Who Invented Pick And Mix?

The inventor of pick and mix was F. W Woolworth in the USA around 1886.

Before its untimely demise in 2008, Woolworth’s was famous for its pick and mix sweets with UK stores stocking a vast range of weigh-out sweets. The original idea came to life in 1886 in the USA. However, if you wanted to buy authentic Woothworths pick and mix today, you would need to travel to Mexico, Jamaica or Germany.

Frank Woolworth was searching for UK locations in 1909, just as his new customers in Liverpool were looking for suppliers of boiled sweets, toffees, chocolates and mints. Terms were agreed with Barker & Dobson, with their Everton Mints proving a popular choice. While they were initially importing most of the sweets from New York, it wasn’t long before the mahogany counters were packed full of sweets wrapped in shiny foil from factories across Great Britain and Ireland. Back then, a quarter pound (125g) of pick’n’mix would cost just two old pence, which, at the time, was 6.55p per 1kg, or equivalent to 56p per 100g in today’s money.

FW WoolworthsIn the earlier stores, customers would fill bags at the service counter and be in awe at the selection of chocolate, sweets and wafers. Woolworths has become the leading sweet shop in both Britain and Ireland, and this was a title it held on to throughout its century on the high street.

Woolworths sold other items alongside their ‘weigh-out sweets’, including ice cream. However, customers had come up with their own nickname for the sweet selection, ‘pic’n’mix’, and, at some time in the 1950s, Woolworths finally recognised this and renamed the weigh-out sweets counters.

In the early part of the 20th century, very few shoppers had refrigeration at home, and it would be another fifty years before freezers became common, making the ice cream particularly popular. The store offered both ice cream cones and sandwiches; one was to be eaten at once whilst the other could be taken home after being wrapped tightly in bleached paper to keep it cold. There were special fridges in each store, which had two sections: ‘arctic’ where the sandwiches were stored and ‘very cold’, where the cones were kept.

 Although the company had sourced most of its candy from New York, research soon showed that factories in Britain were more efficient and could produce the sweets much more reliably and cheaply. William Stephenson led the buying operation in 1909 and toured factories, both small and large, for the right sweets. He paid a visit to Cadbury’s on Bournville and secured supplies of slab chocolate. He also agreed deals with Barker and Dobson for other boiled candies and found suppliers for toffees, bonbons, gum drops and liquorice allsorts. The new lines surpassed the products from New York, which were phased out and dropped.

Stephenson was also responsible for the display units in the stores. He appointed one of his china suppliers to produce the white porcelain bowls, which slotted together and sat on top of the mahogany counter. Each one could hold 7lb (approximately 3kg) of sweets. The bowls were made in Hanley, Staffordshire and had to be transported by horse and cart for the 56 mile trip to the store in Liverpool. On the opening day, the store sold many of the sweets under the brand ‘Milady’. These were the sweets that had been made exclusively for Woolworths, and many went on to be bestsellers, including raspberry ruffles, toffee, clotted cream fudge and butterscotch. 

Woolworths pick n mix counter in 1964

When deciding which scales to use, the company opted for ‘Verity Level-Proof’ scales, which were also used for weighing broken biscuits that were also sold in store. The sweet selection was placed on one chrome plated scoop, and weights were then added to the other side until the two balanced. Between 1909 and 1964, the company grew exponentially, and the scales weighed 4,086 tonnes of sweets, all by hand! 

Staff would need to top up the displays several times a day and would use stock from cupboards underneath the display. These cupboards would be locked, so a supervisor would have to bring a key when more stock was needed. It would be the late 1920s and 1930s before the larger glass-fronted counters were installed. Even though they could hold up to 12.7kg of each sweet, they would need to be refilled at lunchtime on busy days.

Intricate window displays would be used for new sweets, and suppliers would compete for space in the UK as these special features could increase sales ten-fold. The sweets on display in the window would be made from plaster to stop them from melting. Milady sweets soon became bestsellers across the UK and had quickly gained a loyal following. Customers were persuaded to pay an extra penny per quarter for sweets that had more exotic flavourings and richer taste. 

It wasn’t just weigh-out sweets that were on offer. Woolworths also worked with suppliers to come up with a range of packaged confectionery. Leading the way was Cadbury, who produced chocolate and fudge candies to be sold alongside their original slab chocolate. The company always had two suppliers for each product type and would follow Frank Woolworth’s tactics of playing them off against each other. This was a crucial tactic in keeping prices down. 

More packaged lines were being introduced in North America, with some customers preferring these to the weigh-out selection. The buying team in London led on from this by introducing a display that had hanging bags of boiled sweets. 

By the late 1930s, Woolworths dominated the market in Britain. They had become an unrivalled business in confectionery, selling vast quantities of chocolate, biscuits, candy bars and, of course, their now world-famous pic’n’mix.