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A Box of Chocolates

How the Whitman's Sampler became an American icon

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In this era of bearded hipster chocolatiers and high-dollar, single-origin bars, the Whitman’s Sampler is a rare untouched relic of pre-food obsessed America. A decidedly outdated-looking faux-cross-stitched yellow box filled with chocolate truffles, coconut bonbons, and gooey cherry cordials, it is as normcore as candy gets, the chocolate equivalent of Jerry Seinfeld’s dorky white high-tops.

Artisan, bean-to-bar chocolate may be all the rage these days, but at one point in time, the Whitman’s Sampler was the pinnacle of giftable sweets. And despite no longer being on the forefront of what’s cool or desirable in the chocolate world, the sugary assortment remains a staple to this day, particularly around Valentine’s Day when red heart-shaped boxes hit the shelves. Anyone with a real taste for fine chocolate will likely turn up their nose at Whitman’s waxy chocolate — and yet, it endures. Here now, everything you need to know about this classic confection:

Who invented the Whitman’s Sampler, anyway?

The Whitman’s story began way, way back in 1842, when a 19-year-old Quaker named Stephen F. Whitman opened a small candy shop near Philadelphia’s waterfront, hoping to give French confectioners a run for their money.

In 1869, Whitman’s son Horace took over company operations and, as a way to ensure freshness, introduced the use of cellophane to chocolate packaging for the first time. By the early 1900s, Whitman’s chocolates were a drugstore staple across the nation, but the company’s signature Sampler assortment didn’t hit the market until 1912. Horace stepped down and Walter Sharp became the company’s president.

Sharp’s claim to fame is the signature Whitman’s Sampler. The name of this box refers both to its contents, an array of the company’s most popular confections, as well as the homespun — and sometimes elaborate — packaging design. This design was inspired by a cross-stitch sampler made by the Sharp’s great-aunt.

[Photo: Eater]

How did it become so popular?

By 1915 the Whitman's Sampler was the best-selling box of chocolates in America, thanks to its presence in 19,000 drugstores across the nation — which was no small feat back in the days before ubiquitous chains like CVS and Walgreens ruled.

The elder Whitman's genius lied in his marketing savvy. Early on he invested in newspaper ads and marketing campaigns aimed at women, men, and children. He was intent upon creating a household name, and by the middle of the 19th century the Whitman brand was synonymous with chocolate in America.

The company endured the Great Depression without cutting prices or corners, and in 1939 launched one of the most successful — and long-running — ad campaigns in the history of candy: "A Woman Never Forgets the Man Who Remembers" perfectly positioned the Whitman’s Sampler as a go-to gift for husbands and boyfriends who failed to think ahead but still wanted to seem thoughtful.

Like other longstanding American candies, Whitman's survived rationing and decreased production during the World Wars by supplying servicemen and women with boxes of chocolates. This in turn yielded a sort of nostalgia effect, guaranteeing that subsequent generations of Americans would come to associate Whitman's as a wholesome treat.

Whitman's operated as an independent chocolate company until 1993 when it was acquired by Russell Stover Candies, a company founded in 1923 and now based in Kansas City, Missouri. In 2014 both Russell Stover and Whitman's were acquired by Switzerland-based Lindt & Sprungli.

Courtesy Vintage Ad Browser

Why is the Whitman’s Sampler considered iconic?

Having celebrities and Presidents associated with it certainly helps. Beginning in 1950, Whitman's enlisted some of Hollywood's biggest names to star in its advertisements: Big-deal movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart ensured that everyone in America had the Whitman's sampler top of mind (and they often agreed to appear in said ads in exchange for candy and a mention of their latest movie, rather than a fat check). For decades, miniature Samplers packaged in tins emblazoned with the presidential seal have been given out to guests of the White House and Air Force One, and in 1991, the tell-tale yellow box in all its pseudo cross-stitched glory was given a permanent spot at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

The Whitman's Sampler has also wormed its way into the collective pop culture consciousness, and is often referenced as a way of saying "an assortment" of something. Case in point: When reporting on a government scandal in New York State, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart referred to Albany as "a veritable Whitman's Sampler of corruption." It's not enough to reference a generic box of chocolates: the Whitman's Sampler has been so consistently omnipresent in drugstores across America for so long that it has come into its own as a cultural icon. The box of candy also makes some more literal cameos in movies and television: In season five of The Sopranos, Tony says to mob boss Johnny Sack, "What do you want, an apology? A fuckin' Whitman's Sampler?"

What flavors come inside each Whitman’s Sampler box?

These days there are several different iterations of the Whitman's Sampler, from mini 1.75 ounce boxes to a gigantic 40-ounce box. But whichever box you wind up with, you'll likely get some combination of the following flavors (or variations thereof): caramel, coconut, molasses chew, chocolate-covered peanuts and/or almonds, cashew and/or pecan-walnut clusters, cherry cordial, maple fudge, chocolate-covered toffee, and the nougat-y chocolate whip. Seasonal flavors like strawberry cream, pumpkin marshmallow, and mint chocolate patties are occasionally introduced .

How do you tell which flavor is which?

Despite Forrest Gump’s insistence to the contrary (Gump was actually holding a box of Russell Stover chocolates at that bus stop), purchasers of a Whitman’s Sampler know exactly what they’re going to get: It was the first box of chocolates to come equipped with an index of all the flavors printed under the lid, and several years ago that was expanded into an illustrated flavor key that ensures there are no unpleasant surprises (like biting into that dreadful cherry cordial when you just wanted a damn caramel).

Experienced Whitman’s eaters need not reference said guide, though. Decrypting which filling lies ahead is as simple as examining the shape of each chocolate: A square shape denotes caramels (arguably the most desirable of the flavors); a rectangle means nougat filling; oval chocolates typically contain fudge; the soft-centered flavors, including the rather dreadful cherry cordial, are round; and nut clusters are easily identified by their craggy surface.

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