The Sweet History of Jelly Beans, and Why We Eat Them at Easter

Colorful, chewy, and over-the-top sweet, jelly beans have an appeal that's tough to deny. Not quite a fruit snack and not quite a gumdrop, the sugary oval-shape treats have an appeal all their own. And over the years, they've turned into a staple Easter candy. But when and why did jelly beans first get created, and how did they become associated with Easter just like hot cross buns and bunnies? We turned to food historians and industry experts for the answers.

Brie Passano

The History of Jelly Beans

No one knows jelly beans like the experts at Jelly Belly, so we took our questions to Rob Swaigen, the vice president of global marketing for the company. “The exact origins of the jelly bean are lost in time, and only part of its history is known," he says. "Most experts believe the soft center is a descendant of a middle eastern confection known as ’Turkish Delight’ that dates back to pre-Biblical times.


The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America first refers to jelly beans in 1886, and at that time, jelly beans were actually a Christmas confection, notes Elizabeth Hopwood, Ph.D., a lecturer in English and acting director of the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities at Loyola University Chicago.

Around the same time, others were suggesting mixing jelly beans with colored Easter eggs during at-home Easter celebrations so that the number of real eggs would be reduced. (That’s likely because eggs were hard to come by during World War I.) Plus their bean shape resembles eggs, so the association is fairly natural.

“The popular combination of jelly beans and Easter can be attributed to three factors: shape, color, and pleasure,” says Beth Forrest, Ph.D., a food historian, and professor of liberal arts and food studies at the Culinary Institute of America. “It’s shaped like an egg allows food-by-association, the color mimics both the brightly-decorated eggs that were much more traditional, and the sweetness of them marks the end of Lent,” when religious devotees might normally give up something as a sacrifice.

At this time, “numerous companies manufactured the candy, often sold in glass jars at confectioners and drugstores,” Hopwood says. (BTW, we suggest ditching the Easter basket and trying an Easter dessert board this year instead.)

One of the biggest and best-known jelly bean manufacturers (yep, you guessed it: Jelly Belly) originated in the late 1860s. Gustav Goelitz opened the candy business in Belleville, Illinois. There, his son Herman learned the craft and opened his own business in 1960, the Herman Goelitz Candy Company.

“Herman started making jelly beans and other confections, including the Mini Jelly Bean, with a natural-flavored center and shell. This was an innovation as previous jelly bean candies only had a flavored outer shell. In 1976, the first eight Jelly Belly flavors were born,” Swaigen says.

The company started with eight original Jelly Belly flavors:

  • Very Cherry

  • Lemon

  • Cream Soda

  • Tangerine

  • Green Apple

  • Root Beer

  • Grape

  • Licorice

Related: The Most Popular Jelly Bean Flavors in Every State

Now that you know the history of jelly beans, we bet you’ll have a whole new respect for every single bean you pop this season.