By Mary Gage
While reading (paper-in-hand) the July 1, 1864 Boston Daily Journal I came across an advertisement for “Corn Balls, Sugar Corn, Pop Corn” for the 4th of July celebrations. The United States was deep into the Civil War which was raging in the southern states. The journal ran daily articles on what was taking place on the front lines of the war. But daily life also went on. Public Houses, the country hotels opened to summer tourists. Steamers on the ocean and inland lakes transported people to wharfs with stages waiting to take them to their hotels. The northern states felt it was a sensible thing to celebrate the 4th of July. The patriot thing! A way to remember our origins as a nation! A means of unity! Many towns declined due to lack of financial problems. Those with celebrations had speeches and fireworks. Gatherings come with food.
Popcorn came to us from the Native Americans. The Euro-Americans here in America refined the popping and went on to turn popcorn into candy. What state or region sugared popcorn originates from is unknown. The earliest reference is from Wm. H. Noyes, 21 Front St. Gloucester, MA with an advertisement that ran from December 20, 1848 to March 14, 1849. Noyes made Candy, Pies, Cake, etc. He advertised two items Ice Cream and superior Corn Balls, wholesale and retail.
This is followed by a confectionery maker (commercial candy maker) S.F. Rogers, 272 Essex Street, Salem [MA] on Dec. 29, 1851. He was advertising them for Christmas and New Years. (Salem Observer)
In 1855 ads showed up in Middletown, CT (Constitution) and Philadelphia, PA (Public Ledger) in December, again the Christmas and New Years holidays.
In 1859 there was an ad in early May in Cleveland, OH (Cleveland Leader). This suggests they were a common treat as well as a holiday treat. That is confirmed by the 1848 advertisement in Boston that ran continuous from December to March.
1860 Connecticut Patterns – “Russell Arnold of Hartford, for improved machine for moulding parched corn balls.” The term parched was another term for popping corn. It is better understood from a recipe printed in the Weekly Union newspaper from Manchester, New Hampshire. “To Make Pop Corn Balls Parch the corn in a kettle. While it is hot pour in some molasses of good quality.” Parch refers to popping the corn. Improving the molding machine shows the popularity of Pop Corn Balls.
In the years 1861 (New York), 1865 (Michigan), and 1867 (Wisconsin) cookbooks began to print recipes for the home cook. During this time period recipes also started showing up in newspapers. Manchester, NH had one in the Sept. 4th, 1866 newspaper (Weekly Union).
Getting back to the year 1864 and Fourth of July celebrations. Another Boston confectioner, Sibley’s ran an advertisement in the Boston Herald specifically advertising “Sugared Corn Balls, Sugared Corn and Pop Corn” for the 4th. They had to have been a favorite holiday treat summer and winter.
The ladies speak out regarding pop corn balls in an amusing article in the Dec. 15, 1870 Wooster Republican (Wooster, OH)
Pop corn balls although they appear to start out in New England became popular across the northern states.
New England’s Connection
What’s interesting are references to New England popcorn in two out-of-state examples. The Cleveland Leader [Ohio] advertised “made of the best Yankee Pop Corn” (5-5-1859). This was by a commercial manufacturer. New England had developed premium popcorn. Here it was being promoted in the ad showing people recognized its value. The People’s Own Book of Recipes (Wisconsin) had a recipe that called for “eight row ‘tucket corn” [Nantucket Island] (1867). The ear of corn had eight rows. This was a specific type of popcorn. New England developed specialized popcorn that was superior to others. It is similar to Rhode Island’s famous white cornmeal favored for corn muffins. Talking about corn meal I found a reference and recipe for Corn Meal Balls.
Not to be confused with Sugared Corn Balls
The Ohio Farmer A Practical Weekly, November 3, 1877 printed the following:
“I am glad the men killed that nice pig yesterday. You may put the best half of the backbone on to boil, and because this is baking day, and we are short of bread, maybe we had better have corn meal balls for dinner; you know the boys would think that Thanksgiving had come right suddenly upon us. No, I know you never made any, but if I’m to write for THE FARMER to-day, you are to fill my place as well as you can. Any ninny can make corn balls; why it is as easy as falling off your chair when you are asleep.
“Just take about three pints of new corn meal; salt to taste, and pour over it scalding water; stir well; let it cool sufficiently, and then, with freshly-washed hands, mould into round balls about the size of a walnut with the hull on. When the meat is rather more than half done, drop into the kettle, here and there, carefully, the balls; put on the cover and let them boil steadily until they are cooked through. This makes a very substantial dinner, especially good for working men.
This appears to be a mid-western recipe as I did not find it in New England cookbooks.
Pop Corn Candy
Sugared Popcorn generally refers to popcorn coated with sugar syrup. The syrup was cooked to the softball stage and served loose.
Corn Balls and Pop Corn Balls refer to popcorn coated with molasses or sugar syrup often with gum Arabic or vinegar added. It was cooked to the hard ball (brittle) stage and made into balls.
Modern cookbooks continue to print recipes for popcorn balls: Joy of Cooking (1995), Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1965), and Better Homes and Gardens (1965). These are editions I own. Later additions most likely also contain the recipes.
Reprints of Old Recipes
1878 Home Messenger of Tested Recipes (Detroit, MI)
Page 239 Pop Corn Balls
“694 Pop Corn Balls.
To six quarts of popped corn boil one pint of molasses about fifteen minutes; then put the corn into a large pan, pour the boiled molasses over it, stirring briskly till thoroughly mixed. Then make into balls of the desired size.”
1881 Aunt Mary’s New England Cook Book (Boston, MA)
Molasses and sugar with vinegar
Page 63 Corn Balls & 65 Molasses Candy
Put on the fire the same ingredients (except soda) as for molasses candy ; boil fifteen minutes; have a large dish of popped corn ready, turn the molasses hot on to the corn; make it up into balls.”
Two cups molasses; one cup sugar; one teaspoon vinegar; a bit of butter; cook in a spider, and it will be done in about twenty minutes. After taking it off the fire, stir in a little bit of soda. It will thicken like mud when done; to be sure, drop a little in cold water: it will harden if done; if not carefully attended to it will burn; run it into pans and pull when nearly cool; cut into sticks, but do not place it where it is very cold, or it will sweat.”
1887 White House Cook Book (Chicago, Philadelphia, Stockton, Cal.)
Sugar with gum Arabic
Page 403 #2 Pop-Corn Candy
“POP-CORN CANDY, No. 2.
Having popped your corn, salt it and keep it warm, sprinkle over with a whisk broom a mixture composed of an ounce of gum arabic, and a half pound of sugar, dissolved in two quarts of water; boil all a few minutes. Stir the corn with the hands or large spoon thoroughly; then mold into balls with the hands.”
1904 Home Cookery (Laconia, NH)
Sugar with butter and water
Page 137 Sugared Pop Corn
“Sugared Pop Corn.
Put into an iron kettle one tablespoonful of butter, three tablespoonfuls of water, and one teacupful white sugar; boil until ready to candy; then throw in three quarts of corn nicely popped; stir briskly until the candy is evenly distributed over the corn. Set the kettle from the fire, and stir until it is cooled a little, and you have each grain separate and crystallized with the sugar. Nuts prepared in this way are delicious.
Mrs. Helen Jewett.”