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Does nostalgia or novelty drive our love of sweets?

Assortment of sweets Loose sweets from large jars are back in fashion

The number of traditional sweet shops has risen by 15% over the last year, in spite of overall falls in sales of confectionery and high street footfall. What is it that has people hooked?

"The sweet shop is a pilgrimage," says Alex Hutchinson, archivist at Nestle's York headquarters.

"It's a sensory feast: the bright colours, the smell as you go in. All the sweets have different wrappings and make different sounds and have different textures," she says.

Tiny boutiques lined with glass jars of sparkling, brightly coloured sweeties and old-fashioned chocolates are drawing in more customers, who are returning to the tastes of their youth.

This penchant for nostalgia has replaced genuine innovation in the confectionery industry, according to a new report in the Grocer industry magazine.

Make your own sweets

Peppermint creams

Dip peppermint creams in chocolate

Stir up your own peanut butter fudge

Put together a box of chocolate truffles

Fizz up some cinder toffee

"Much of the recent new product development [is] little more than twists on existing brands in the form of flavour extensions, new sizes or pack formats," it claims.

Yet novelty is an essential part of the enjoyment of confections.

At lavish medieval and Tudor functions the tables would be laden with elaborate displays of sugar plums, whole candied lemons filled with marmalade, shaped fruit pastes scented with rosewater or, more surprisingly, musk or ambergris.

And as the price of sugar dropped in the 18th Century the sweet shop was born, where the middle and lower classes could purchase a bag of Nelson's buttons or aniseed balls to eat on the street.

The 1800s saw the creation of butterscotch, Berwick cockles, Kendal mint cake, bittermints, Clarnico mint creams, Turkish delight, sherbet and Edinburgh rock.

But throughout the 1920s and 30s, British chocolate companies like Cadbury, Rowntree's and Mackintosh scurried to keep pace with a wave of international confectionery innovation.

Cadbury's Strange but True chocolate bars Cadbury's Strange but True chocolate bars had an exotic and exciting image in the 1960s
Sheriff's special chocolate cigarettes Chocolate and candy cigarettes were the health-conscious child's choice for behind the bikesheds.
Trebor fizzy cider Blobs Blobs were a boiled candy with a chewy centre that had experimental flavours like fizzy cider and raspberry, banana and pear.

After the arrival of the Dairy Milk bar in 1905, the game was on to develop mass market British confections for a hungry public.

Alex Hutchinson says "the 1930s was the golden age of confectionery manufacturing - when our most popular products originated: Aero, Smarties, Terry's Chocolate Orange, Black Magc, Dairy Box, Rolo, Fox's glacier mints".

Blast from the past:

1930s advert for Milky Bar

In pictures: Golden age of confectionery

Sweets' sweet nostalgia

Even author Roald Dahl, high priest of sweets, acknowledged that the 1930s was the pinnacle for chocolate development: "In music, the equivalent would be the golden age of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. In painting, it was the equivalent of the Italian Renaissance and the advent of the Impressionism at the end of the 19th Century; in literature, Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens."

Novelty also continued in the development of penny sweets, as the medicinal coltsfoot rock and fisherman's friends gave way to brilliantly coloured rhubarb and custard, gummi bears and jelly babies.

The importance of novelty for children enjoying sweets goes even deeper, according to Professor Allison James, professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield.

"Sweets are used by parents often as rewards - in this sense, they are not real food. They don't form part of the meal.

Flying saucers and humbugs Sweets are the first things we buy, give, and trade as children

"Penny sweets especially may be the 'food' which children have control over, in terms of choice, more so than the food which forms part of the adult-controlled meal."

The variety of shapes of penny sweets - from mice, to sugar skulls, to fried eggs, to giant jaw-breaking gobstoppers - creates an adult-free zone for children to express themselves.

It's "one of the ways in which children distanced themselves from adults, precisely because adults didn't eat these kinds of sweets that often," says Allison James.

Find out more:


Watch Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets on BBC Four Monday 5 November at 21:00 GMT

Tim Richardson, author of Sweets: A History of Temptation, says it is through our childhood experiences with sweets that some of our key personality traits are expressed.

"Sweets are the first things we buy, the first things we give, and the first things we trade. We learn about money, we learn about relationships," he says.

Cook Nigel Slater confronts some of his most vivid memories associated with sweets of his childhood in the BBC Four documentary, Life is Sweets.

"It's not just that little sugar bomb in your mouth - it's everything that's attached to it, all the baggage that goes with it," he says.

"Sweets have a compelling power to resurrect old emotions and memories in me."

"Sweets are like the memorials of our innocence. They remind of us of what it was like as children. The sweet will transport you back to a very particular moment in your life the way that nothing else does," says Tim Richardson.

1975 sweet shop Sweet shops in 1975 were complete with violet creams, blackcurrant eclairs and other favourites

While nothing evokes the sense of child-like wonder like a sweet shop, it was the mass-market chocolates that set about making confectionery a regular part of our lives, rather than a once-a-year treat.

"Up until the 1930s, sweets were sold in designated sweet shops, or by chemists and tobacconists, but Rowntree's were trying to turn those products into an everyday item that you would put into your basket of shopping," says Alex Hutchinson.

"Rowntree's were creating a new language of confectionery," says Alex Hutchinson.

"Until then it would be perfectly acceptable to give someone a chocolate bar for a birthday.

"A box of chocolates was tantamount to a marriage proposal because they were just so expensive."

But new, cheaper products were being developed that could be eaten every day without too much emotional or financial investment.

A spoonful of sugar:

  • Roman legionnaires used to be given liquorice sticks to chew as they marched to stave off hunger and thirst
  • Pill pressing machines were used to create Parma violets and Love Hearts
  • The Fisherman's Friend was developed first as a cough syrup, a chest rub and then as a lozenge by local pharmacist James Lofthouse in 1865

With the introduction of the plain-boxed Black Magic selection box in 1933, "you could buy a box of chocolates for someone you've only been out with once or twice".

"Dairy Box was the sort of thing you could buy for the girl next door just because she was fun and you liked her. You didn't have to be going out with her."

By the 1970s consumers had established an even deeper relationship with brands and their marketing that led as much to nostalgia for adverts as for the product.

Confectioners spent vast amounts of money on memorable marketing campaigns like the Cadbury Flake girl, the Milk Tray man and the Aztec advert shot on location in South America.

Nigel Slater remembers: "It was the first time for me that advertising any sort of confectionery got really exciting. It was like watching a feature film."

Confectioners had busily created a product for every occasion, and had cemented its image with extensive marketing.

Gummi bears Space for new products has dwindled as old favourites hold on in the market

"Nowadays if you gave your nephew or niece a box of Black Magic, their parents would think that was a bit strange," says Alex Hutchinson.

"There are some things that are an extravagance and some things that we put in a lunchbox without thinking about it, some things that we buy as a romantic gesture, or to say thank you. And that was created by Rowntree's in the 1930s."

The result is that space for new products has dwindled.

Consumers are less likely to part with their cash for something entirely new, but they will go to great lengths to bring back flavours of the past as seen in the 2011 online campaign to resurrect the Wispa bar eight years after it was discontinued.

But the big corporations have not given up yet.

In September 2012, the chocolate giant Mars unveiled a new £6m research and development facility in Slough, testing products for manufacture on a global scale in their state-of-the-art kitchens and labs. Cadbury have just launched the new Crispello bar aimed, perplexingly, at weight-conscious women.

In the true spirit of Willy Wonka, only imagination will limit the next novel confection for the children of today.

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