I keep thinking my seventh-grade Ohio history teacher would be so proud of me for the research I’ve done for this column.
I’m not sure I’ve given it as much effort as I gave my Ohio history project in 1975, when I made salt-dough replicas of the flag of Ohio and the state bird — a beautiful cardinal, perched atop a cluster of buckeyes.
But that’s really nothing compared with this historical revelation: Life Savers candy was invented right here in Ohio, by Portage County native Clarence Crane.
I learned this information because the Life Saver, that circular sweet that fills many a candy dish on many an office desk, turns 100 this month.
Now, maybe I already knew this. Maybe I learned it in that seventh-grade history class and have forgotten it in the 30-plus years that have passed since then. But as one of Ohio’s fun food facts, it is certainly worth sharing, and if it was news to me, I’m sure it will be news to some of you as well.
A visit to Ohio History Central, the online encyclopedia of the Ohio Historical Society, provided plenty of information on Crane. (And if by chance you are currently a seventh-grade Ohio history student, I highly recommend it.)
It all started back in 1875, when Crane was born in Garrettsville. He was the son of a local maple sugar producer, and worked for his father until 1903, when he began his own maple sugar business in Warren. It quickly became the largest producer of maple sugar in the world, but Crane sold the business in 1909. Two years later, he started his own candy company in Cleveland, known as the Queen Victoria Chocolate Co., and later the Crane Chocolate Co.
As many chocolate makers will tell you, the product tends to melt in the warm months. This was before central air conditioning, so in 1912, Crane began experimenting with a different type of candy, one that could stand up to the heat of summer. He used the same machine that pharmacists were using to make pills, and came up with round, flat discs. He punched a hole in the middle so that the candy had the appearance of a life preserver and called his creation Life Savers, or more specifically, Pep-O-Mint Life Savers.
Crane marketed the candy as a breath mint, with packaging that claimed it was for “that stormy breath.” He sold them in a cardboard tube in a wrapper that showed a picture of a sailor tossing a young woman a life preserver, according to information from Ohio History Central.
Crane owned the patent for the candy for just one year before he sold it for $2,900 to two New York businessmen, one of whom was candy maker Edward Noble, who went on to form the Life Savers Candy Co.
Nobel had great success with the candy, in part because he changed the wrapping to foil tubes, but more due to the fact that he marketed the candy to saloon operators, and urged them to sell it to their customers to disguise their breath after an evening of smoking and drinking. This helped the mints to soar in popularity.
Despite his brief involvement with Life Savers, Crane remained in the candy business the rest of his life. He was buried in Park Cemetery in Garrettsville, where his grave is marked with a simple stone, and no, it’s not the in shape of a Life Saver.
Further Ohio history facts: Crane was the father of Harold Hart Crane, the legendary poet who went by Hart Crane. In a sad twist, Hart Crane died from drowning, after he jumped off a ship in the Gulf of Mexico in an apparent suicide in 1932.
Yes, the son of the man who invented the Life Saver was lost at sea.
Over the years, the Life Savers brand has been owned by Beech-Nut, Nabisco, Kraft Foods and Wrigley, which owns the company today as the candy celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Plenty of flavors followed the original Pep-O-Mint. The iconic five-flavors roll of lemon, lime, orange, pineapple and cherry (today, lemon and lime have been replaced by raspberry and watermelon) was introduced in 1935. Three years later, the Butter Rum flavor debuted in 1938. To this day, the two are among just a handful of flavors that are still available in the foil roll.
Lots of Ohio history to think about the next time you unwrap a Life Savers candy.