Sugar-plums and Sherbert: The Prehistory of Sweets


ISBN-10 1-903018-28-5

ISBN-13 978-1-903018-28-6

Published Dec 2003

250 pages; 220×155 mm; paperback; b&w illustrations



Laura Mason

This is a paperback edition of the book first published in 1998. The hardback gained universal praise; ‘A fascinating account’ said the TLS; echoed by national and local press; ‘A fascinating book full of off-beat information’, wrote Derek Cooper. This is the first book to look beyond the brilliant colours of the sweet-shop shelf and consider the ingenuity of sugar boiling and the manufacture of those intriguing avatars of childhood happiness: the humbug, the gobstopper, the peardrop and the stick of rock. As well as a history, it is also a recipe book, with twenty tried and tested methods for sweets ancient and modern.

Who has not wondered how they got the marbling into humbugs and the fantastic patterns into Just William’s gobstoppers? The byways of knowledge that are illuminated make this so rewarding. Did you know how they got the letters into rock? How they twisted barley sugar? The difference between fudge and tablet? The connection between humbugs and an Arab sweet from 13th-century Spain (where it was borrowed it from the Persians)?

There have been quite a number of studies of modern-day sweeties and their immediate antecedents. This goes further back than that, tracing development from sugar’s first appearance in Britain in the late Middle Ages. As much a history of sweets, it is also a study of sugar and its place in our early diet. This is good history, that you can suck; and is illustrated throughout with contemporary prints and drawings.

Laura Mason is also the author of Traditional Foods of Britain (Prospect) and many other studies in food history, published in journals such as Gastronomica and Petits Propos Culinaires.

Review by Derek Cooper in Saga Magazine

Review by E.S. Turner from the London Review of Books of the original hardback edition of Sugar Plums and Sherbert

Review by Derek Cooper in Saga Magazine

France may have its patisseries, Italy its ice cream parlours, Switzerland its chocolate boutiques but nowhere in the world is there a rival to the British sweetshop based on our passionate love affair with sugar in all its forms. Every time we go to visit our daughter, who now lives in the US, she asks us to bring her a bag of aniseed balls. They remind her, she says, of her childhood; their taste is poignant.

What I didn’t know was that they were once valued as digestifs. Like many another sugary confection they have their sticky roots in medieval medicine and alchemy. Humbugs developed from ancient cold cures and liquorice strings were originally prescribed for those suffering from troublesome coughs. I owe my new-found knowledge to food historian Laura Mason who has written a nostalgic account of what they call in Scotland sweeties.

Her book, Sugar Plums and Sherbet, centres on the small confectioner-tobacconist-newsagents where a penny could bring instant satisfaction and the almost certain promise of dental caries. The contents of a sweetshop, she writes, ‘are an edible archive of social custom and technical expertise recorded in sugar.’

As Laura Mason recalls, sugary sweets reached their apotheosis in seaside towns like Margate, Blackpool and Bridlington. Here, whole windows were given over to displays of rock with the name of the resort cunningly wrought inside. Multi-coloured lollipops and sweets mimicking bacon and eggs or sugar false teeth abounded: ‘Stacked high in surreal profusion, the contents of seafront shops appeared little more than several hundredweight of sugar, combined with dye and flavouring, wrapped in wisps of Cellophane.’

Nobody ever said that sweets were good for you but they were irresistible. Remember the luxurious way in which sherbet effervesced in the mouth? Remember sherbet lemons – bright yellow, hard-boiled sweets packed with sherbet in the middle like grenades? Then there were paper tubes filled with sherbet just waiting to be sucked out through a liquorice straw.

What joy we derived from those crystals which were nothing more than sugar, bicarbonate of soda, tartaric acid plus colours and flavours. And what hours of pleasure we got from the ever-changing gobstopper. Making them, according to Laura Mason, was a time-consuming operation. ‘The sugar crystal centres are placed in a heated revolving pan and syrup added in a series of changes. A different colour is used in each batch of syrup and the process is repeated until the required size is reached – a well proportioned gobstopper requires up to a thousand coats.’

This is a fascinating book full of off-beat information. Did you know that wine gums never had anything to do with alcohol – and were invented in 1909 by a Methodist teetotaller? That butterscotch has nothing to do with Scotland? That Liquorice Allsorts were born when a Bassett salesman got a case of samples accidentally muddled?

Sweets and chocolates have a remarkable survival rate – the Mars Bar first appeared 166 years ago. Fry’s choco1ate cream bar (still going strong) dates from 1866. Dolly Mixtures, Edinburgh rock, and acid drops seem to have been around for ever. Regional diversity persists in confections like Pontefract Cakes, Moffat Toffee, Jeddart Snails, Berwick Cockles and Kendal Mint Cake. ‘The contents of sweetie jars,’ says Laura Mason, ‘remain available symbols of affection, status and well-being.’ Her book has recipes, some of which go back to the 17th century, and is a hard-boiled look at the colourful world of confectionery.

