The origins of the custom of giving children school cones are as mysterious as the content of the school cone itself. Like the tip of the cone, the custom began small but continued to spread until it could no longer be ignored. In 1817 a child in Jena was the first to enjoy „an enormous cone containing sweets“ which was a gift from the church cantor.
In 1920 a father secretly bought a cone filled with sweets, or candy cone, at the local confectioner’s which he then arranged to have presented to his son by the school inspector. Cone-shaped bags were in general use as the standard form of packaging for confectionery and sweets in Germany in the 1960s. Therefore, when considering the earlier evidence of this custom we should not think of the cones as being the same as the ones in use today.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the idea of sweetening a child’s first day at what was then still a very strict school had spread further afield. In 1853 the „candy cone“ was even the subject of a children’s book. This book even showed the cones growing on a candy cone tree from which the cones could then be plucked. This idea spread rapidly so that, even today, real or artificial trees still appear punctually on the first day of the school year bearing candy cones which are ripe for picking.
In subsequent years school cones were mentioned with increasing frequency. Saxony and Thuringia are, however, the primary locations of this gift-giving practice and here it has become an established custom. Of course this custom was practised in different ways by the various social classes and many a child of poor parents, if he received a school cone at all, was given one containing necessities, rather than sweets.
In other areas of Germany, however, children and their parents knew nothing of the practices of this region! In those days the newspapers, let alone the television, did not produce reports on how children who were just starting school marked this new phase in their lives. For a long time raisins or prunes continued to be considered suitable little rewards for children who were just starting school. Children in Hesse looked forward to receiving different types of pretzels. Until the 1920s most children in Hamburg received nothing to mark their first day at school.
As the custom of giving school cones was concentrated in Saxony and Thuringia, so too was their manufacture. In addition to receiving cones made of wrapped sheets of paper, children probably often received individually made cones, by bookbinders for example. It was probably in the year 1910 that Carl August Nestler came up with the idea of mass-producing cardboard school cones at his paper-processing factory in Wiesa. The company is thus credited with being the first school cone factory in Germany. We should not think of this as being a factory in the modern sense, however, but rather as a manufacturing site because the materials used and the way they have to be manipulated make the use of machines impossible.
The form of the school cone has undergone a crucial change over the course of its development. Even if the first school cones were made of rolled paper, as shown in old drawings, the first known photograph of a school cone, dating from 1879, shows the conical cardboard outline still familiar to us today. Angular cones were already in use in the 1920s. In later years the 85 cm-long cone became the standard cone for children in former East Germany, while children in former West Germany had to be content with cones that were only 70 cm in length.
These preferences still remain today, although the large hexagonal cones have now also been sighted in the western German states.
The text „Geschichte der Schultüte“ [History of the School Cone] was kindly made available to us from the „Schulanfang“ [First Day of School] collection of Mr. Hans-Günter Löwe in Hamburg.