Launched in 1933, this successful line had a difficult start through the war years when production had to be radically scaled back. It was relaunched in 1947 as a gift box that emphasised romance, sophistication and courtship: rather than being branded with the Rowntree name, the brand name itself carried and marketed the product. Black Magic underwent a number of subtle changes in design, including a change by Nestlé in 2007 that caused a public reaction which in turn led to the reintroduction of the more original design, with all the nostalgia and sense of continuity with the past that that brought. The confectionery remains a text-book example of brand marketing.
From The Rowntree Society Collection
Three boxes were donated as part of the “York Remembers Rowntree” oral history project by one of our interviewees. He understands that they were given to his wife to test during her time working as Peter Rowntree’s secretary. They were sample boxes before the final designs were put into production. Note that the box with blue flowers does not have any writing on it, not even on the side or underneath!
As part of our Oral History project, “York Remembers Rowntree” we interviewed an ex-Rowntree employee who worked on the Black Magic production line.
When I left school I was adamant I would never work in a factory as I felt the job would be far too repetitive and I would get bored easily. I had a few jobs while I was still single then after five years of marriage and two children later I found myself working the evening shift at Rowntrees in 1973.
I remember standing in the office just inside the main entrance waiting to be officially checked in while watching the women of the evening shift pouring into the factory. I was mortified when one of the women mouthed to a friend “Oh, ‘she’s coming to work here’.” I later heard that she had thought I was too posh to work at Rowntrees.
I originally started working as a “Sweet Server” for Black Magic packing. Although it was back breaking work at times I started to realize that – hey I like doing this. But although this was repetitive work – as I thought it would be – there was never a dull moment as all us “ladies” would chatter away to each other and time would seem to fly by. I also learned to be a “Sweet Setter” which was sitting at the conveyer packing the chocolates into the plastic molds. There were 12 sweet setters in all and four sweet servers. Each sweet server was assigned to three setters and we had to keep those chocolates coming to make sure the setters didn’t run out while setting.
Some evenings one or two of us would switch jobs after our half time break to break the monotony of doing just one job for the entire shift. I must admit I liked sweet setting better than serving as I got to sit down on the job which after being on my feet most of the day was much appreciated. As a team we were all on “piece work” so the faster the conveyer belt was going the more money we made. Each setter would repetitively reach forward and pick up two chocolates in each hand. Each setter was responsible for one type of chocolate only, and on subsequent nights would move down to a different chocolate. Some of the Black Magic chocs were easy to pack – such as the square Caramel or round Cherry Cream. However others were a little more difficult as their shapes were a little more intricate – such as the crescent shaped Coffee Cream and the pointed Orange Cream. Therefore it was imperative that the setters picked up two chocolates in each hand in such a way that they fitted exactly into the molds they were made for. If this wasn’t done correctly or if any chocolates were marked the Charge hand would shout at the top of her voice, “Get ya sweets in straight ladies”.
The speed of packing the chocolates depended on whether or not we worked on a regular conveyor belt, or a more updated conveyer which was just known as a “machine”. On the regular conveyors I remember we packed a little slower than if we were on the machine conveyor. This was because the wooden trays holding the chocolates were stacked up at an angle in front of each setter, so we had to reach a little higher. The servers would keep turning the trays around so we could reach better but there were some times if they got a little behind then so did we. The machine was quite different from the regular conveyor belts in that the servers took the chocolates out of the wooden trays. The chocolates were stuck on a kind of thick green glossy paper which the servers fed onto a wide but shorter and slower conveyor which travelled towards the setters. The conveyor was actually in two parts so as the paper with the chocolates moved forward, the paper gradually fed down into the first part as the chocolates continue moving forward towards the setter. However, the setters were still very dependant upon the speed and accuracy of the servers.
I would calculate that it took about five to six seconds for the setter to reach and pick up two chocolates (of the same kind) in each hand and deftly set them in the appropriate spot in the molds. This may not be as accurate as I remember but I do know everyone moved very quickly. Also each setter had a small tub which was attached to the machine, into which they threw the chocolates that were marked or deformed and these went on to be sold in the shop as “waste”. Quite honestly I don’t know if we even knew how many boxes we did per hour or shift. I do know there were other workers further down the belt putting the molds in the Black Magic boxes which were then weighed and the lids closed. The closed boxes were then packed in “outers” at the end of the line. Every now and then a charge hand would open a few boxes to make sure the weight was correct.
So basically this machine ran from one end of the room to the other. As I also mentioned the sweet servers had a pretty hard job manhandling the wooden trays of chocolates three or four at a time and stacking them nearby ready to feed the chocolates. Once a tray was emptied they had to re-stack them ready for someone to take them away. It was quite a workout!
We were not allowed to wear any jewelry that had stones in case one came loose and fell into the chocolate boxes. Also we were not allowed to chew gum although several of us did anyway. I remember one evening I was setting chocolates and as I yawned my gum fell out into one of the still empty spaces in the mold. The conveyer belt was still racing along so I stopped the machine (there were stop/start buttons periodically along the belt) and raced down the belt to quickly remove my gum before the Charge hand saw me. I did make it back to my seat in time but the Charge hand then wanted to know who stopped the belt, of course I didn’t own up to that and no one else ratted on me so I got away with it that time. I was a little more careful after that.
In 1979 I left Rowntrees to emigrate with my family to California, and I remember most people didn’t believe that I would be going there to live. However, on my last night one of the girls brought a record in to be played over the Tannoy as a means of saying goodbye to me. The record was “California Here I Come.”