Sweets Through Time: A Brief History of Sweeties

There are very few people who don’t have a sweet tooth of some description. Whether you prefer chocolate or Parma Violets, most of us will have some special treat that we simply can’t say ‘no’ to. But where did this yearning for sweetness originate? We’ve done a little sifting through the sweet shop of time, to find out where it all began.

Sweets Through Time

In the beginning…

Image credit: R&I World

It’s easy to think of confectionary as a relatively recent development. But although sweets as we know them have only been around for a limited period, evidence suggests that man has been craving sweet treats for millennia. In fact, as long as 7,500 years ago, cavemen raided beehives for a little taste of honey – and documented the event with an ancient selfie (or more accurately a cave painting!)

Circa 2000 BC

The next recorded evidence of humans enjoying sweets comes several millennia later at around 2000 BC. But this time, things got a little bit more sophisticated. In a Sanskrit document found in India, it was noted that the author was enjoying a sweet-like morsel, created from a blend of milk and sugar.

Circa 600 BC

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The Ancient Romans were known for their decadence and creativity, so it’s hardly surprising to find that they make the next entry on this list. In a recipe book dating back to around 600 BC – De Re Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking), attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius – there is detailed a sweet made from honey and flax seed, and laced with gold, for young men to present to their would-be lovers. The Romans were also known to have a penchant for licorice. It was originally used as a medicine, and to help soldiers remain hydrated while marching, but soon became a deliciously moreish treat.

Circa 1000 AD

Candied almonds are still a welcome treat in the 21st century, and are a traditional wedding favour. Sure, they’ve evolved, but who would have guessed that they were created around 1000 AD? They’re mentioned in an ancient Persian cookbook, and called lawzinaj, which literally translates as ‘that which is made of almonds’.

Circa 1350

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Around 1350 is when we first see the formation of sweets that we might recognise. Created by the nomadic people of Turkey, candied fruits were a blend of fruit, sugar, and rosewater. It’s a recipe that will be very familiar to anyone who enjoys candied fruit today.

Circa 1550

The 1500s is when we really got into the creation of recognisable confectionery. And in around 1550, we have records of the first ever lollies. Originally conceived as a medicine, the first lollies were a blend of thick syrup and herbs, in which a stick would be dipped and left to harden. It might not hold the appeal of a Swizzels Drumstick to you and I, but the idea is much the same!

Circa 1650

Around 100 years later, the first gums were created but in truth they were not a far cry from what we have today.  In fact, the modern mouth familiar to the likes of Squashies probably wouldn’t recognise them.  They were developed by the French by combining fruit juice with syrup and these delicacies were a mouth-blowing treat back in the 1650s. The exact recipe isn’t available for public viewing, but FoodNerd4Life has created a similar DIY version, should you wish to try your hand!

Circa 1820

Closer to home, it was in Scotland in the 1820s that the first boiled sweets were made. They were originally considered second-rate substitutes for candied fruit, but created by boiling sugar water and fruit at very high temperatures, they made a different sort of sweet treat and soon found a very receptive audience. With a little bit of creativity and Swizzels’ secret magic, they later became the basis for our very own Fruity Pops!

Circa 1870

Not too many years after the boiled sweet, came the first chews. Developed in the 1870s, these irresistibly flavoured chewy treats may have had different ingredients, but they were definitely the precursor to the goodies we know and love today. Including, of course, our mighty Choos, which are also vegan.


Alfred and Maurice Matlow launched the confectionary brand ‘Matlow Bros’, and in 1933 David Dee joined forces, creating what is now known as Swizzels Matlow.  From then on, we created some of the UK’s best-loved sweets. Rainbow Drops and Fizzers came in the 1930s.  Parma Violets in 1946, Love Hearts in 1954, Refreshers in 1955… and many more followed.  The rest, as they say, is history.

We all know that we shouldn’t eat lots of sugary food. But sweets have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years, and as long as we consume in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence. So, next time you feel like a retro sweet or two, just think of it as satisfying your inner caveman!

If you want to find out more about the history of sweets, confectionery historian Tim Richardson has written a fascinating book, ‘Sweets: A History of Temptation’. You can find it at all good bookstores.

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