The Origin of the Candy Cane

It wouldn’t be the Christmas Season without sugary, striped candy canes. But did you ever wonder, “Hey, who’s idea was it to purify sugar from cane plants and form it into smaller canes? That seems like a lot of work for a similar result.” Surprise! It was the Germans.

According to legend, the candy cane was designed in 1670 at the request of the Cologne Cathedral’s choirmaster. He asked a local confectionary for sugar sticks as a way to ensure that children attending the annual living nativity would be quiet and well-behaved. The sticks were all white, to symbolize Christ’s purity and bent to resemble shepherd’s crooks.

Over the years, the tradition of churches handing out candy canes during Christmastime spread over Europe and America. The yuletide treats were still plain white and largely unflavored. By the mid-1800s colored stripes began to appear, and by the early 1900s peppermint flavors were added. At this point in time, candy canes were still formed by hand, a labor-intensive process involving molding and stretching hot sugar. Canes frequently broke while being man-handled, so very few candy canes could be produced at any one time. 

The process needed to automated. You know who’s really great at automating things? Americans! In 1920, Bob McCormick of Atlanta Georgia ran the McCormick’s Famous Candy Co. Bob’s company was the world’s leading supplier of candy canes, but as previously stated, manufacturing all those canes was laborious and wasteful. It was Bob’s brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, who came up with a machine to automate the process. Keller was a soon-to-be-ordained Catholic seminary student who spent his summers working for Bob. His invention, the patented Keller Machine, drew out candy rods, cut them to precise lengths and neatly bent the tops. The process revolutionized candy cane production and boldly promised a future in which Christmas church services all over the world would be attended by sticky, well-behaved children. God bless America!

 . . . And danke Germany.

Brian Rutter, PhD, is the cofounder of Thing in a Pot Productions and a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at Indiana University. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our “Things About Things – Odd Facts About Plants” and video production tips in your inbox every month!

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