Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Jelly Bean

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 21, 2015

When the word jelly bean is introduced into a conversation, most people — whether children or adults — think of the candy, but a jelly bean hasn’t always been just a candy.  These days, it’s also slang for someone who appears hard-headed but is really a tender heart.  The term arose from the 2006 coming-of-age movie, “ATL” that tells the story of four recent high school graduates facing different challenges at a turning point in each of their lives.

During the eighties and nineties, jelly beans were also shoes obviously made from plastic and available in jelly bean candy colors.  Of course, you can still get jelly beans today from places such as JBeans and Amazon.

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Vincent Joseph Monteleone (18 December 1883 – 18 November 1959) wrote inCriminal Slang: The Vernacular of the Underground Lingo” published in 1945 (and revised in 1949) that a jelly bean was a weakling and a coward.  Now you might think that Vincent was maybe a member of the underworld, but the fact of the matter was, he was a Captain — a police Captain — and he compiled the list over the course of his law enforcement career from the 1920s through to the 1940s.  As an added bonus, his book included a table of hobo code symbols.

Just a few years before Vincent published his book, in 1941, American educator, scholar, literary critic, essayist, poet, and editor John Crow Ransom (30 April 1888 – 3 July 1974) explained in his book “The New Criticism” that jelly bean referred to soft, sweet music.

In the collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald (24 September 1896 – 21 December 1940) entitled, “Tales Of The Jazz Age” published in 1922 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, he described a different kind of jelly bean albeit with more than one flavor in his short story “The Jelly Bean.”  It had been previously published in “The Metropolitan” and according to the author, it had been written “under strange circumstances shortly after my first novel was published.”

Now if you call a Memphis man a Jelly-bean he will quite possibly pull a long sinewy rope from his hip pocket and hang you to a convenient telegraph-pole. If you call a New Orleans man a Jelly-bean he will probably grin and ask you who is taking your girl to the Mardi Gras ball.

A few paragraphs later he adds:

Jelly-bean is the name throughout the undissolved Confederacy for one who spends his life conjugating the verb to idle in the first person singular — I am idling, I have idled, I will idle.

Now, a jelly bean wasn’t just a lazy oaf, according to Chicago Bill Elliot out of New Orleans, Louisiana.  In fact, for the January 1920 edition of the “American Photo-engraver” magazine, he wrote an eloquent description of what a jelly bean was.

There is the jelly bean, a species of the genus homo, whose habits and deportment are as follows:  Dresses in the latest design, razor edge creases in trousers, hat and shoes to match, hair split in the middle, he doesn’t walk, he glides like a turtle up to soda fountain.  The most strenuous work he performs is the consumption of a lollypop or nut sundae with a wash down of grape juice and then the mollycoddle dives in the feathers for his beauty nap.

A jelly bean, according to Volume 5 of “Dialect Notes” was described as an indifferent individual.  The term was listed in the chapter on “Terms of Disparagement in the Dialect Speech of High School Pupils in California and New Mexico” and was the result of a high school assignment from 1914.  High school students were instructed to submit twenty terms of disparagement to their teachers that were used in everyday conversation, and to provide definitions for each term submitted.

Other sources state that a jelly bean can also be an inept or stupid person as seen in Volume 33 of “Everybody’s Magazine” published in 1915.  The term is used to great effect in the article, “A Challenge To Authors” by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (18 June 1877 – 27 May 1960).  You may not recognize his name, but Idiomation is certain that you would recognize his portrait of “Uncle Sam” as over four million copies were printed on posters between 1917 and 1918 as the U.S. sent troops off to war.

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In any case, in his challenge he included the idiom in this passage:

An unknown authorine — and this is straight goods — had the hardihood, when she had been told that I was going to illustrate her woolly little stories — she belongs to the jelly-bean school of literature — to ask the art editor to tell me not to make her heroine FAT!

The illustrator turned writer seems intent on making a point which, upon reading the entire article, seems to illustrate that he has a bee in his bonnet.  In appeared to have reserved particular ire for Wallace Irwin, Rex Beach, Jack Hines and Rupert Hughes.  And he ends his rant with this:

While I would particularly enjoy seeing one of the foregoing authors flounder on this job, I am not bigoted — it is absolutely open to all story-tellers whose stories I have illustrated.  Positively no discrimination against any one!  Whether my illustrations have ruined their stories or  not!  Get in touch with EVERYBODY’s at once!  This is on the level!

In a story in “La Cope de Orc (the Cup of Gold): A Collection of California Poems, Sketches, And Stories by the Members of the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association” edited by Mrs. Abbie E. Krebs, and published in 1905. The candy known as a jelly bean was used in the story “Miss Kid” by Ruth Comfort Mitchell (21 July 1883 – 17 February 1954).  Ruth went on to write “Of Human Kindness” published in 1940 as a counterpoint to the John Steinbeck (27 February 1902 – 20 December 1968) novel, “The Grapes Of Wrath” published in 1939.

