigar to take home to her brother.

Klavon enjoys telling stories of people who visit his shop. He says many people are surprised to find penny candy for sale. He offers 25 varieties of candy. Among them are Mary Janes, Smarties, Tootsie Rolls and Bit of Honey. These candies, which once sold for a penny apiece, now range in price from 5 cents to 10 cents. “By far, the most popular thing are Sky Bars. Many people don't know they still make them,” he says.

Sky Bars?

Sharon Maiorana, owner of Shadyside Variety Shop checks her penny candy stock after a weekend of sales that diminished her candy supply. Maiorana points to the empty basket where she stocks Sky Bars. Like Klavon, she states that Sky Bars are also a popular seller at her store. “Sky Bars?!” exclaims a customer. “Those are from my days – the 70s. They were chocolate with carmel and fudge – there were four squares with different things in them.”

Maiorana has regular customers who stop in on a weekly basis to fill up on penny candy. One gentleman stops in for a handful of Bazooka bubble gum. He's a man on a mission. He's been collecting the comics inside the gum wrapper but is missing one comic to complete his collection. Each visit to Maiorana's store brings hope that he will pick the right piece of gum and locate the missing comic. Another customer stops in every Saturday and buys Maiorana's stock of Hot Tamales. “You're always young at heart when it comes to candy,” says Maiorana. “Penny candy is old-fashioned candy of the past – it's a form of nostalgia.” To keep the nostalgia, she picks her candy stock very carefully. She doesn't want to sell the same items that stock the shelves of modern convenience stores.

Candy for a Penny in 2002

Klavon keeps an old-fashioned gum-ball machined stocked with multicolor gum balls perched on one of the counters in his shop. The price of a gum ball• One penny. He keeps the gum-ball machine for the kids who come into the store, just to show them that they can still buy something for a penny. “If two (gum balls) come out, kids think it's their luckiest day,” says Klavon. Even luckier is receiving a gum ball marked with a “K.” “My sister came up with the idea. If a kid gets a gumball with a K on it, they can pick any piece of candy they want,” he says, pointing to the penny-candy counter.

At Baldinger's Museum of Fine Foods located in Zelienople, a penny still goes a long way. It's one of the few places in western Pennsylvania where you can still buy candy for a penny. Others include Somerset Drug, 168 Main St., in Somerset, and The Record Den on Broadway in Scottdale.

Baldinger's hasn't changed much in the past 69 years – right down to the original wood floors and two 100-year old cash registers. After all the years Baldinger's has been in business, an air-conditioning system has never been installed. Betty Sabo, Baldinger's store manager and employee of 45 years cut her hair short to cope with the summer heat. She explains that the store owners wanted to keep the ambiance of an old-fashioned store, so air conditioning was never installed.

By 1:30 p.m. on a weekday, the parking lot is full of cars. Children run from table to table of candy, filling up their baskets. The older kids exclaim how cheap everything is. The penny candy table boasts approximately 20 different kinds of candy on sale for 1 cent, while other candy ranges from 5 cents to $3.50 per pound for bulk candy.

“When people walk in and see penny candy, you hear them oh and ah and gasp. They still can't believe we still have penny candy. We sell candy that people thought did not still exist,” says Sabo.

Cassidy Jones, 20, of Harmony brings her bag of candy to the checkout counter. Jones has been coming to Baldinger's since she was a child and often brings guests from out of state to fill up on sugar. Sabo dumps her bag into a tray and counts each piece by hand, her lips slightly moving as she counts. She jots the prices down on a piece of cream butcher-block paper and adds up the different categories of candy. “You get a $1 and then come to Baldinger's,” says Jones. Baldinger's receives approximately seven deliveries of candy a week, comprising a total of 5,873 pounds.

Sugar Sells

Prince feels that penny candy has mostly gone from mom-and-pop stores to Internet sales. As many people find that penny candy is hard to locate these days, many resort to searching the Internet for their favorite childhood sweets. “We've built an entire Web site around people having a nostalgia for penny candy,” says Prince. “Just the other day I had a woman contact me for a box of Swedish fish.”

There are many things that take us back down memory lane – music, scents and high school yearbooks. Candy is also one of them. It's a sugar rush just waiting to happen.

Candy timeline


  • Mid-1800s : More than 380 American factories were producing candy – primarily "penny candy," which was sold loose from glass cases in general stores.

  • 1896: Tootsie Rolls debut, introduced by Leo Hirshfield of New York who named them after his daughter's nickname, "Tootsie".

  • 1901: Pastel-colored little candy disks called NECCO wafers first appear named for the acronym of the New England Confectionery Co.

  • 1921: Chuckles —colorful, sugared jelly candies are first made.

  • 1925: Bit-O-Honey debuts, the honey-flavored taffy bar made with bits of almond.

  • 1926: Milk Duds are introduced as bite-size caramel morsels covered in chocolate.

  • 1949: Smarties small pastel candy disks are introduced, followed by the Smarties Necklace nine years later.

  • 1949: El Bubble Bubble Gum Cigars are the first 5-cent bubble gum. In the mid-1980s, the same company began to make pink and blue bubble gum cigars to celebrate births.

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