In 1959, at eleven years old, I got to go to the movie theater every Saturday afternoon. The newsreels, cartoons and movies were good. But the candy was better: I always bought NECCO Wafers. (NECCO is officially spelled in all caps — a big shouting exclamation for such a plain candy.)
In the dark, there were so many of them, a faded rainbow that lasted from the Looney Tunes to the end of Tammy and the Bachelor. I devoured NECCO Wafers as Debbie Reynolds dreamily sang “Wish I knew if he knew what I’m dreaming of! Tammy! Tammy! Tammy’s in love!” A New Jersey kid high on sugar, I fidgeted through Gidget, baffled about California boy-crazy beach bunnies.
I have always loved NECCO Wafers. They are such a genuine, humble, non-pretentious, no-nonsense confection. So subtle, they are almost invisible. They sit, pastel, randomly diverse and sedate (and, after the cheap sugar rush, sedating) inside their red, white and blue translucent wrapper which proclaims them “an American Classic,” “the Original (in bold type) Candy Wafer,” “made in the U.S.A. (also bold) since 1847.” This wrapper is very patriotic, with its primary blue star-spangled border and its Yankee acclamations festooned on a banner so gallantly streaming.
This waxed wrapper is very similar to Band-Aids’ wrapper. This reminds us that candy originally was presented as a kind of medicine. NECCO Wafers were given to Civil War soldiers to give them an energy boost. A vintage NECCO ad states “Children must have confectionery, so give them the kind you know are wholesome and healthful.”
The lozenge name and shape suggests cough suppressants. Candy Buttons, also manufactured by NECCO, are quite pill-like, in lines on their paper strips. Maybe it is the paper stuck to the back of these tablets that makes them so addictive. Clove — the flavor of the purple NECCO wafer — is still used as an “antioxidant, antiseptic, local anesthetic, anti-inflammatory, rubefacient (warming and soothing), and has carminative and anti-flatulent properties.” (www.nutrition-and-you.com/cloves.html)
These chalky treats are retrogressive in so many ways. When the company tried to change the ingredients to all-natural flavors and colors, the public outcry made them switch back to the original contents. We like our NECCO Wafers old-fashioned. They bring back our simpler youth, our all-American history. They are more portable than Mom and apple pie. And cheaper. They are reliable, stable and unchanging in a kaleidoscopic world. Eat a perfectly circular Wafer and get centered.
Procedures for opening the package vary wildly. Some are neat and methodical, unfolding one tip (starting from the top) like a roll of coins. Others just rip into the hefty little log, from either end, willy nilly. And others slowly spiral the wrapper down like removing an orange peel in one integrated piece.
Most use the thumb to remove each Wafer. Procedures for eating them fall into two schools: suck and chew. Some let each disk dissolve on the tongue. Some just bite each into smithereens that dissolve in the mouth. Some use a combination of sucking and chewing to enjoy each wafer.
It is acceptable to eat two at a time, but preferably the same color. (This is difficult to determine in a dark movie theater.)
The eight colors correspond with the flavors. The creamsicle orange colored ones taste, of course, like orange. The lemon chiffon colored ones taste like lemon. The 1940s light green ones taste like lime. The dusty brown ones taste like chocolate. The dark grey ones — my favorite — taste like licorice. But, here come the tricky three: The lavender ones taste like clove. (See the medicinal connotations, above.) The white ones taste like cinnamon. And, finally, the Pepto-Bismol pink colored ones taste like wintergreen.
We won’t go into the unpleasant chemical aftertaste of each of the flavors. Or the tingling on your tongue. Or the gritty residue on your teeth. Dentists just love NECCO Wafers.
Some irreverent types drop them into Coca-Cola to experience a chemical explosion. Some perform other scientific feats: “Wintergreen Necco (sic) wafers, like wintergreen LifeSavers, will create visible sparks when snapped in half or crushed in dim light due to triboluminescence.”
And now let us play with numbers for a moment. There are 38 wafers in each roll: at 3.5 minutes of sucking each of the 38 wafers, the whole roll takes 133 minutes, or 2.217 hours to eat.
That is about the length of a Saturday matinee. My mother would give me $1.30 for the movies: 50 cents for my admission and my brother’s, 10 cents for my candy and my brother’s, and an emergency dime.
From their 1847 inception to our present year of 2017, the Wafers have existed for 170 years. Multiply that times the 4 billion a year produced (www.necco.com) and you get 680 billion Wafers manufactured.
The NECCO factory is 810,000 square feet, an enormous wafery/confectionary.
The NECCO water tower in Cambridge, Massachusetts, painted to look like a tutti-frutti pack of NECCO Wafers, is 496 feet tall, Boston’s 17th-tallest building. It was built to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Wafer.
NECCO Wafers have a two-year shelf life. Some swear the 1847 disks taste good as new today. They are both ancient and modern, indeed nearly eternal.
The diameter and thickness of each Wafer are the exact measurements of an American quarter. The candy pack has the reassuring heft of a roll of quarters and might make a good weapon.
NECCOs have a colorful history. Vintage advertising called them joy disks, so much goodness for so little jack, hankering for those 8 nippy flavors, irresistibly good and guaranteed pure, these dainty wafers, cool crisp refreshing disks, confection perfection.
NECCO Wafers were used as communion practice for children.
Finally, let us consider the gestalt of the NECCO Wafer. Circular like medallions, sun and moon and planets, river rocks, wedding rings, pupils of the eye, the clock, vicious circles, fairy rings, revolution, circus cartwheels and Ferris wheels and roulette wheels and merry-go-rounds, flying saucers, wreaths, nothingness/void/zero.
Their shape is organic, biomorphic. No right angles. No beginning no end. The ouroboros snake eating its own tail. Yin chasing yang chasing yin. Alpha and omega. Oh. O!