Review by E.S. Turner from the London Review of Books of the original hardback edition of Sugar Plums and Sherbert

Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: A Prehistory of Sweets by Laura Mason
Prospect, 250 pp, £20.00, June 1998, ISBN 0 907325 83 1

One does not get far in this book before one’s eye is stopped by the reproduction of an advertisement placed by B. Henderson, of the China Warehouse, Rye Lane, Peckham. Miss (or Mrs) Henderson ‘respectfully informs the Friends of Africa that she has on Sale an Assortment of Sugar Basins, handsomely labelled in Gold Letters: “East India Sugar not made by Slaves”.’ There follows this assurance: ‘A Family that uses 5lbs of Sugar per Week will, by using East India, instead of West India, for 21 months, prevent the Slavery, or Murder, of one Fellow Creature! Eight such Families, in 19½ years, will prevent the Slavery, or Murder, of 100!!’ The mathematical projection may have been rickety, but what houseproud humanitarian could resist a purchase like that? And what housekeeper could fail to ensure that the bowl was always correctly filled?

It is well to remember that, in the bloody annals of prized commodities, sugar occupies a peak of disgrace never attained by opium, gold, diamonds, rubber or petroleum. To sweeten the pies and pills of the West, to heap the shrine of luxury and pride with comfits, bonbons, manus Christi, bulls’-eyes and Nelson’s Balls, the maritime powers fought over the slave islands of the Caribbean like dogs scrapping for bones, endlessly losing their prizes and recapturing them, content to see garrison after garrison wiped out by fever so long as rival fleets could be beaten off and slave uprisings crushed. Out of the West came forth sweetness. Legend has it that the Elder Pitt, merely by pausing and saying in his resonant voice, ‘Sugar, Mr Speaker,’ could bring a restless Commons to silence and an appreciation of national urgencies.

Apart from that sugar bowl illustration, the subject of slavery rates only the barest mention in Sugar-Plums and Sherbet, an engaging ‘prehistory of sweets’, complete with recipes. However, the subject of sugar supplies is not neglected. A sprightly French cartoon reflects the success of the British Navy in stopping the flow of sugar to Napoleonic France. Bonaparte is seen as paterfamilias seated by a cot in which an infant is nibbling, not a lollipop, but a beetroot, while the mother cries: ‘Suck, chéri, suck, your father says it’s sugar.’ War is the mother of invention and we have forgotten that the Emperor was the stern nurse of the beet sugar industry. His 40 factories helped to assuage France’s sweet tooth until the Long Peace reopened the tainted sugar routes. The victors celebrated not only with Nelson’s Balls (cannon balls, presumably) but with Nelson’s Buttons, Wellington Sticks and Bonaparte’s Ribs.

Laura Mason is introduced as a food historian with a scientific background. She is thoroughly at home with the technicalities of sugar-boiling, a subtle process which at one stage produces a hard sweet that is ‘a vibrant jewel of suckability’ and at the next a syrup which can be made to ‘grain’ into ‘those most luxurious of textures, fudge or the soft flower-scented centre to a chocolate’. ‘Graining’ is that sacramental moment when fructose and glucose rebond to form sucrose. Mason describes, as we have every right to expect, ‘the methods used by early confectioners to put the layers into gobstoppers and the stripes into humbugs’ (she regards the humbug as ‘the acme of oral satisfaction’). She is eloquent, too, on the ancient art and mystery of sugar-pulling, a process much to be admired in a stick of rock impregnated with the word ‘Llanfairfechan’. How the lettering is done, Mason admits, is difficult to describe, and she is right; this could be made the subject of a test paper for technical journalists. There was a time when sugar-pulling parties were a cover for courtship, with strong-muscled young men – this was no task for wimps – showing off before female eyes. In America such events were called candy-pulls, and one would not be vastly surprised to hear that they still flourish. It goes without saying that Mason is nostalgic, as who is not, for the old dame-controlled, bow-windowed, village sweet shop, in which aniseed balls were counted out by hand and candyfloss had not yet arrived to serve as a synonym for the economy; a scene very different from the modern sweets ‘outlet’ in the corner shop, with its racks of pornography and a notice on the door saying ‘Not more than two children admitted at once’.