“Then,” he said, fishing in his pocket, “you may as well have this, too:” he drew out the bag of candy.  “I tried to get a juvenile assortment — a hasty recollection of my pinafore days.  Do have a jelly bean.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather have a ju-jube baby.  I haven’t seen one for six years.”  Six years!  The light faded from her face, and she looked out across the sun-baked plain with eyes in which quick tears had gathered, and a wistful droop of the lips.

Jelly beans, as a candy, were well-known in America even as early as the 1880s and 1890s and were subject to duties according to the United States Department of Treasury as well as the Customs and Excise Department Statistical Office of Great Britain.

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While some candy makers insist that jelly beans were created by an unknown American candy maker in the 1800s, none of these candy makers has been able to identify who that unknown candy maker was or where he lived.  Without a doubt, there are newspaper advertisements suggesting that consumers buy and send jelly beans to Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War.  That was the marketing idea of Boston confectioner William Schrafft (15 June 1823 – 9 February 1906). So we know that jelly beans were around in the U.S. from at least 1861 onwards.

That being said, it’s also a fact that the French invented a process called panning in the early 1800s which is an integral part of the process used to make jelly beans.  By the mid-1800s, England had banned the use of thorium, copper, mercury, and arsenic extracts for coloring panned candies based on an article published in “The Lancet” in 1850.  This means that jelly beans weren’t invented in America, although the name jelly bean may have originated in America.  But was the term jelly beans unknown until it was coined sometime between 1850 and 1861?

Imagine the surprise when Idiomation found jelly bean trees mentioned on page 15 of Volume 3 of “The Public Documents of Massachusetts” published in 1835!

Jelly Beans_1835Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to learn more about jelly bean trees despite the most ardent efforts to find any information on them.  Perhaps one of Idiomation’s readers or visitors knows something about jelly bean trees and is willing to share that information with us in the Comments section below.

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3 Responses to “Jelly Bean”

  1. Debra said

    I have heard the story of Boston papers advertising jelly beans in 1861. No one has been able to find the primary documentation (the advertisement) and it appears most people who have repeated the story seem to have heard it second hand. Have you found the newspaper and the ad for the jelly beans? It would prove they were around during the Civil War… Thanking you in advance.

    • William Schrafft (15 June 1823 – 9 February 1906) founded his candy making company in 1861 and at one point, his candy business had the largest candy factory in the world with 1,600 employees. In 1861, the first candies he specialized in were gumdrops, soon adding other hard candies to his wares.

      Some researchers claim that the first mention of jelly beans was in a 1905 advertisment in the Chicago Daily News. This is incorrect as the first published mention Idiomation found for jelly beans was found in documents of the Customs and Excise Department Statistical Office of Great Britain. In the 1880s and 1890s, duties were already being imposed on gumdrops and jelly beans, with these two specifically mentioned together.

      The Illinois State Chronicle from Decatur (IL) published an advertisement for George Julier, confectioner (his shop named JULIER’s was located in the South Side New Square in Decatur, Illinois) in July 1859 that advertised the shop had fresh gumdrops for sale, wholesale and retail, in assorted flavors.

      During this era, candymakers and confectioners experimented with making new candies using panning equipment. As we know, the panning process was invested in the early 1800s in France. This means that jelly beans and gumdrops couldn’t have been invented prior to the invention of the panning process.

      According to Civil War records, a great man manufacturers secured military contracts. Aside from the weapons and munitions manufacturers, there were others who made their fortune in this way. This was not unheard of as food purchases by contract for the military was something that had been in place since 1780 through an act of Congress.

      Among those who secured military contracts for items other than weapons and munitions include, but are not limited to, the following:

      Rudolph Wurlitzer secured a military contract to make and sell drums and trumpets to the federal government.

      Gail Borden secured a military contract to supply the troops with condensed milk (which she invented in 1856).

      David Snell secured a military contract to supply the troops with 100 tons of bread thanks to his high-volume bread production at his mechanical bakery.

      And a military contract was secured by William Schrafft (who emigrated to America from his home in Stuttgart, Germany in 1850) to make gumdrops and other confectioneries for the military because of his reputation as a maker of excellent gumdrops and hard candies.

      So while Idiomation hasn’t found the elusive advertisement you mentioned, there is considerable evidence pointing to the probability that the claim that marketing gumdrops, jelly beans, and other hard candies, was most likely the idea of Boston confectioner William Schrafft (15 June 1823 – 9 February 1906), and this was done during the Civil War.

    • Time magazine

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