The Marshmallow Peep and Its Sordid History In Cincinnati

An unnamed candy industry study mentioned on 19 News this morning claims that America’s favorite Easter candy is the marshmallow peep, followed by the jelly bean and the Cadbury cream egg – whose sales in the US went up 200% last year.    The Cadbury Cream egg used to be my favorite Easter basket candy as a kid.  The National Confectioners’ association for 2022 reports a different story at least by category, not by specific product, which may explain the difference.    Their 2022 Easter Candy Report says 44% of people buy Chocolate bunnies and chocolate Easter eggs, 20% buy Jelly beans (the top flavors being the red ones – strawberry and cherry), 18% buy candy coated eggs (malted milk eggs, hummingbird eggs, etc.), 15% buy marshmallow products (which is where the Peep would fall into), and 4% buy other – which are things like Bunny candy corn and gummy products.

Easter is the second largest sales volume holiday for candy, following Halloween.  Estimates for U.S. Easter Candy Spending in 2022 are 5-7% above 2021’s $4 BILLION, due to the longer lead up to the holiday and consumer enthusiasm for extending seasonal celebrations.    It is reported that 91% of Americans will give Easter chocolate to someone.   Another interesting statistic is that 78% of people start eating their chocolate Easter bunny at the ears, rather than the tail or the paws.  

The point of this is that the inspiration for the marshmallow peep, still one of America’s fave Easter candies, after nearly 80 years, came from Cincinnati’s Victorian era prowess in marshmallow and buttercream candy making.   This prowess was held by nearly half a dozen large wholesale candy manufacturers who made Cincinnati their home, making us at one time third in candy production in the U.S.  

Today there are two camps about how to eat a peep – some like them fresh, while others like them to get a bit stale and crunch.   I’m from the stale and crunchy camp.    Some like to microwave-melt them, and some, like Schneider’s Candy in Bellevue, Kentucky, and Sweet Tooth in Newport, Kentucky, half-dip them in chocolate.

Roscoe Rodda, inventor of the marshmallow Peep from the Dowie publication, Leaves of Grass.

And, the man behind the marshmallow peep was Roscoe Rodda, an interesting man who spent thirty years in Cincinnati’s Candy industry and was heavily involved in a progressive-era religious cult.    While I applaud Rodda for creating the marshmallow peep, I actually blame his litigious and shady antics for the demise of the wholesale candy industry in Cincinnati.      He was born in Michigan and worked first for a Detroit Candy firm, Gray Toynton and Fox.  In 1891 he moved to Cincinnati to expand a religious cult based in Zion City, Illinois, just north of Chicago, by the name of Church of Divine Healing or the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church of Zion.   The head of the church was Dr. John Alexander Dowie, who styled himself as an incarnation of the Biblical prophet Elijah, with healing powers.    Dowie’s Church of Zion had, at its height 20,000 followers, and a publication, Leaves of Healing, that was distributed in America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa.  Because of Dowie’s emphasis on faith healing and restorationism the church is considered a forerunner of Pentecostalism.    The problem was, Dowie and his successors, owned all the assets of the church and Zion City and ran sort of a socialist community where everyone forfeited there personal assets to the church worked in church-owned businesses, and the leaders like Dowie, funneled money out of church assets for themselves, to the detriment of members.

Rodda claimed that Dowie healed his blind daughter and his own tuberculosis at a prayer meeting in Chicago in 1897, and later that Dowie cured his young son, Emmons, who had been hit and injured by a Cincinnati streetcar

In 1902 Dowie was part of executive team of the Peter Echert Candy Company, which specialized in making marshmallow products.    One of their products, Jimcrax, were molded marshmallow images of the most popular comics at the time, the Katzenjammer kids, and one of the first examples of the first co-marketed licensed cartoon candy promotions.    In May of 1902, Rodda moved to Zion City, Illinois to operate the Zion Candy Company a socialist enterprise of the Church of Zion.   In September of 1902, Echert became part of the National Candy Company, which is probably what motivated Rodda to move to Zion.     His stint with the Zion Candy Company lasted only two years and the company was shut down in 1904 due to insolvency.   In 1905 Cincinnati candy firm Reinhart and Newton reincorporated in Columbus, with Rosco Rodda on the board.   Then in 1907 he partnered with Robert Putman, inventor of the opera cream, to make fine candies that they sold to high end department stores like the Fair.

A candy tin showing the Zion Candy factory, which Rodda ran from 1902-1904 in Zion City, Illinois.

Meanwhile, back at the cult, Dr. Dowie’s claims became more and more crazy and he suffered a stroke in 1905.   In 1906, Zion elders were concerned with Dowie’s ability to lead the congregation and his lofty plans. They recalled Wilbur Glenn Voliva from Australia, ousted Dowie by letter to Mexico, and instilled Voliva as the new leader of Zion, making him owner of all of Zion’s assets. The assets of the Cincinnati Zion community were transferred immediately to Voliva as well.  Voliva had originally been a preacher of the Disciples of Christ in Washington Courthouse, Ohio, before hearing of Dowie and converting to his cult in 1899. Dowie sent Voliva to be the leader of the Cincinnati community for 8 months from 1900 to 1901. During that time he increased the flock there from 100 to 400 congregants, many of whom were recruited from workers at Putman’s candy factory. While in Cincinnati, in 1900, Voliva’s son, Paul died after four days of intense suffering of spinal meningitis, without the care of physicians. The Cincinnati coroner investigated the incident and Voliva thought he was put through the ringer for the affair. Voliva had his son buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, and then was sent to Australia to help grow the Zion congregation there.

