The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 24, 2007

Olde Englysshe

Growing up, we were acquainted early on with two quaint English articles. Mackintosh's Quality Street candy and Yardley's talcum powder, my sister and I were both agreed, represented the ultimate in decadent luxury.

It was only on a rare occasion that we would get ourselves a box of Quality Street. We might be presented one by a guest, or my dad might buy a tin at a duty-free store on one of our triennial holidays back to India. There were three sets of sweet teeth at home and we'd sit together to demolish the candy with considerable relish. Naturally, I ate far more of the sweets than either my sister of my father, and I may venture to add that my milk teeth were crumbling into powder exactly because of the vast quantities of quality toffee that I consumed.

My mother loved Yardley's Lavender. I don't think I was much of a talcum powder fanatic, except for the prickly-heat powders so beloved of in the torrid Indian summer, but even I, lumpen element that I was, appreciated the designs on the Yardley tin. Similar to the elegant soldier, the graceful woman, and snazzy chariots on the Quality Street box, the Yardley figures were reminiscent of a bygone era.

I forgot about these products until recently, when a quick read through the Yorkshire section of the book I Never Knew That About England by Christopher Winn revealed a couple of details about Quality Street that I had been unaware of. John Mackintosh - eventually called the Toffee King - opened a store in Halifax with this new bride Violet in 1890. They wanted a specialty product to go with the new store and created a concoction of American caramel with brittle English butterscotch to produce a high-quality toffee. This product was so wildly popular that it outsold everything else in the shop, and the Mackintoshes had to move from their premises on Kings Cross Lane to a factory on Queens Road in 1899, which burnt down ten years later, whereupon they moved to Albion Mills, now their permanent home. In 1932, they acquired a chocolate maker named Caley's, and were able to vend from them on assortments of chocolate and toffee. In 1936, encouraged by J.M. Barrie's play Quality Street, starring characters named Major Quality and Miss Sweetly, they produced the eponymous tin of assorted confectionary. This proved immensely popular, as evidenced by its purchase in various incarnations by my folks.

On the Yardley website, they want to show the great antiquity of the name by pointing out that it appears on Plantagenet scrolls in Essex. The brand itself originates in 1620 when a young man obtained a concession to provide London with soap (lavender-scented!) by paying a large sum of money to the then King Charles I. It was not called Yardley, however, until around 1770, when the proprietor of the concern found himself in debt and had to sell it to his father-in-law, a William Yardley. Since then, the company has grown manifold into the purveyor of fine lavender perfumes and toiletries it is known for today.

Further Information
1. Celia Cotton, Quality Street Tins...Or, A Hundred Soldiers Under My Bed
2. Mackintosh is now owned by NESTLÉ®.


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