Man Who Concocted the Twinkie Dies : James A. Dewar’s Treat Is Part of America’s Diet and Folklore

Times Staff Writer

James A. Dewar, who made the world a little sweeter when he invented Twinkies 55 years ago, has died at the age of 88.

Despite being labeled “junk food” by nutritionists and becoming the object of such unfavorable publicity as the so-called “Twinkie Defense” in the 1979 Dan White murder case, the little cakes with the sweet-cream filling have become part of America’s diet and folklore.

Dewar, who said he ate at least two packets of Twinkies a week, vigorously defended the wholesomeness of the snack, which has been described as the “cream puff of the proletariat.”


“Some people say Twinkies are the quintessential junk food, but I believe in the things,” he once said. “I fed them to my four kids, and they feed them to to my 15 grandchildren. My boy Jimmy played football for the Cleveland Browns. My other son, Bobby, played quarterback for the University of Rochester. Twinkies never hurt them.”

Career Began in 1920

Dewar, who died Sunday in Fair View Baptist Home in Downers Grove, a Chicago suburb, began his career in 1920, peddling pound cakes from a horse-drawn wagon for Continental Baking Co. By 1930--the same year that sliced bread was first marketed--Dewar was manager of Continental’s Hostess Bakery in Chicago. The Great Depression was well under way.

“We needed a good two-pack nickel number,” Dewar recalled in a 1980 interview. “So we came up with Twinkies.”

Hostess already had bakery molds for the now-familiar shape--used to bake shortcakes and sold only during the strawberry season. It was Dewar’s inspiration to fill the cakes with a sugar-cream mixture, the formula for which is still a tightly held secret.

The name was also Dewar’s inspiration. On a sales trip, he spotted a sign advertising “Twinkle Toe Shoes”--and he simply adapted it to his product.

Twinkies caught on immediately. By 1980, Twinkies had become celebrated in song and story and were selling at the rate of about 1 billion annually, Continental said. There was something in the name that tickled Americans. Songwriter Larry Groce’s “The Ballad of the Junk Food Junkie” was a hit tune in 1974. Twinkies were a mainstay of Archie Bunker’s diet. He called the goodies “WASP Soul Food” on the TV series “All in the Family.”


In Cleveland, part of West 20th Street was renamed Twinkie Lane because a Hostess bakery had been built there. There was even a rumor--which was denied--that a Twinkies vending machine was installed in the White House during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

‘Twinkie Defense’

During the trial of former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, his attorney successfully argued that he should not be convicted of first-degree murder in the slayings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk because before the killings he had gorged himself on “Twinkies, cupcakes, chocolate bars and Cokes.”

It was dubbed “The Twinkie Defense,” and White was convicted of manslaughter. Dewar, who scoffed at the idea that Twinkies ever caused any mental or physical problems, retired as vice president of Continental in 1972. In addition to his two sons, Dewar is survived by 2 daughters, 15 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.