My fellow nostalgia fanatics, I have a tidbit of information for you that might just blow your tiny little mind: Sour Patch Kids were originally called “Mars Men.” HelloGiggles gets the credit for bringing this one to my attention — but although the popularly repeated story is cute, it lacks details. I wanted to know more, so I did a little digging. For anyone else who grew up with a fondness for the sour-then-sweet kick of the fruity, chewy sweet, here’s the (we think) real story behind their names — both of them.
The candy we now know as Sour Patch Kids were created by Frank Galatolie, an employee of the Canadian candy company Jaret International, in the 1970s. As HelloGiggles noted, at the time, they were dubbed Mars Men — a name which, said a spokesperson for current Sour Patch Kids owner Mondelez to Delish, is believed to have been decided upon “because they looked similar to alien creatures from Mars.” However, it’s also believed that the candy’s space-y theme was meant to capitalize on the popularity of all things outer space going on at the time.
And indeed, that idea makes sense. Although the Canadian Space Agency wasn’t formed until 1989, their neighbors down south — the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA — were plenty busy in the ‘70s; the Apollo program was winding down, with the final mission being 1972’s Apollo 17; the Skylab space station launched on May 14, 1973; the Apollo-Soyuz Project was up and running between 1972 and 1975; and the Space Shuttle program formally commenced in 1972, with the Columbia launching in 1981.
Additionally, there's everything that was going on in the world of science fiction. In literature, New Wave sci-fi had kicked up; on TV, the original run of Star Trek had just wrapped; and in film, we were deep in the middle of a notable era — 2001: A Space Odyssey had been released in 1968, and the first Star Wars film hit cinemas nine years later in 1977.
Space was hot, is what I’m saying — and the candy known as Mars Men played directly into that theme.
Indeed, playing into popular themes appears to be the sweet's MO: Although I’m not sure it’s ever been confirmed, it’s commonly said that the change in name from Mars Men to Sour Patch Kids came about in the ‘80s — right when the Cabbage Patch Kids fad was at its height.
Cabbage Patch Kids are obviously still around today, but they’re nowhere near at the level of popularity they were several decades ago. Created by Martha Nelson Thomas in the early ‘70s, the dolls were popularized by Xavier Roberts — and by 1985, sales peaked at $600 million, or more than $1 billion today, adjusting for inflation.
(Thomas actually filed a lawsuit against Roberts, charging him with copying her creations; according to the Washington Post, the case was settled out of court. Roberts maintained through his attorney that he was “inspired” by Thomas and subsequently created his own product; Thomas, meanwhile, said the whole thing was resolved "very satisfactorily.")
During the early-to-mid-‘80s, the wait lists for the dolls could be months long; there were even literal riots during the 1983 holiday season, which many cite as the true origins of Black Friday. (For what it's worth, I don’t think the Black Friday story has been substantiated, but the fights that broke out as people hunted down their Cabbage Patch Kids do sound an awful lot like the way Black Friday often plays out today.) If you were around for Beanie Babies or the arrival of the Tamagotchi in the ‘90s... well, the Cabbage Patch Kids riots blew those fads right out of the water.
In any event, it was right in the middle of the Cabbage Patch Kids obsession that Jaret began exporting the candy formerly known as Mars Men to the United States. Due to the timing, it’s believed that the change in name was directly related to the dolls’ popularity — and voila: In 1985, Sour Patch Kids arrived in the United States.
Frank Galatolie sadly passed away in 2016 at the age of 74. CBS News’ short piece on his death noted that he is “credited for creating the sweet-and-sour candy, originally known as ‘Mars Men,’ in the early 1970s while working as a confectioner at Jaret International”; continued the piece, “The product was later re-branded to ‘Sour Patch Kids in the mid-1980s.” And boy, does his legacy live on: Sour Patch Kids are alive and well, with a number of different varieties of candy available; heck, it’s even got its own ice cream flavor.
They’re also still my favorite movie theater snack. In fact, I think I’m going to get some when I finally go see Deadpool 2 this weekend.
Sometimes, sour-then-sweet is exactly what you need.