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M&M's were manufactured after the founder of the candy Smarties, Forrest Mars, Sr. observed soldiers during the Spanish Civil War eating chocolate pellets that were coated in sugar to keep the sugar from sticking to their fingers. They were first marketed in the US in 1941 and by WW2 they were given out to soldiers because they were a snack that travelled well.
M&M's gained popularity because air conditioning was not usually operated in stores, homes or cars and candy made from chocolate would melt. With M&M's the coating kept the chocolate from melting, thus the slogan "melst in your mouth, not in your hand".