We all know who survived on locusts and wild honey. Wild or tame, honey seems to have been almost the sole sweetener in the ancient world, though here and there in the Far East sugar cane was cultivated. The West stayed brutish and unsaccharinated until die Muslim expansion of the seventh century. According to Mason, much of Britain’s early supply of sugar, priced ‘unimaginably high’, came from North Africa, and was used as spice, medicine or preservative. Medieval banquets of the kind at which the jester jumped into the custard bowl boasted pyramids of sweetmeats of one sort or another. This book omits to tell us of the sugar spectacular at Elvetham when Queen Elizabeth visited the Earl of Hertford. The Earl’s source of supplies can only be guessed at, but his confectioners were able to lay on reproductions in sugar of all Her Majesty’s castles and principal assets, and then, having a good deal of sugar left over, they produced a wide-ranging bestiary of creatures natural and unnatural, and finally a harvest festival of fruits and flowers. It was an established custom, Mason reminds us, for sparkish dinner guests to toss the sweets about, in the manner of latter-day subalterns hurling bread rolls. In John Evelyn’s time the banquet ‘stuff’ was still being flung around the room profusely. Eventually, it seems, sweet-throwing hooligans were weaned onto confetti.

Aniseed balls, resembling dark red marbles, were never the epicure’s first choice of sweet. They appear to date from the 14th century and were recommended as a cure for flatulence. Marshmallow was supposedly a cough cure (today marshmallows are tossed into Louisiana swamps to bring alligators to the surface). Kissing comfits, compounded of musk, civet and ambergris, were devised to disguise bad breath, but possibly worsened it. These delights, such as they were, were only for the wealthy, and only the wealthy could relish the extravagances of sugar sculpture. The popularising of sweets was a slow process. A strong stimulus in that direction came with the invention of fruit drops, those hard bright triumphs of suckability. The author takes the view that hard-boiled drops ‘were probably seen as an affordable substitute for fruit, at least by the poor’, leaving one to wonder whether wine gums were ever welcomed as a substitute for strong drink. The pear drop produced a ‘strong aroma reminiscent of pear, with the addition of a curious and intense sweetness which catches at the top of the nose’ (yes, indeed; and in World War Two the whiff of pear drops on the breeze was a signal for putting on one’s gas mask, as was the scent of geraniums or of musty hay). With new discoveries like fruit drops sweets gradually ceased to be an adult luxury and confectioners at last had the juvenile market in their sights. The glorious sugar menageries of Elvetham gave way eventually to the sugar mouse and the jelly baby, either of which could be consumed with a rasher of sugar bacon. Thanks to the Gresham’s Law that governs juvenile taste the market was soon flooded with luscious abominations. In France, the word bonbon was ‘subverted to bonbec by children to indicate the “rubbish” confectionery which adults hate (and call la cochonnerie)’.

More serious than the adulteration of style was the adulteration of substance. Tennyson complained that ‘chalk and alum and plaster are sold to the poor for bread,’ but the confectioners went a step further, using red lead and verdigris to achieve the high colours which captivated the young. The ‘deadly sweets’ scandals of the 1850s inspired a Punch cartoon which shows a skeletal lozenge-maker pounding out ‘Bonbons for Juvenile Parties’ from the contents of chests marked ‘Arsenic’ and ‘Plaster of Paris’. There was also a box labelled ‘Mottoes’, which were now part of the rush to vulgarity. The Victorian rage for sweets with a message was initially delayed by the illiteracy prevailing in the market, but successive Education Acts did for readable sweets what they also did, over the years, for penny dreadfuls and the Northcliffe press. Conversation Lozenges, Cupid’s Whispers and the like bore fairly basic messages on the lines of ‘Do you flirt?’ and ‘Can you polka?’ It was left to the temperance movement to broaden out the texts. ‘Sobriety is the sure way to riches’ and ‘Hard work does not need intoxicating liquor’ were among the maxims dye-stamped onto sweets. This was no way to the juvenile heart. The ideal sweet for the young was the one which caused most exasperation to parents, by, for instance, blackening the tongue like that of a plague victim or enabling the chewer to spit ‘blood’. With chewing-gum would come an irresistible opportunity for open-mouthed mastication, punctuated by noisy bubble-blowing.

The cause of hygiene eventually called for individual wrapping of sweets, a pernickety fashion defied in today’s cinemas, where mega-ice-lollies and straggly Yellow Bellies are sold in a state of nature. Henry Mayhew, frequently cited in this book, told how a street vendor of sweets wrapped his wares in pages torn from old books and a heap of Acts of Parliament. The old damerun sweet shop usually supplied sweets in a conical paper poke not unlike the one from which a military exquisite plucks his sugarplums in a Gillray drawing of 1797. I can remember when chocolate was sold unwrapped, broken off from corrugated sheets at the rate of one ridge for a halfpenny, two ridges for a penny. Toffee came in a shallow tray and, since it was immensely hard, had to be broken up with a toffee-hammer. One of the better, if dingier bargains was a bag of ‘window clearings’. Today these might well be remarketed as Paradise Mixture.

