The Lollies and Sweets of the Victorian Era: a Steampunk Perspective

This blog was inspired by a Facebook discussion with my friend Sarah, so I’m dedicating it to her.

Mad Scientist candy buffet

A Steampunk ‘Mad Scientist’ Candy Buffet


     In speaking of confectionary, it should be remarked that all the various preparations above named come, strictly speaking, under that head; for the various fruits, flowers, herbs, roots, and juices, which, when boiled with sugar, were formerly employed in pharmacy as well as for sweetmeats, were called _confections_, from the Latin word _conficere_, ‘to make up;’ but the term confectionary embraces a very large class indeed of sweet food, many kinds of which should not be attempted in the ordinary cuisine. The thousand and one ornamental dishes that adorn the tables of the wealthy should be purchased from the confectioner: they cannot profitably be made at home. Apart from these, cakes, biscuits, and tarts, &c., the class of sweetmeats called confections may be thus classified:-

1. Liquid confects, or fruits either whole or in pieces, preserved by being immersed in a fluid transparent syrup; as the liquid confects of apricots, green citrons, and many foreign fruits.

2. Dry confects are those which, after having been boiled in the syrup, are taken out and put to dry in an oven, as citron and orange-peel, &c.

3. Marmalade, jams, and pastes, a kind of soft compounds made of the pulp of fruits or other vegetable substances, beat up with sugar or honey; such as oranges, apricots, pears, &c.

4. Jellies are the juices of fruits boiled with sugar to a pretty thick consistency, so as, upon cooling, to form a trembling jelly; as currant, gooseberry, apple jelly, &c.

5. Conserves are a kind of dry confects, made by beating up flowers, fruits, &c., with sugar, not dissolved.

6. Candies are fruits candied over with sugar after having been boiled in the syrup.

From Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management

It may seem odd, but lollies started out as a way of making medicines taste pleasant, and were used to calm the digestive upsets like indigestion or soothe a sore, raw throat. Take the example of throat lozenges, often a form of boiled lollies – they were the original inspiration for many forms of lollies like lemon drops and licorice humbugs. In the Victorian era, with increased access to refined sugar, the medical nature of lozenges slowly were phased out and replaced with the intention of creating actual confectionery. As lollies became cheaper to make, the market broadened from the wealthy to – well – just about everyone, but children in particular.

Humbugs – my favourite

In 1847, the invention of the candy press (also known as a toy machine) made it possible to produce multiple shapes and sizes of candy at once. In 1851, confectioners began to use a revolving steam pan to assist in boiling sugar. This transformation meant that the candy maker was no longer required to continuously stir the boiling sugar. The heat from the surface of the pan was also much more evenly distributed and made it less likely the sugar would burn. These innovations made it possible for only one or two people to successfully run a candy business. – from Wikipedia

Image is from the State Library of Victoria collection.

Victorian lollies and sweets had many alternative names, some of which have fallen out of favour in modern times: candy, comfits, confits, sugarplums, bonbons, and sweetmeats. Comfits are sugar-coated nuts or a piece of spice, like Vienna almonds or praline; confits are candied fruit; sugarplums are hardened sugar in a small round or oval shape resembling a plum; bonbons are chocolate-coated sweets or nuts; and sweetmeats referred to foods that contained sugar and nut meat, not the other kind of meat, and included items like cakes and pastries. (On a tangent, I spent years wondering why mince pies were considered so Christmassy, until I discovered they were made with minced fruit and not minced meat.)

As a writer, it is always a good idea to know what foods were available in certain eras. Our modern era may not have quite the same range of luscious sweets easily available for a penny, and I can’t help but wonder if we eat too many lollies now because they aren’t as flavoursome as Victorian era lollies. As a characterisation tool, a person who eats peppermints might be hiding something, like their love of garlic sausage, or something more sinister. My main antagonist in my Steampunk novel has a fondness for peppermints. A person suffering with flatulence might favour carrying emergency aniseed humbugs. Don’t fall into the stereotype that a fondness for sweets means a weak will; take your characterisation deeper and give it more detail.


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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Victorian Era

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