This installation of Voliva by the elders caused a split in the church.   Rodda supported Voliva, while his Cincy business partner Putman supported Dowie.    Rodda, as a result of this disagreement left Putman and incorporated his own business in Cincy in May 1907 as the Roscoe E. Rodda Candy Company, which he swiftly moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1908 to be near another famous candy maker Milton Hershey.   Dowie died in 1907 and Voliva took over the Zion cult.   But Rodda would not leave his meddling in the Cincinnati Candy industry.

After Rodda left, Putman continued on with his business, making enough money to build a mansion in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, on Mt. Pleasant Lane for his two spinster sisters. But his family was not done with their Zion connection. In August, 1911, his wife, Margaret Ward Putman, decided she wanted to help get Zion out of bankruptcy and take over the Church from Voliva. Several newspapers blazoned the headline “Woman to Burnish Zion: Mrs. Robert Putman of Cincinnati Opens Coffers that Dowiesm May Shine – Installed as a Priestess. The new figure who is expected to assume a position of leadership is Mrs. Robert Putman, a wealthy Cincinnati society woman, who has become so imbued with the teachings of Zionism that she is sad to have renounced a high social position and a host of friends to take up work as a leader of Zionists at Zion City.” She was going to use her money to return Zion to its Dowie Days of glory. She was also noted as the founder of the Cincinnati Zionist congregation. But Voliva was not going to let a woman take over his empire.  Mrs. Putman rented a house in Zion and moved there to set up shop, but was unsuccessful in overthrowing Voliva. She died in 1922 in Zion, and her husband passed there too in 1928, but both were carted back to be buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

Because they lost their only child early, Robert Putman’s nephew Thomas Lykins took over their candy business in Cincinnati, continuing the tradition of making the famous opera creams. By this time, Papas, Bissingers, and a host of other Cincinnati candy companies had pirated the recipe (and purchased a Ball Cream Beater) and were making opera creams. The Putman brand is now owned by the Papas company, which still makes the Putman branded opera creams. Papas, unfortunately, falsely takes credit for its invention –another stolen opera cream story!!

Voliva, like Dowie, amassed a large personal fortune, which alienated his followers, especially during the Depression.   After a diagnosis of cancer in 1942, Voliva tearfully admitted to his followers he had misappropriated funds from the church for his personal wealth.

It seems Rodda might have learned about financial corruption from his former religious leader Voliva.   In 1915, Rodda bought controlling interest in the Headley Chocolate Company, and was sued in 1916 by its former owner for $50,000 for shady stock valuation.  At the time, Rodda co-owned the American Caramel Company in Lancaster, and ran both companies.  Also in 1916, Rodda was sued by his former American Caramel co-owner Daniel Lafean for fraud, collusion, and breach of contract, a suit that lasted nearly a decade before Rodda was made to pay out Daniel Lafean. 

Then in 1920, Rodda plunged back into the Cincy candy industry, forming a conglomerate between his Headely Chocolate Company, American Caramel, the Lancaster Caramel Company (which had been sold to American Caramel in 1900 by Milton Hershey) and Cincinnati’s Reinhart and Newton, and Dolly Varden Companies.    A case with a wealthy stock owner of Reinhart and Newton from Walnut Hills, Berta Ruehl Selbert, against Rodda for manipulation of stocks and valuation, paying himself excessive salaries and dissipation of assets.   The case was settled in 1926, but Rodda is responsible for the demise of Cincinnati candy wholesalers Reinhart and Newton, and Dolly Varden, both of which were significant candy producers.   Dolly Varden is credited for the commercial release of the cherry cordial chocolate candy in America.

Rodda Company wholesale catalogues from the 1920s show a lot of Easter candy, including chocolate covered marshmallows, but nothing that looked like marshmallow peeps.     This is probably because at the time non-coated marshmallow products wouldn’t keep very long and would have only been sold locally, not on the wholesale level.

Original pre 1950s hand piped PEEPs with wings.
Original hand piped Peeps production at Rodda Candy Factory.

Originally the marshmallow peeps were hand piped in pastry bags by eighty women.   They would spoon small batches of freshly whipped marshmallow, which included raw egg whites, into the pastry bags and hand squirt the little chics through the small steel tip.     Then they were left out to air dry into a mushy, yet firm type of meringue.   This was before the more recent regulations with using raw eggs and concerns with salmonella poisoning.   These early Peeps also had little hand piped wings that they no longer have today.

Rodda died in 1941 and his company was sold to Russian Immigrant, Samuel Born, in 1953, who is responsible for the invention of chocolate sprinkles, or “jimmies”, and the chocolate coating on ice cream bars, and a 1914 machine that inserted sticks into lollipops.      Born is also responsible for snipping off the wings of the marshmallow chics as he automated their production.    Just Born continues to make marshmallow peeps, as well as Mike and Ike’s and Hot Tamales.     Similar to our local Kahn’s Wienermobile, Just Born has a Peepsmobile – a bright yellow VW bug with a giant Peep on top.

Several years ago I visited the Shiloh House and Zion City Historical Museum where Dowie lived to explore Rodda’s connection.   It’s the last remnant of the Zion religious cult.   I scoured through the archives with the executive director and we found a photo of the candy operation at the time Rodda was overseeing it.    It shows a man operating a horizontal candy mixer called a ball cream beater, which is specifically used to make the fillings for opera creams.     It’s pretty clear that Rodda used his knowledge of opera creams from Cincinnati with Robert Putman to make the Dove Brand Cream Chocolates he made at the Zion Candy Company from 1902-1904.

An image of the Zion Candy Company showing a ball cream beater, making Dove Brand cream chocolates, i.e. Opera Cream knockoffs.

While the marshmallow Peep is a symbol of American candy ingenuity and pop culture, it’s also a symbol of the demise of what once was a very large and powerful Cincinnati Candy industry.


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