The Story Behind One of the Most Controversial Candies of Our Time

Love 'em or hate 'em, a whopping 2 billion Peeps are made a year

Not only do Peeps come in bunny, egg, pumpkin and tree shapes, but flavors including sour watermelon and root beer float. Dianna McDougall for Adweek; Model: Mos Def, Courtesy of Marketa Ort

As home to the Capitol’s upper house, the United States Senate Chamber is among the most storied rooms in America. Appointed with red marble pilasters and rich blue carpeting, the chamber contains 100 mahogany desks. Senators can keep whatever they like in the desks—each is assigned a specific one—but the contents of desk No. 24 (last row, Republican side) is a matter of public record. This is the desk belonging to Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Were you to lift the polished lid of No. 24, you would see a desk full of marshmallow Peeps.

There’s not only a good reason for this, there are two. First, No. 24 is known as the Candy Desk, a tradition that began in 1968 when Sen. George Murphy used his hutch to give out candy to his fellow legislators. Second, Sen. Toomey’s district includes Bethlehem, Pa., home of the Just Born Candy Co.—which is to say, the home of Peeps.

Dianna McDougall for Adweek

And if there’s a time of year to be discussing Peeps, it’s now. The Easter season is when Just Born does upwards of 75% of its Peeps sales—and we’re talking a lot of Peeps. The company makes an estimated 2 billion Peeps a year, which works out to 5.5 million Peeps a day. And, by our reckoning, in the time it took you to read this far into this story, somewhere around 3,800 Peeps will have come into the world.

“Peeps have become more than just a candy,” said Matt Pye, Just Born’s svp of sales and marketing. “[They’re] a global icon.”

The Rodda Candy Co. originally made Peeps until 1953, when Sam Born's son Bob acquired the firm and mechanized the production process, boosting output and allowing the candy to go national. Though chicks have always been the best-selling variety of Peeps, the company makes a wide variety of shapes, including bunnies.
Courtesy of Peeps

Love Peeps or hate them, there’s little chance you don’t recognize them. But how did they become such a thing? Part corporate acquisition, part mechanical engineering.

The mists of time obscure the exact origins of the Peep, but the candy was first developed by confectioner Roscoe Rodda, who started the Rodda Candy Co. in Lancaster, Pa., in 1910. Rodda’s factory produced Peeps by hand; women would squeeze marshmallow batch out of pastry bags before sugaring and baking. (What’s supposed to be a chick is really just a doubled-over dollop of fluff.)

Video: Nick Gardner

In 1953, Bob Born (son of Sam Born, who founded the candy company bearing his name in 1932) bought out Rodda. It was mainly Rodda’s jelly-bean business he wanted; the Peeps just came with the deal. Nevertheless, Born—a mechanically gifted executive—took the next several months to automate Peeps. His machinery, still in use today, led to a manifold increase in the Peep population, reducing the average Peep production time from 27 hours to six minutes.

It’s this innovation that’s responsible for making Peeps into a national thing, according to Pye. “How we got on the map—mass production and automation,” he said. “When the market started to grow, we were able to keep up.”

And since kids got (and continue to get) Peeps in their Easter baskets, the proliferation of Peeps has continued unabated. Not only do Peeps come in bunny, egg, pumpkin and tree shapes, but flavors including sour watermelon and root beer float. There are two Peeps & Co. retail stores, a fleet of Peepmobile vehicles and no end of fan-created events, including a sculpture contest called the—what else?—PeepShow.

Peeps fans find no shortage of things to do with the candy, including a sculpture contest called the PeepShow, which recently produced this Game of Thrones dragon.
Courtesy of Peeps

Of course, a portion of the American populous can’t stand Peeps. Hearst’s foodie site Delish has called Peeps “the worst” for reasons including “ridiculous” colors and, overall, being “horrendous.” Reader’s Digest charged that Peeps “ruin the good name of marshmallows.” Then there’s the #peepsmassacre hashtag on Instagram showcasing the many ways people like to destroy Peeps, including eviscerating them with a pizza cutter. That said, Peeps’ fans seem to outweigh these naysayers.

All this over a dollop of marshmallow.

In 2003, today’s Sen. Pat Toomey was just a congressman. On April 10 of that year, Toomey was granted floor time, which he used to say the following: “Mr. Speaker, I rise to offer congratulations to the confectioners at Just Born Incorporated, as they celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of their most recognized and celebrated products … marshmallow Peeps.” Toomey spoke about Peeps for several more minutes, and a transcript of his speech was duly added to the Congressional Record.
Courtesy of Peeps


This story first appeared in the April 15, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.