Originally released in 1882 under the name Chocolate Beans, it was not until 1937 that the name was adapted to Smarties Chocolate Beans.
In the 1930s, Rowntree had been engaged in a battle to reduce Cadbury’s tight grip on the confectionery & chocolate market in the UK. Under George Harris’s leadership, Rowntree’s had stepped back from attempting to compete directly in the milk chocolate bar market as they couldn’t match the relatively low costs & consequent high profit margins that Cadbury had achieved with its Dairy Milk bar.
Aero and KitKat had been part of this battle for market share (both introduced in 1935): Smarties also became very successful when their original name (Chocolate Beans) was replaced by Smarties in 1938 and their relaunch was supported by a very successful advertising campaign.
Once WW2 broke out, life utterly changed for chocolate/confectionery manufacturers. Some of their difficulties included:
A general loss of autonomy, as a private companies trying to manage at a time when war meant that government operated a command economy.
Restrictions in the supply of most of their key ingredients (this included milk, though Cadbury were able to exploit the advantage they had from already owning a milk processing plant in Bourneville).
Restrictions on labour (the Ministry of Labour demanded that only a very restricted percentage of factory workers could be permitted to make ‘non-essential’ items like confectionery: the great majority of workers were required to make ‘essential’ goods, such as munitions).
Almost total restriction on advertising (Rowntree had been very effective in marketing & advertising their new lines in the 1930s, so were significantly affected by this).
Restrictions on distributing goods (the UK was ‘zoned’ to limit petrol consumption, with Rowntree being permitted access to the northern zone, but nowhere else).
Restrictions to factory space – Ministry of Supply requirements were that specified percentages of factory space must be given over to ‘essential’ products – which is why Rowntree eventually found themselves involved in the production of fuses during the war (in the guise of “County Industries”), and also in making Ryvita, marmalade/jam on behalf of Frank Cooper of Oxford – plus other non-confectionery items.
And (of course) there was a seriously restricted demand for products as a result of consumers being rationed. Sweets and chocolates went on ration in July 1942 and remained in very short supply for nearly 9 years thereafter.
In the light of all these limitations, Rowntree chose to stop producing most of their most important brands for the duration, rather than reduce their quality and undermine the public’s good opinion of these products. Amongst other things, Kitkat, Smarties, Aero and Black Magic all went out of production.
The end of hostilities brought little respite. In 1946, the demand for fresh milk emerged as the chocolate industry’s most pressing problem. Cadbury had its own milk processing plant and so was at a considerable competitive advantage to Rowntree in this regard. So acute were the challenges that the sweet ration was actually reduced in in 1947.
There was a false dawn in April 1949, when sweets came off ration. Such was the pent-up consumer demand, shops sold out very fast – and the confectionery companies (still coping with supply problems) were unable to refill shelves fast enough. Sweet rationing was reintroduced in August 1949 and not lifted until 1953, when supplies of core ingredients could be more reliably provided to factories.
Against this challenging background, Rowntree re-marketed its chief product – KitKat – despite problems with milk shortages, in a limited way and at a very low profit in July 1945. The same lack of milk supplies limited the output of Dairy Box and forced Rowntree to continue the manufacture of their wartime alternative, “Carefree” made from ‘blended chocolate’ rather than traditional milk chocolate.
The company was eager in 1945 to resume the production of Smarties. It was able to do so in January 1946, though plain chocolate often had to be used in place of milk. Supply problems delayed the return of Black Magic until 1947.
Smarties were reintroduced after WW2 in 1946 and plain chocolate centres were substituted for the usual milk chocolate. Production did not stabilise properly until 1953, by which time all of Rowntrees’ key lines had been reintroduced, to their original high-specification.
Smarties are no longer manufactured in York, with a third of Smarties now created in Germany.