As you might know, I've always been fascinated by traditional sweets. Probably because our house is victorian I wanted to dive a little deeper into the history of victorian sweets.
In Victorian times, everything seems possible! It was the time for great inventions, connecting the whole countries with new amazing technology (called the steam railways!) and also time for everything proper!
The 1920s & 1930’s was an era of extremes. Great wealth and borderline poverty. First there was the swinging jazz scene of decadence and excess of a generation who survived the first world war and were determined to enjoy themselves. But it wasn’t to last and the stock market crash of 1929 led to a great depression and world wide economic crisis. Soon the frenetic whirl of the Charleston was replaced by the slow shuffle of hobnail boots in the dole queue. The Lindy Hop for some and the Jarrow March for others.
Before we get to our list of wartime sweets, lets have a bit of a background. Sweet and chocolate rationing started on 26 July 1942, only finishing 5 February 1953, nearly eight years later. The amount of sugar and therefore sweets which you were allowed fluctuated during the war, ranging from 16oz a month down to 8oz (227g) a month.
Despite the decision to ration the sales of sugar in January 1940, as late as the summer Cadbury's were still able to advertise that their teatime biscuits were available in 'all Woolworth stores'.
After the declaration of war in September 1939, three groups of food were initially rationed in January 1940; sugar, bacon and butter. This was followed by meat, fish, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit. Many factories were converted into making munitions for the war effort.<blog_break>
Wartime sweets rationing
Sweet rationing came into effect in 1942. There was an Allowance of seven ounces (200 gms) for everyone over five years old. This was the equivalent of just one sweet a day for most products in the Woolworth’s range. By the following year, sweets were becoming scarce and even having sufficient coupons was no guarantee that there would be enough sweets in the shops to buy.
In summer 1940, Cadbury’s were assuring customers that their chocolate biscuits were available in all stores. Three years later, they ran adverts in Picture Post magazine, saying that supplies were severely limited and asking customers to remember that growing children needed the nutrition from milk chocolate the most.
As raw materials were in short supply, chocolate manufactures were forced to substitute products and improvise ingredients. For instance, Cadbury Dairy Milk as withdrawn in 1941 when the government banned manufacturers from using fresh milk. In its place there was Ration Chocolate, made with dried skimmed milk powder.
The ration chocolate bar
In ‘A Child of War’, written in 1987, the author George Macbeth reminisced that sweets were the great loss and had his own firmly held views on the dubious taste of Ration Chocolate.
‘There was no longer an everlasting, teeth-spoiling fountain of sherbet and liquorice, or of Boy Blue cream whirls, or of Cadbury's Caramello. Sweets were hard to come by, and then limited to a fixed ration.
One of the worst casualties was chocolate. The traditional division into milk and plain disappeared, and an awful intervening variety known as Ration Chocolate was born, issued in semi-transparent grease-proof wrappers, and about as appetizing as cardboard. In spite of a lifelong sweet tooth, I could never eat it.’
What production of chocolate that did occur was strictly on a geographical basis due to transport restrictions and the need to ration petrol supplies. So, if you liked something made by Rowntrees of York and you lived in London then tough luck.
Chocolate bars on the home front & in the war
So much for chocolate and the lack of it on the home front. You were more likely to get your hands on a bar of chocolate, however variable its quality, if you were in the army. The US army, to be more precise. Yes, those WW2 films of Yanks in battledress, chewing gum, and wooing the local land girls with supplies of chocolate and sweets not found in the British shops are largely true.
However, like some of their other promises, it appears that the chocolate didn’t always live up to expectations…
D ration chocolate bar
The “D ration bar”, was a blend of chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk powder and oat flour, made by Hershey. It was an essential part of the emergency rations issued to US troops as part of the D day invasion of the beaches of Normandy. It weighed four ounces (112 grams) with 600 calories, was designed to be high in energy for mobile field operations and was manufactured to withstand high temperatures. Due to the fact that the recipe didn’t allow it to liquefy sufficiently, Hersheys had to design and make special chocolate moulds.
All of which made it difficult it eat and with a taste that isn’t fondly remembered by most.
Reports are that the mix of fat and oat flour made the chocolate bar a dense brick, and the sugar could not hide the extremely bitter taste to the dark chocolate. Designed to withstand high temperatures, the bar was difficult to bite into. Soldiers resorted to slicing off shaving of chocolate with their field knife.
For those of you interested in the actual ratios of ingredients, the formula for a large batch of the D chocolate ration bars, was 160 parts chocolate, not less than 54 percent cocoa fat, 160 parts added cocoa fat, 30 parts oat flour, 20 parts dry powdered skim milk, 70 parts vanillin crystals, and just enough sugar to make it palatable. There also was one-sixth part vitamin B1, which may have been healthy but didn’t add to the overall flavour.
Chocolate bars had a waxy or greasy taste which may have due, in part to the increase in the melting point from 92 to 120 degrees. Bars came with instructions that they were to be eaten in small quantities over a half hour period, (which was perhaps just as well) or could be dissolved in boiling water.
In fairness to Hershey, one of the US army’s other stipulations was that the chocolate bar should taste ‘a little better than a boiled potato!’. It seems that the army wanted a bar that didn’t taste so good that it was eaten as a treat and therefore not conserved for emergencies. No wonder US troops used to refer to it as ‘Hitler’s Secret Weapon’.
However, the combination of ingredients and taste requirements did have one unexpected benefit. The Tropical bar, specially designed to withstand the intense heat of the tropics and the desert, came into its own as practically the only foodstuff that soldiers in the Far East could eat when they were ill with dysentery.
The sheer scale of chocolate production for the military is staggering. By war’s end, Hershey had made while around 40.2 million 2-ounce and 4-ounce D Ration bars, and 380 million Tropical Chocolate Bars – that’s a lot of cure for dysentery.
The war may have ended in 1945 but chocolate and sweet rationing didn’t. It was to be another long eight years until 5 February 1953 before the 12 ounces a month ration was finally abolished. Sugar itself was not de-rationed until September 1953.
Suddenly, there were more queues but this time without the need for coupons.
How a generation of post war children finally got sticky fingers and sweet teeth and their parents war time dreams finally came true is the subject of our next blog – Chocolate and Sweets in the 1950s.
Is liquorice good for you? Well, like many children growing in the UK in the 1970’s, I only thought of liquorice (if I thought of it at all) as something to be used to reach into the bottom of my packet of sherbet dip.
Once wet, the sherbet stuck to the liquorice, but if you ate the two together, you were liable to run out of liquorice before you ran out of sherbet. At least I did!
Naturally (probably, on reflection not the best word) I was after the fizzy sensation of the sherbet, and that tingling feeling on my tongue. However, what I often got instead was a coughing fit as the yellow powder hit the back of my mouth. That’s if it didn’t end up all over my school uniform, first.
Nostalgia is always with us; like an ocean wave that keeps coming back. Like a prized keepsake, it’s passed down from one generation to the next. Think of it like the gift in a family game of pass the parcel. It goes through so many hands and there are so many layers to unwrap. And, all too often, the anticipation rarely matches up to the final product.
At the core of nostalgia is the compulsion to relive and then share our childhood memories with our children and the next generation; ‘this is what it was like for us, son!”. Safe in the knowledge that they’ll do exactly the same when the time comes with their children. So, like traditional sweets, nostalgia is about all sharing. Sharing the memory, sharing the moment, sharing the bag of barley sugars. Like that game of pass the parcel, it needs to be passed round and handed down.