20th Century Consumerism

When war broke out in 1914 prominent members of the Rowntree firm were at the helm of the city, John Bowes Morrell was the first non-Rowntree family member to join the board of the firm, aged only 25, he served the first of his terms of office as Lord Mayor, with friend and colleague Oscar Fred Rowntree serving as his Sheriff. It appears that they personally financed the production of a tin of chocolate to be given to every serving soldier from York that Christmas. Their benevolence was not unacknowledged as the men of York were clearly moved in their letters by the sentiments of a city back home, of the firm that employed so many and the symbol of hope that a simple chocolate bar conveyed.

By the time of the Great War the confectionery industry in York revolved around 3 prominent factories, Rowntree’s of York, Craven’s of York and Terry’s of York. They were the main employers of men and women in the city with a combined workforce of 18’000 people, ¼ of York’s working population worked in York’s confectionery industry. The Industrial Revolution had brought with it a social revolution as people moved away from the land and into the cities to find work. While Terry’s created high-class confections for the Victorian and then Edwardian elite, Rowntree’s made products targeted at a growing market of consumers by encouraging them to incorporate cocoa into their diets. Both firms had to adapt to rapid advancements in transportation, manufacturing, taste and the power and demands of the emerging consumer.

Following the Great War the world had been shaken, power had shifted from the landed gentry and the prominent merchants, life could not return to the way it had been in 1914, the world was a different place, products and brands emerged to serve customers that were no longer rooted to one place. Consistency was demanded as food manufacturing endeavoured to make products faster, cheaper and exactly the same to serve this new consumer market that had developed. Chocolate was no exception, one manufacturer had heard of soldiers diligently breaking their chocolate rations into daily portions and carefully wrapping each bar to be consumed with ease. Chocolate was no longer just a drink or a luxury for sharing; it was now seen as a daily ration to provide sustenance for personal consumption. The 1920’s saw a rapid explosion of chocolate bars for personal consumption or ‘count lines’ as they are still referred to today, Rowntree’s contributed the Kit Kat, Aero, and Mr York’s Motoring Chocolate – a chocolate bar that you would purchase when refuelling your motor car. Terry’s however remained at the other end of the market and brought out an elegant fruit shaped chocolate, perfect for sharing – the Chocolate Apple.

Terry’s expanded further with the creation of a new factory at the Knavesmire, the original Terry’s shop became a flagship store with an elegant tea room above. With Noel and his half-uncle Frank at the helm of the family firm the company went from strength to strength until the out-break of World War 2 brought different challenges. In the Second World War both Rowntree’s and Terry’s were impacted by the rationing of milk and sugar, the requirement for chocolate manufacturing to be prioritised for the War Office and the need to turn over the manufacturing facilities to the creation of munitions and other more vital services. Terry’s reduced their inventory from hundreds of product lines to just a handful, they were able to increase efficiencies by reducing the cost of their products, they were launched into a competing market with Rowntree’s. When rationing ended following the war the demand for confectionery was so high it needed to be re-rationed, this wasn’t lifted until 1953 in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The last 60 years as York’s chocolate industry has gone through many transformations and evolutions over global businesses have taken over the York firms. Terry’s of York was taken over by Kraft in 2000, production of the world-renowned Chocolate Orange was re-located to Poland, the Rowntree business was taken over by Nestle in 1988. Today with the closure of Terry’s in 2005 York’s Chocolate industry has taken on a new episode of the story, organisations such as The Rowntree Society, York’s Chocolate Story, York Cocoa House, The National Trust at Goddards and Betty’s have helped create a legacy of heritage and reflective celebration. Nestle, now owners of Rowntree’s, still manufacture over 6 million Kit Kats a day and house their world technology and research centre here in York, and we have outstanding chocolatiers and confectioners operating in the city to serve visitors and residents alike the confections demanded by an audience much in the same way they did back in 1781.

Interested to find our more? Follow the archive development at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, visit York's Chocolate Story, Discover more about the Rowntree's philanthropic nature and their ongoing legacy with the Rowntree Society,