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There's something about candy invented in the 1970s that really puts you back in your childhood. If you grew up in that decade, and even if you never grew up, this article is for you. I have searched high and low, and thought long and (kind of) hard, to assemble this candy list. It's a collection of the good, the bad, and the flat-out awful that was the candy of the 1970s. The decade of AM radio, long hair, and disco also gave us some of the most unforgettable sweets ever.
- Wacky Packs
- Candy Buttons
- Bottle Caps
- Necco Wafers
- Wax Lips
- Laffy Taffy
- Pop Rocks
- Now and Laters
- Pixy Stix
- Fruit Stripe Gum
- Nik-L-Nip Wax Bottles
- Freshen-Up Gum
First up on your 1970s candy list is one of the landmarks of youth culture. Wacky Packs combined Mad Magazine parody with bubblegum sweetness, offering a nerd-comedy alternative to baseball cards that kids like me and my friends immediately flocked to. And they were collectible, too! Any comedy kid worth his salt, weened on Monty Python and "Mr. Jaws," had a wall or a piece of bedroom furniture adorned with Wacky Packs stickers. Who cared if the gum was a brittle, powdery waste of space? The stickers were funny and gross and unforgettable. Just like adolescence.
These were pretty rare where I grew up, in a small town in the upper Midwest, but plenty of the people I talked to for this article ate almost nothing but these little guys for much of their early life. Although the total amount of actual candy in candy buttons is relatively small, the long scroll of slick white paper and the seemingly countless little dots made it seem like one of the best deals in the candy store. I remember them tasting a lot like stale icing, like when you raid the piece of birthday cake that has been in the refrigerator for a week. But at least they tasted better than the candles (see also: Wax Lips).
I loved Zotz! Zotz belonged to the family of what I think of as "stunt candy." Like Pop Rocks and Freshen-Up gum, Zotz packed a little surprise, in this case, a dose of violently fizzy powder concealed in the standard-issue hard sugar shell of the candy. The powder was also flavored, intensely enough to make your eyes water, or even provoke a gag reflex. You could suck on them and hope the fizz escaped a little at a time, like an undersea volcanic fissure, or crunch them and hope you didn't suffocate in the sudden eruption of foam. Fun! And yet there was something oddly compelling about Zotz. We hoarded and traded Zotz in much the same way we coveted our Pop Rocks stash. Adding to the allure was the occasional appearance of something called Fire Zotz, which remain in my mind as the hottest candy I ever encountered as a kid—way too hot to actually consume. Bite into a Fire Zotz at your own peril. Seriously.
No 1970s candy list is complete without Bottle Caps. Bottle Caps came in a green and pink package, kind of like a giant M&M's pack. The candy was stamped out of a sweet-tart-like material in the rough shape of pop bottle caps and was flavored according to soda pop: cola, root beer, orange, and lemon-lime. In my childhood, this was the best candy available at the public pool (and believe it or not, you can still find Bottle Caps right here!). I remember standing around in a swimsuit and towel while they cleared the pool for the "adult swim," eating bottle caps and waiting for the pool to re-open for the kids. The root beer Bottle Caps were the best, followed by the orange and cola flavors: lemon-lime, which I remember thinking was supposed to represent 7-Up, was the worst. The best thing about Bottle Caps was the generous amount in each envelope-like package. Occasionally we even had leftovers, pretty much unheard of in the world of candy.
Ah, Razzles. "First it's a candy, then it's a gum!" Even as an 11-year-old I could tell I was being manipulated. For one thing, I don't think I or any of my friends really felt the need for a hybrid candy-gum substance: candy was candy and gum was gum, and there was no urgent call for an intermediary. For another, actually eating Razzles was kind of a chore. There was a burst of flavor as the lozenge broke up, a kind of pale Sweet Tart experience, and then the granular bits began re-assembling themselves as gum, which for a kid used to having real-world barriers between candy genres was more than a little disorienting. I never asked for candy that began as candy and weirdly, magically became gum—having it happen in my mouth was just a little more action than I actually wanted.
If your granddad was in charge of the candy universe, Necco wafers would be top of the heap. These things were straight out of the 1960s. Dusty, antiqued, and brittle, they were seldom encountered outside of Halloween, when they seemed to mysteriously show up in your pillowcase at the end of a long night of trick-or-treating. No one wanted them! First of all, there's the name—what the heck is a "Necco," anyway? It sounds vaguely medical: "Nurse, this car-crash victim needs to be fitted with a Necco, stat!" But ultimately, from a kid's point of view, it's all about flavor and sugar. Call it what you want, but if it tastes good, kids will eat anything, no matter the name. But Neccos? They tasted like flavored chalk. Plus the weird wax paper wrapping whispered, "I'm from a different century." There was no candy lower on the Halloween trade chain than a licorice Necco wafer.
Choco-Lite kind of qualifies as a stunt candy because it relied on a gimmick, albeit a pretty lame one: it was a chocolate bar pumped full of air bubbles. The result was a kind of pumice-rock effect, not unpleasant, but totally unnecessary. Unnecessary, that is, unless you were Nestle, and looking for a way to charge full price for a chocolate bar that was at least 50 percent air. Pretty smart, Nestle! Unfortunately, my friends and I were one step ahead. We went with Chunky, a candy bar that let you know you were eating candy, not airholes...
What about Wax Lips? Were you supposed to wear them, or eat them? Neither alternative was especially rewarding. As a disguise, wax lips were quite ineffectual, and as a candy, well . . . few kids I ran with would even classify wax lips as a candy at all. Like Nik-L-Nips, which are discussed further on in the article, wax lips suffered from the fact that the main ingredient was wax, which is not an edible foodstuff. Eating a full set of wax lips of any flavor was not unlike chewing up a scented candle, minus the wick. Wear them for a few minutes, try to freak out your little sister, and then let them drift away to the Island of Lost Candy. In other words, under your bed.
