I hear a lot of stories about how Smarties were first invented in Canada, and how they were originally called Niblit Beans, and how the orange Smartie isn’t really orange flavoured, it’s just your mind playing tricks on you. I thought it was about time to put all these legends to bed and finally publish the definitive history of Smarties, based on the original board minutes and records. If you think I’ve missed out a milestone, let me know in the comments section below.
Smarties are not only the oldest chocolate sweet that Nestlé UK make, but they are also one of the oldest chocolate sweets in the world.
According to food historian Ivan Day, some of the first known chocolate sweets were crottes du lapin: little balls of dark chocolate that looked a lot like rabbit droppings (that’s what the name means) made for the exclusive enjoyment of the rich and fashionable Georgians. Unfortunately the droppings would stain the expensive white gloves of the rich women that ate them, so confectioners next came up with diablotins: chocolate drops covered in something like sugar hundreds and thousands so that well-to-do ladies could pick them up without getting melted chocolate on their hands.
Smarties are a kind of dragée, and dragée are a type of French sweet that involve a sugar shell; sugared almonds are a good example of a dragée. Dragées were created for the same reason as diablotins, to stop the chocolate inside from melting on the fingers of the eater.
Nestlé UK has been making the Smartie type sweet on and off since at least 1882, when the firm was known as H. I. Rowntree & Co., Cocoa Manufacturer and French Confectioner.
Although the sweet has been made by the Company for many years, it wasn’t until 1937 that it began to take on a personality of its own. During the 1930s Rowntree’s noticed that one of their confectionery lines, Chocolate Niblets (sometimes also called Chocolate Nibs), which they had been supplying to Marks & Spencer, was selling extremely well. George Harris thought there was a chance that he could interest Woolworths in the line, if he could increase production. The board was dubious, but let him go ahead. Sales in Woolworths also began taking off.
The line was produced at York, and at the factory of one of the subsidiary companies under the name Chocolate Lentils. George Harris pressed the board to allow increased production and to make the product more widely available through the sales force. Some members of the board were worried that this would take us further into the confectionery market than we had ever been before. In fact, the board minutes comment “In light of past experience… it was queried whether we were in a position to make a successful attempt on the confectionery market” (Rowntree’s York Board Minutes, 4th August 1936, minute 1714). This seems very funny to modern readers who can’t think of Rowntree’s as anything other than a confectionery company. Needless to say, Harris got his way.
In July 1937 the board minutes begin mentioning Chocolate Beans and don’t mention Chocolate Niblets again. Judging by the evidence in the Company archive, the two were slightly different products. Chocolate Niblets (also manufactured as Chocolate Nibs) don’t appear to have had a sugar shell, whereas Chocolate Beans do. Either way, Chocolate Niblets found themselves usurped, and Chocolate Beans were manufactured in their place.
To fit in line with Harris’ policy of brand building, the beans were renamed Smarties Chocolate Beans, to make them a more recognisable entity. The Smarties were mainly milk chocolate, but there was also a plain chocolate Smartie (in a dark brown shell), an orange flavour Smartie and a coffee flavour Smartie. Now only the orange flavour remains.
The orange flavouring was mixed in with the milk chocolate, however it is now only added to the sugar shell and so the chocolate inside the orange shell is the same milk chocolate as the other Smarties.
One of our longer serving colleagues can still remember the traditional production methods as passed down by Henry Rowntree: "We have always used a natural orange oil as the flavour for Smarties. I remember when we were still making coffee flavour Smarties in the 1970s, we used Mocha Paste manufactured from real coffee beans. The manufacturing process for the Mocha Paste had been the same for over 100 years when I joined. "
Smarties were so popular that by the beginning of 1938 Rowntree’s were building a new factory block for them.
By June 1938 they had finished the two-storey building and were just adding the finishing touches to the roof when someone on the board obviously changed their mind. Within a few months they were adding another storey to what would eventually become a five-storey building. Such was the success of the Smarties Chocolate Bean.
Smarties were originally sold in boxes and glass jars, but a 2d.* Smarties tube was introduced in 1939, possibly to curb consumption! *A note to readers who were born after decimalisation: “2d.” means two pence, but it is pronounced “tupp-ny”. Look up Old Penny on your favourite search engine.
A history of Smarties would not be complete without mentioning the Smarties’ tube tops. The simple plastic lid evokes strong feelings of nostalgia in some, and collection mania in others. Lids were often printed with a letter of the alphabet on the underside, but from time to time numbers were thrown in, or football words, or even Martians. Really avid Smarties lid collectors will tell you that there were even two different sizes of tube lids, one imperial and one metric.
The plastic lid hoarding instinct eventually became so acute in some that it was decided to phase out the old tube and introduce a new, hexagonal tube that would offer greater junk modelling opportunities.
The latest instalment of the Smarties’ history is the reintroduction of the blue coloured Smartie. Though popular, the blue Smartie was phased out when Nestlé’s technical team committed themselves to producing Smarties with no artificial colourings. In fact, Smarties was the first chocolate brand in the UK to do away with artificial colours and preservatives.
However, Nestlé’s ‘boffins’ found themselves lobbied by fans of the blue Smartie who wanted to see it returned. At the time, there was no known natural blue food colouring. However, Nestlé is so passionate about delighting the consumer, that we scoured the globe for an alternative. Eventually our technologists discovered that spirulina (a kind of algae that usually grows in the sea) could be used to produce a natural, blue food colouring and so in 2008 the blue Smartie came back.
Smarties are now one of Nestlé Confectionery’s top seven brands. Smarties production had to move abroad in 2008, but fortunately the old Rowntree factory in Hamburg was available to take over the reins. Smarties are now so popular that over 33% of households in the UK buy them and at Christmas they’re a number one stocking filler in a giant tube.