Polo – the mint with the hole

By Alex Hutchinson, Nestlé UK Archivist and Historian

07 August 2018 See comments (0)

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Do you ever look at a Polo mint and think to yourself how did this idea survive the war? No? You don’t think that? Just me?

Perhaps I ought to explain; back in the 1930s something magical happened. Here in Britain our society changed for the better so that working people could afford some of the little luxuries that had been exclusively available to the rich for hundreds of years before, and this was something that most of our ancestors had never dreamed was possible. Yes we were in the midst of a depression, yes there was widespread unemployment, yes not everyone felt this change immediately; but we were making progress as a society and change was happening fast.

Rowntree’s of York were at the vanguard of companies who were trying to make their products affordable to everyone (and they were paying a living wage, and they were giving their private wealth to help rehouse people from slums – see my other blogs for more details) and they transformed themselves from a company that made very fancy confectionery in packaging that cost more than the product, to the market leader in affordable products and confectionery innovation.

And then the war began.

The Second World War was a theatre of unimaginable horror and those horrors are not something that I intend to touch on here. Ken Follett describes it as the only conflict where human kind was caught up in a fight that was genuinely a battle of good against evil. To attempt to cover all its evils in one article would be facile, but I hope that my readers will excuse me if I direct their attention to one small area of history that has long intrigued me, but is often overlooked in the presence of other more weighty matters. It is this question: how would our society have progressed if there had been no war?

Imagine for a moment that there is a parallel universe where the Second World War did not take place, a world in which 20th century fascism fell at the first hurdle and there was never any need for war. Imagine where our society would be now; imagine all of the projects and schemes that were on the brink of being completed in September 1939 and which had to be abandoned, never to be thought of again.

In Britain we weren’t just making progress towards a world in which life’s little luxuries were more affordable; we were clearing slums and moving poor families into safe, newly built housing, television was in its infancy and the BBC were experimenting with the new medium, rates of literacy were soaring, and don’t even get me started on our libraries.

Men and women up and down the country were working on projects that they hoped would make life that little bit better for their neighbours. When war came they had to abandon them, and I often wonder about the ones that were never picked up again. Seeing a Polo makes me think about the ideas that we lost in the war.

Around 1939 the famed marketing genius George Harris (see Robert Fitzgerald’s book Rowntree and the Marketing Revolution) was working on several new ideas for Rowntree’s. He was the bright mind behind some of our most famous brands like KitKat, Aero, Smarties, Black Magic, and Dairy Box (to name but a few) and he had several more that he was planning. This was the golden age of confectionery, this was an age when new sweets were being invented all the time. This was an age that was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. During wartime our entire confectionery output had to stop (due to ingredient shortages) and the factory was turned over to war work.

When war ended production didn’t return to its pre-war levels immediately; nor did innovation. Rationing and sugar shortages kept the confectionery industry in a sorry state until well into the 1960s. However, there was one exception: Polo.

In 1948 George Harris was determined to resurrect an idea that he had been forced to shelve at the outbreak of war. It sounds like a simple enough project: look through the old marketing plans, find the plans for the launch of Polo, then launch it. But it can’t have been as simple as that, and here’s why: sugar was in such short supply in 1948 that creating a sweet made from compacted sugar and some peppermint oil would have seemed ludicrous; wasteful, even.

Cocoa was never in short supply during the war years, and if George Harris had suggested making a dark or plain chocolate product it would have been a no brainer, but he was proposing to use up their valuable and very limited sugar supplies on something that was not even going to be an exotic luxury good, it was just going to be a roll of mints.

Before the war George Harris had been inspired by the US brand Life Savers (a mint with a hole designed to look like a life-saving rubber ring) and had decided to make something similar in the UK. Company legend has it that he chose the name Polo because it derived from Polar and he thought that this implied the cool, freshness of mint. Personally I think the origins of the name are the least interesting part of the story, the interesting part of the story is that the brand was launched at all.

Polo was launched on the 15th April 1948 in London and the South East, and then gradually crept out to the rest of the country by 1952. This was all still before sweet rationing had been lifted; this was still before sugar shortages had ended; this was a big deal. I would love to be able to tell you that the company records relating to its creation survived, and that the thinking behind the decision was revealed and that we know what the board of directors were thinking, but we don’t.

Perhaps they could see the success of the little mint, perhaps they could see that 70 years later it would still be made in their York factory and that it would have spawned scores of variants. Or perhaps they argued with George Harris, a man notorious for being single-minded, and he over-ruled them. We will never know.

It’s the not knowing that intrigues me. What was it about this pre-war idea that made Rowntree’s resurrect it eight years later, when they had trouble enough rebuilding their old production lines, and use their sugar on it?

It makes me think about all the other projects that didn’t survive the war; the ideas that were abandoned; the world we might be living in. As an idea Polo survived by chance, and trivial though it may be, it makes me think.

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