As you might know, I’ve always been fascinated by traditional sweets making. Probably because our house is Victorian I wanted to dive a little deeper into the history of victorian sweets.
In Victorian times, everything seemed 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!
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Sugar sweets should be available for everyone
Each area of life seems to have had an invention or two that improved what was already there. This was no different to traditional sweets making.
New machines and equipment made the production of sweets much cheaper and available to a wider audience. Suddenly, sweets were becoming a treat for more people than ever before.
Historically sweets and confectionery was hand-made luxury available only to kings, queens and wealthy aristocrats. The industrial revolution brought about many technological advances; lowering prices for refined sugar and allowing for factory produced sweets and confectionary. Because of these changes, sweets were no longer luxurious items for the super rich.
The invention of the first milk chocolate bar
Victorian times were also a great time for inventions in the sweets industry. Chocolate has certainly come a long way since it was first discovered by the Maya people.
The first dark or plain chocolate bar was made in 1847, but it took nearly another 30 years before milk chocolate bar was invented. As you might know, chocolate doesn’t really like water, it splits, makes the chocolate go grey and you can’t really temper it and mould it.
The chocolate manufacturers were first trying to add pure milk to chocolate mass to create milk chocolate. And whilst this sounds like a great idea in principle, it didn’t work, for all those reasons mentioned above.
It wasn’t until 1875, when a very clever chocolatier thought about swapping the liquid milk for dried powdered milk and hey, presto – milk chocolate bar was born!
Boom in new modern sweets
A lot of modern sweets, were invented in Victorian times. This was because sugar, which was imported from West Indies become much cheaper. Marshmallows were invented about 1850.
Toffee was invented in the early 19th century and fudge was invented in the the USA in the 1880s. Peanut brittle and jelly beans were also invented in the 19th century. First wine gums were sold in 1893.
Turkish delight was invented in 1777 and it became popular in Europe in the 19th century.
Hard boiled sweets made from lemon or peppermint flavours were popular in the early nineteenth century.
Meanwhile Kendal mint cake was invented in 1869. Turkish delight, which was originally invented in 1777 only become popular in Europe in the 19th century.
The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 was a great event for many reasons, but it was also first time when “French-style” sweets made with soft cream centres were first displayed. A new sweet making equipment made this possible. Until then nobody managed to add a soft centre to a hard boiled sweets.
Seaside rock appeared in the late 19th century, and it was in the 19th century that people began to eat boiled sweets; as sugar became cheaper a wide variety of boiled sweets were developed.
Other new sweets invented during the 19th century included candy floss (1897) and liquorice allsorts (1899) (liquorice was originally used as a medicine but Pontefract cakes were invented in the early 17th century and people began to eat it as a sweet).
In 1903 the ice cream cone was invented.
Choc-ices went on sale in the USA in 1921.
Meanwhile bubble gum was invented in 1906 (although it wasn’t actually sold until 1928) and the first lollipops were sold about 1908.
The most famous sweet released during the first decade of the 20th century is the wine gum. Unusually this sweet wasn’t aimed at children but at adults- hence the alcohol inspired name. Although the name might suggest otherwise there is no wine involved in the making of these delicious sweets, children eat these just as gladly.
The Victorian sweets with the most interesting back story are Liquorice Allsorts ‘created’ in 1899. According to legend, a travelling salesman dropped his tray of samples.
The salesman may have thought that he’s blown the pitch but his customer so loved the assortment of shapes and colours arrayed on the floor that he asked if these sweets could be made intentionally!
The most surprising invention of Victorian times – the Chewing gum
Another great Victorian Sweets invention was chewing gum. I was definitely surprised by that, because somehow I always thought that chewing gum is such a modern type of sweet. Anyway, chewing gum from trees was common across the world for centuries, but chewing gum as we know it was not made commercially until 1848.
There is a long history of people using various types of wood and natural sap from trees that could be chewed. For example, 5000 years ago, in the Neolithic period, people chewed wood, possibly because they believed it had some medicinal properties.
In ancient Greece, people chewed mastiche, a derived-product of mastic trees. People used it because it tasted good and also because it said to have curative properties (as reported by Dioscorides).
In the middle ages, the Sultan’s harem used to chew mastic as breath freshener, for its cosmetic and healing properties.
Later on, American Indians chewed resin from spruce trees and the first settlers of New England in America realised it’s potential and started to sell the first chewing-gum in 1848 as “The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.” And apparently, to this date, it is still sold!
In 1850, the first wax-made chewing gum was sold and it didn’t take a long time for it to take over the spruce tree gum in popularity.
The traditional set up of a Victorian Sweets Shop
One thing I’d love to do is to be able to walk in to original Victorian sweets shop. As sweets become cheaper, shop keepers started to stock more sweet treats and you could find shops dedicated to just sweets.
Just imagine all those tall jars filled with different types of sweets and a smiling shop keeper measuring out a quarter of a pound of your favourite sweets.
Traditional Victorian Sweets would include Fudge, Marzipan, Liquorice Allsorts, Jelly Babies, Brandy Balls, Clove Rocks, Pear Drops, Coconut Ice, Marshmallows, Bonbons, Chocolate Limes, Toffee or Wine Gums.
There were also many sweets – especially in Britain, such as rose or violet lozenges, Lime Fruit, Twisted Barley Sugar, Strawberry Drops, Damson Drops, Chocolate Drops, Caramels or Chocolate Kisses. I’m always inspired by old-fashioned names for chocolate businesses when I’m helping my students to choose their own name for their new chocolate ventures.
Sweets were weighted by shop assistants and sold in paper bags or cones. Sometimes you could buy chocolates in pretty boxes, which were apparently padded with cotton wool to protect the chocolate inside!
In many traditional sweets shops, you could find a large tray of home-made toffee on the counter. The shopkeeper would break it up with a small hammer and what looked like a pair of scissors. Children would often buy just an ounce of sweets at the time. That’s about 30 grams, which doesn’t sound like a lot.
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Sugar substitutions in sweets during Victorian times
I love the idea that Victorian’s believed that sugar was healthy! Victorian advertising for sweets often refered to them as a wholesome!
The new found love for sweets had also a bit of a shady side to it! Although sugar become much more affordable in Victorian times, it didn’t stop sweets shopkeepers and victorian sweets producers to make their products even cheaper – but for themselves!
Sweets which were made from white sugar were often sold with plaster of Paris added in. Roasted almonds were often substituted with kernels of various fruits, such as peaches, apricots and nectarines.
Apparently, in London, kitchen maids serving in wealthy families were known for collecting fruit kernels from their kitchens and selling them on to sweets shops, making a little extra pocket money at the same time!
And it apparently didn’t stop there! Other ingredients that were added to Victorian sweets included lime, alum, bullock’s blood, charcoal or acetate of soda.
Oxide of leads was also mixed with the small proportions of sugar and used in making sweets like sugar plums. I guess that was because of the colour! Lead is of course fairly poisonous, but nobody would know when children would be sucking on the sugar plums, only having a slight blue tongs!
So, here you are – a potted history of Victorian Sweets! I’m sure I’ll carry on researching more about this wonderful subject, especially the practical research, which of course includes trying some of these recipes and tasting them too!
Until next time…
This blog post was originally written on 16 July 2017 and last updated on 5 April 2023