BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- To many people, Marshmallow Peeps are a must-have in children's Easter baskets.
But the chick-shaped candies are also something of a mass-produced technological wonder, having evolved from handmade confections. And they've grown into an icon of kitsch on the Internet and an inspiration for artists.
They're also a big money maker for a privately held company called Just Born Inc., which got into the Peeps business in 1953, when it acquired Rodda Candy Co. Rodda turned out a small line of sugary chicks produced by some 80 women who painstakingly squeezed marshmallow out of pastry tubes.
Just Born began working on a way to make the investment more profitable, and a year later, Bob Born, son of founder Sam Born, found a way to mechanize the hand motion to make Peeps. Now, they stream along a sugarcoated conveyor belt at a rate of up to 4.2 million a day in yellow, pink, lavender, blue and white.
''There was a lot of trial and error,'' said Bob Born, who retired 10 years ago. ''We made so many samples, at first some of them coming down the line looked like seals. So we had to try again.''
When Just Born started making the candy, it took 27 hours to make a Peep; today it takes six minutes.
Mass production has helped make them one of the most popular candies at Easter.
Just Born came to Bethlehem from New York in 1932, moved by founder Sam Born. The company started out as a chocolate maker, but by the 1960s, Just Born got out of that business and decided to focus on Peeps and other sweets.
The company also makes Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales, Zours and Teeny Beanee jelly beans. Just Born also is in the process of acquiring Goldenberg Candy Co., a Philadelphia company that has been making peanut chews since 1890.
Chicks, the original Peeps, are the product that wins the most attention although Just Born has Peeps for holidays year-round, including candies shaped as Valentine hearts and Halloween ghosts.
Their biggest draw probably is nostalgia. Parents who ate them as children now buy them for their own kids.
Artist David Ottogalli, who recently created an 8-foot-tall altar of more than 5,000 Peeps, calls them ''a fascinating little food product.''
''The shape, the color, the texture, they're just so cute,'' he said. ''Really, it's the Peep itself that's the work of art.''
On the Net:
Just Born: www.marshmallowpeeps.com
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