A snack by any other name: A brief history of marshmallows

Visit Zwaanendael Museum Nov. 30 for an ancient revival of marshmallows

By Alexander Rumm, historic site interpreter

What we know today as a marshmallow has a longer history than the average enjoyer of the sweet treat might know — one that completely changed how it is used and the ingredients that make it. But this fall, you can experience an ancient recipe brought back to life during a demonstration at the Zwaanendael Museum from 5-8 p.m. on Hospitality Night, Thursday, Nov. 30.

Marshmallow has been enjoyed around the world for over 4,000 years, with the earliest known recipe coming from Egypt, around 2000 B.C.E., and was not used as a tasty snack, but as medicine instead. The name “marshmallow” comes from a plant, the roots of which were used to make a syrup that could help treat coughs, aide in digestion and even soothe irritated skin.  This plant is native to Europe, Western Asia and North Africa and was commonly found in marshy areas, which led to its name “marsh mallow,” as well as the description of plant’s taste.

An image of a marsh mallow flower, which is a type of hibiscus.
Althaea officinalis, Malvaceae, Common marsh mallow flower. Wikipedia image.

It wasn’t until relatively recently that the treat we call marshmallow — found in favorites from s’mores to rice krispie treats and even in breakfast cereals — came into existence. 

During the 1800s, marshmallow lozenges (as they were known at the time) became gelatin-based, ultimately eliminating the use of the plant that its name is derived from. Marshmallow gained popularity as a candy in the 1920s when a Girl Scout publication released several snack ideas with this new-fangled confection. Specifically, they encouraged using marshmallow with hot chocolate, since it did not melt away. This modern version of the marshmallow is what the public now knows and loves in many of today’s treats, even though today’s marshmallows are almost alien compared to the marshmallow made thousands of years ago.

Join the staff at Zwaanendael Nov. 30 for a demonstration of an ancient marshmallow recipe — complete with real marshmallow root — that is sure to tickle your taste buds!

Zwaanendael Museum is located at 102 Kings Highway in Lewes. For more information, email zmuseum@delaware.gov or call 302-645-1148.

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