The name marshmallow refers both to the sugary confection as well as to a plant. The 'mallow' plant (Althea Officinalis) is common in Europe. The leaves and roots are both edible but it is the mucilaginous substance from the root from which the early marshmallows were made. Today however the root is no longer used and has been replaced commercially with a gum arabic solution or at home with gelatin.
The earliest use of the mallow plant to make a confection dates back to the Egyptians. "The first marshmallows were made by boiling pieces of the marsh mallow root pulp with sugar until it thickened. After is had thickened, the mixture was strained and cooled. As far back as 2000BC, Egyptians combined the marsh mallow root with honey. The candy was reserved for gods and royalty."
The modern version most similar to what we see today was first made in France around 1850 and was called pate de guimauve. Marshmallows were made with the mallow root sap, gelatin, egg whites, corn syrup and water. The boiled mixture was placed in special molds coated in corn starch (to prevent sticking). This process was laborious so the manufacturing technique was changed in the 1900's with the invention of the "starch mogul system".
image by don johnson - box of campfire brand marshmallows from the 1940's to 1950's.
The marshmallow became very popular in the U.S. from the 1930's to the 1960's. Early on they were a child's candy but later they were seen in cookbooks used for topping cocoa, dessert topping and even in salads.
In 1955 there were over 30 marshmallow manufactures in the U.S. Thanks to one Alex Doumak, marshmallow production change to an extrusion process which made for rapid, low cost production of the product still sold today.
Yield: makes 1 pound, 10 ounces of marshmallows