Bob Born, Who Brought Marshmallow Peeps to the Masses, Dies at 98
Bob Born, a Pennsylvania confectioner who brought the marshmallow candies known as Peeps to Easter baskets nationwide — and incidentally launched a pop-culture phenomenon in which people consume, dismember, microwave and even dress them up by the millions every spring — died on Jan. 29 at his home in Conshohocken, Pa. He was 98.
His son, Ross, who succeeded him at the helm of Just Born Quality Confections, confirmed the death.
Mr. Born’s company, which his father founded and which he led for more than 30 years, produces a variety of candies — its best seller is Mike and Ike, the bullet-shaped fruit chews — but Peeps are by far its most recognized, and its best loved. Thanks to mass-production equipment that Mr. Born designed, the company makes more than 5.5 million Peeps a day, or close to two billion a year, the vast majority of which sell in the months leading up to Easter.
Most Peeps get eaten, sometimes in public displays of gluttony: In 2017 Matt Stonie ate 255 Peeps in just five minutes, breaking his own previous world record of 200. Some people like to gobble them fresh from the package; others let them age for a few days. Some use them in s’mores; others put them on pizza; a few intrepid souls infuse them into vodka.
Still others do not eat them at all. One company survey found that 30 percent of people put them in places other than their mouths: They use them as floral centerpieces, chess pieces and jewelry; they weave them into clothing and wreaths.
Peeps bring out a particular cruelty in some. They stick them in the microwave to watch them expand and explode; they put them in vacuum tanks to watch them shrink, or in beakers of chemicals to watch all but their beady carnauba-wax eyes dissolve.
Then there are the dioramas. In 2004 The St. Paul Pioneer Press sponsored a competition for the best Peeps-based display, and within a few years some 80 newspapers around the country had followed. The Washington Post has the biggest, often getting 600 entries with themes like “We Come in Peeps,” “The Ides of Marshmallow” and “Sweety Todd: The Demon Barber of Peep Street.”
It’s the sort of pop-culture celebrity to make a Mounds bar jealous, and none of it would have been possible without Mr. Born.
Around 1953, early in his career at Just Born, with a degree in engineering physics from nearby Lehigh University, he set out to automate the company’s production lines. At the time, the yellow chicks known as Peeps were just a seasonal side product, a legacy holdover from a small confectioner that Just Born bought for its jelly-bean technology.
Still, he was astounded by how much effort went into making them. It took 27 hours from batch to packaging, with much of the work done by hand. He decided to change that.
His co-workers were skeptical.
In a 2019 interview with The Allentown Morning Call, he recalled one salesman asking him, “Don’t you think that this company that has been making these things for 50 years would have automated it?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Born replied. “But we’re going to do it.”
“All you young guys think you’re Edison.”
It took him and another engineer nine months to design and build a new machine. They studied the movements of the men who filled the marshmallow tubs and of the women who squeezed the pastry tubes.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” he told The Associated Press in 2003. “We made so many samples, at first some of them coming down the line looked like seals. So we had to try again.”
They kept the recipe simple: sugar, corn syrup and gelatin, with edible wax for the eyes. Mr. Born eventually got the process down to six minutes, and soon the company was churning them out. Sales grew steadily, and by the 1980s Peeps were an Easter mainstay.
The company was unprepared for the candy’s subsequent elevation into the pop-culture pantheon. But it quickly embraced its good fortune, sponsoring diorama and recipe contests and even fitting out a pair of old school buses with giant fiberglass Peeps to tour the country.
By the 1990s Mr. Born had retired and moved away. But he returned to the company’s headquarters in Bethlehem, Pa., from time to time to join in the city’s many Peep-centered celebrations, including Peepsfest, which culminates with the dropping of a giant Peep on New Year’s Eve. In 2019 the city declared Feb. 15 “Bob Born Day.”
“He just shook his head,” Ross Born said of his father’s reaction to his candy’s fame. “He was rather incredulous.”
Ira Brahm Born was born on Sept. 29, 1924, in Brooklyn. His father, Sam Born, was a Russian native who had trained as a confectioner in France and founded Just Born a few years after immigrating to the United States. His mother, Ann (Shaffer) Born, was a homemaker.
Sam Born was an innovator, much as his son would be. He developed a process for connecting lollipop sticks to their hard-candy tops, and he invented a chocolate that hardened quickly around ice cream, and remained stable, making future delicacies like Klondike bars possible.
Even during the Great Depression, Just Born prospered, so much that in 1932 Sam and his brothers, who had joined him, bought a large factory in Bethlehem and moved the company there from Brooklyn.
Ira, who was known as Bob from an early age, never meant to join the family business; he wanted to be a doctor. He graduated from Lehigh in 1944, then served on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific.
Back from the service, he took a temporary job with Just Born before entering medical school. But after a few months, he changed his mind and stayed. He took over from his father in 1959.
Mr. Born’s gifts went beyond Peeps. As a way to use excess Mike and Ikes, he had his candy chef add cinnamon to the mix; the result was Hot Tamales, now a concession-stand staple.
He also encouraged his son and his nephew David Shaffer, who ran the company after he retired, to expand the Peeps range from chicks to include other animals — bunnies, mostly — as well as other flavors, including, in a bit of cross-branding, Hot Tamales cinnamon.
Mr. Born’s first wife, Maxine (Appell) Born, died in 1974, and his second wife, Elaine (Selwyn) Born, died in 2008. Along with his son, he is survived by his third wife, Patricia (Guggenheim) Born; his daughter, Sara Dobbins; five grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Born stepped back from day-to-day management of Just Born in 1983 and fully retired in 1989. He kept busy, working for a literacy nonprofit and advocating for interfaith relations through the Anti-Defamation League.
As bemused as he was by the success of his most famous confection, Mr. Born always made time to celebrate it, including as a frequent judge at diorama contests.
“I get a big charge out of seeing them every year,” he told The South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2015, while visiting a competition in Lake Worth, Fla. “Did I have any idea Peeps could become art? That’s a question for a philosopher, not for me.”