Laffy Taffy, like Now and Laters, was one of the dependable, always-there candy standbys of the 1970s. It was not unlike Turkish Taffy or Bonomos, yet Laffy Taffy was somehow more synthetic in nature—kind of like yummy Silly Putty. Even if you didn't list Laffy Taffy as a personal favorite, you probably had a friend who swore by it. The flavors were bright and juicy, and the price was right; usually considerably less for one piece than a regular-sized candy bar, and definitely less than chocolate. Laffy Taffy has withstood the test of time and is still readily available more or less everywhere.
Oh yes, Pop Rocks. This is the candy that killed "Mikey" from the Life cereal ads—you know, "Hey Mikey! He likes it!" Okay, so that turned out to be a rumor. He didn't really eat three packs of cherry Pop Rocks, wash them down with a can of Coke, and suffer a chemical reaction that turned him into a parade balloon. But it made a great story, and any kid who endured eating anything more than a tiny serving of Pop Rocks would be excused for believing it was true. Pop rocks were one of the few candies in my childhood that physically hurt. The tiny, sharp explosions spiked your tongue, and you were afraid of swallowing them and winding up like Mikey, or worse. The fad that surrounded Pop Rocks made them the candy to have in the 1970s, and it's unlikely that anyone who came of age in the 1970s didn't at least try them. Pop Rocks were a little dangerous, a little illegal-seeming, and pretty much totally unpleasant. But we loved them!
Now and Laters
When I was in fifth grade, we were given an assignment asking us to draw a picture of what we would do with a million dollars. Most kids went on trips to the moon or bought a stable of ponies. I still have the picture I drew—a lurid crayon portrait of myself with my cheeks bulging and both hands full of brightly colored little rectangles: a million dollars worth of Now and Laters. For all of fifth and sixth grade, Now and Laters were an essential accessory for pretty much every boy and most girls. These little wonders start stiff and, in cold weather, brittle, but soon soften into a pliable mass that fits perfectly against the roof of your mouth. If it weren't for the colored tongue and mumbled diction, you could have had a Now and Later on board and gone through your entire school day without ever getting busted. Grape ruled; watermelon was a close second; banana was an even closer third. But there was no such thing as a bad Now and Later.
My brother loved Pixy Stix, but I didn't have the patience to peel and empty the stiff paper tubes. I never quite got the hang of eating them: I always managed to wet the torn end with my tongue, and the candy clumped and backed up at the opening. Pixy Stix failure! The candy may have simply been small amounts of tart/sweet Kool-Aid powder—it certainly tasted the same. The nice thing about Pixy Stix was the sheer number you could afford since they were more or less penny candy. As a result, my brother's room was carpeted by a straw-like mat of spent Pixy Stix. Giant versions were available as well, but these were a good deal more money and waaaay too much candy. Even as kids, we knew that a Giant Pixy Stix was going to give you a bellyache.
Fruit Stripe Gum
Is there any simple pleasure more endearing and less threatening than a stick of Fruit Stripe? Bendy, brightly colored, striped like Christmas candy, and assertively sweet, Fruit Stripe made everything seem just a little better. And the mascot was a zebra! Could it get any better? The only drawback was the relatively short-lived buzz of the fruit flavor. Fruit Stripe, like Black Jack Gum, lost its flavor in a few minutes and became a chore to chew. We typically just chewed through an entire pack in a sitting, jettisoning the spent wads and inserting a fresh stick like a gum-chewing machine. Which, come to think of it, we pretty much were.
Whoever dreamed up this high-concept confection must have been something of an abstract artist, or a mechanical engineer. It's one of the stranger members of any 1970s candy list. The idea, as we all surely must remember, was to moisten a blunt pressed-sugar obelisk and dip it into a packet of flavored powder—which was basically the same substance as in Pixy Stix, i.e. "Kool-Aid"—and continue on in this manner until the powder was gone, or you lost patience and crunched the blandly-sweet dipping stick. There was something illicit about this whole process. For one thing, the candy packets resembled nothing so much as chewing tobacco, and the weird dipping-stick method took both hands and essentially meant you were doing nothing else for the rest of the afternoon but dipping and licking, dipping and licking. But then again, I guess when you're 10 years old and it's summer vacation and the lawn has already been mowed, you really don't have anything better to do anyway. Ah, youth!
Nik-L-Nip Wax Bottles
An exercise in frustration. Wax bottles held a stingy little drop or two of sweet liquid, but you were never sure if you were supposed to bite the end of the bottle and try to drink or suck out the contents, or chew up the whole thing and wind up with a mouthful of wax—maybe worse than Wax Lips, since the wax in those was at least flavored. Once the liquid was gone, and that was a matter of seconds, the wax of the bottles turned into a wad of plain, flavorless, gunk. The stuff stayed in your molars for at least a couple of days, leaving you with a solid lesson in sad reality.
Stunt gum! Freshen-Up had a liquid center that gushed into your mouth when you bit it, sort of like a benign version of Zotz. Spearmint and Bubblegum were the most common flavors, but cinnamon could be had from time to time. There were a number of off-color jokes and nicknames for this gum that squished in your mouth, but that didn't stop us from going crazy for the stuff. You could also keep the gum intact for a while, bite a little corner off and dole out the syrup during the course of math class—Freshen-Up was a source of both sugar and distraction, both irresistible to the adolescent heart.
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