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What Was The Junk Food Of Choice For Kids Every Decade Of The 20th Century?

Updated September 23, 2021 57.7k views10 items

From the Gen X obsession with sun-dried tomatoes to the 1950s-era meat salads suspended in aspic jelly, we have collectively come a long way from our culinary past. New fad foods and diets pop up and disappear every year, but one thing has curiously stayed the same over the last century: junk food.

Before the Industrial Revolution, most of what we would now consider “junk food” was made at home on a small scale. While the invention of the steel mill and steam power was certainly useful and revolutionary, the more whimsical effects of the societal overhaul are worthy of analysis, as well. The developments in food science expanded while mass production grew more sophisticated, enabling the American public to experience a wide array of new snacks.

The most impressive aspect of junk food developed throughout the 20th century is just how many of the inventions stuck around. Cracker Jack and Jell-O are permanent fixtures in the national American identity. Hershey has become an entire census-designated place in Pennsylvania. While Atkins TV dinners and poke bowls may come and go, we tend to hold our old junk food standards close generation after generation.

  • 1900s: Cracker Jack, Tootsie Rolls, Jell-O, Hershey's Chocolate Bar

    The early 20th century marked the beginning of “junk food” as we know it. Heartier sweets and desserts had existed for millenia, but mass-produced sugary confections were a unique novelty. According to Andrew F. Smith, author of the Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food, Cracker Jack was the first junk food in America. The original recipe is very similar to what it is today, a combination of popcorn, molasses, and peanuts. It was sold at the Chicago World's Fair in the late 19th century, and became a smash hit when it was repackaged for mass distribution across the nation. 

    In 1900, Orator Francis Woodward procured a formula for flavored gelatin, marketed under the name Jell-O. It rocketed in popularity after an advertisement in a 1902 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal, where it was called “America’s Most Famous Dessert.”

    The humble and enduring Tootsie Roll’s invention in 1905 was especially notable for its logistical value. Offered at one cent a pop, it was the first candy to be sold individually wrapped. 

    Long before it spawned a candy empire with a matching theme park, Hershey chocolate was a harebrained enterprise by popular caramel retailer Milton S. Hershey. After inventing his own proprietary milk process to develop his chocolate, Hershey began a chocolate plant in Pennsylvania that, in 1905, spawned his first of many creations: the Hershey's chocolate bar.

  • 1910s: Oreos, Hostess Cupcakes, Marshmallow Fluff, Peppermint Life Savers

    The Oreo, one of the most popular cookies in America, is a direct copy of a similar pre-existing cookie, the Hydrox. The primary difference between the Oreo and the now-defunct Hydrox was one key ingredient in the original Oreo formula: lard. 

    Depending on the region of the United States you claim, you may have allegiance to Hostess or Tastykakes. Both started similar enterprises - individually wrapped snack cakes - around the same time. Tastykakes, invented in 1914, were initially known for their chocolate cupcakes, while Hostess rose to fame with the 1919 invention of the Hostess vanilla cupcake (sans vanilla icing and squiggly line, which came along 40 years later).

    While "marshmallow paste" existed in local cookbooks throughout the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, the revolutionary Marshmallow Fluff brand spread was invented by Massachusetts native Archibald Query in 1917. Just one year later, its most popular application, the "Fluffernutter," was conceived.

    Following in the footsteps of the individually wrapped penny candies from the previous decade, Life Savers "Pep-O-Mint" candies hit shelves in 1912, sealed in shiny foil wrappers. They were originally in the shape of a disc; the hole design did not come along until 1925.

  • 1920s: Mounds Bar, Popsicles, Reese’s Cups, Baby Ruth

    The "Indescribably Delicious" Mounds bar was one of the first hits of the new decade. Comprised of dark chocolate and coconut filling, Mounds was created by the Peter Paul Candy Manufacturing Company in 1920.

    Eleven-year-old Frank W. Epperson made a common mistake that usually results in nothing more than a burst can or cracked glass: leaving soda in the freezer too long when you just want to cool it down. When he left his powdered soda on the freezing porch overnight with the mixing stick still in the cup, he found the proto-popsicle in the morning and knew he had done something special. Eight years later, in 1923, Epperson patented his creation, which soon became the "Epsicle," mercifully redubbed the Popsicle by his children. 

    The Reese's Peanut Butter Cup was invented in 1928 by a Hershey employee, Harry Burnett Reese. They were originally just called "peanut butter cups," and they were popular immediately upon release.

    While this candy bar made of peanuts, caramel, and nougat covered in chocolate is practically timeless, the Baby Ruth stood out with its bizarro advertising campaign. In 1920, Otto Y. Schnering dropped his creations from a chartered airplane onto the ground in 40 different states.

  • 1930s: Twinkies, Lay’s Potato Chips, Snickers, 3 Musketeers

    The underuse of shortcake pans outside of strawberry season is reportedy responsible for the invention of the Twinkie. James A. Dewar of Chicago baked snack cakes with banana filling using the neglected pans, resulting in the Hostess Twinkie. During WWII, the banana cream filling was replaced with vanilla as a result of the rations.

    Herman J. Lay began his snack company in 1932. He made it big with the 1938 invention of the Lay’s potato chip, which became the best selling potato chip in America soon after. Twenty years later, Lay would team up with Charles Elmer Doolin of the Frito company to form the modern day conglomerate, Frito-Lay. 

    The 1930s were a special time for Frank Mars, founder of Mars, Inc. The 1923 invention of the Milky Way opened the industry up to the possibility of candy bars with a filling inside, and this practice was perfected with the invention of the Snickers and 3 Musketeers bars, in 1930 and 1932, respectively. They both featured a nougat filling, with Snickers providing an additional caramel and peanut center.