The gobstopper, once described as ‘that magnificent offspring of a cannon ball and a mothball’, has been the subject of all too many trips down memory lane. Who originated the name, and when, does not emerge, but this monster co-existed with Kruger’s Whiskers, a villainous-looking mess of coconut ice and chocolate. A few years ago there were reports that the authentic, fully-fashioned gobstopper was going out of production because it was too costly to manufacture at a reasonable price. The smaller gobstoppers of today were said to cause less damage when hurled at cinema screens. According to this book, a ‘well-proportioned’ gobstopper requires a thousand successive coatings, which does not mean that it has a thousand colours and a thousand flavours. It is one of those sweets which require frequent removal from the mouth for inspection, as did a range of sweets, not mentioned here, in which progressive sucking revealed spies’ messages or a series of views of London (and how distressing to swallow the Tower of London without ever seeing it). Was the gobstopper, one wonders, ever the subject of cautionary papers in the Lancet? Getting an ordinary boiled sweet stuck in the throat could be exquisitely painful: might not the greater gobstopper have proved a life-stopper?

It takes a touch of Armageddon to make the public value its sweets, an aspect which might have been more fully explored in this book. In World War One sugar rationing did not come in until three months from the Armistice, but there was time enough for Marie Corelli, the novelist, to be smartly fined for hoarding it. In Hitler’s war, rationing set in early. The crackdown was hastened by Robert Boothby, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, who professed to be shocked by the wanton display of sugared cakes in Princes Street, Edinburgh. It became an offence to put sugar on the exterior of any cake, bun, biscuit, pastry, scone or bread after baking. Napoleonic France under the British blockade could not have suffered worse sugar deprivation than Britain under the U-boat threat. The gobstopper went off the market and was off it for many years. The toffee-apple vanished. Perhaps colonels and brigadiers who lined up for their sweet allocation passed them on to the young; or perhaps not. In the advertisements Bertie Bassett promised Allsorts for all when victory came, but when victory came the country had to wait an unconscionable five years for sweet rationing to end. It turned out that in the new Elizabethan Age the cooks of the Army Catering Corps had not lost their skills: they regularly won prizes for their sugar-sculpting of castles and war-horses in the high tradition of Queen Bess.

Laura Mason appears to have travelled widely in her researches. In Sicily she watched children clamour for ‘heads of garlic’ made of almond paste; in Istanbul she found 20 varieties of rahat lakoum; in Manila she located jars of syruped limes incised with patterns like the carved fruit described in 17th-century cookery texts. Did she, at the wheel of a car, ever run the gauntlet of Montélimar in the Rhone valley, where importunate nougat-sellers try to flag down the traveller for a mile and more? Nothing is to be gained, incidentally, by a pilgrimage to Pontefract, featured as a trysting-place in Betjeman. The liquorice fields have vanished and so have nine out of 11 factories. Are we really facing the end of liquorice torpedoes, pistols, Catherine wheels, bootlaces and old boots?

The author knows better than to try to nominate the most popular sweet in history, but the Guinness Book of Records used to give the award to America’s Life Savers. A calculation based on a period of 75 years claimed that ‘a tunnel formed by the holes in the middle placed end to end would stretch to the Moon and back more than three times.’ President Reagan’s jelly beans were never in the running. America’s taste in sweetstuffs is not universally admired. Its best-known addiction, that transiently flavoured yet inexhaustible cud, has yet to reach the Ascot set.

Chocolate, which has its own historians, is treated only briefly in this book. If the author drops in on Bruges she will surely be stunned by the profusion of chocolate shops, each one a scented cavern of thaumaturgic delights, assembled in the spirit of ‘Pile’ em high and sell ‘em dear.’ One window display which I recently had occasion to inspect was dominated by a challenge in suckability in the form of a life-size bust of a well-developed female, enclosed in a filmy brassiere which perhaps was also edible. What comparable feats of cochonnerie might there have been in the back shop? In recent years chocolate has lost much of its innocence. Was there not recently a sexual harassment case in which chocolate in priapic form was said to have been handed round in mixed company? Was it not announced, all of two years ago, that jars of chocolate body-paint were a popular Christmas present among the liberated? Chocolate bars on occasion may have saved the lives of mountaineers and pot-holers, but if one believes all one reads things have been done lately with chocolate bars that were never contemplated by the Quakers who fostered the industry; though a more serious offence, the pious may feel, was committed when the brand name of a chocolate bar was projected onto the dome of St Paul’s.