From Woolworths to the World Web: A History of Pick and Mix

Pick and mix sweets have always been a much-loved sugary delight, and their popularity isn’t ending anytime soon. From the late 1880s to the modern day, join us on our exciting exploration of the fascinating history of pick and mix.

What are pick and mix sweets?

Pick and mix can apply to any selection of items where the customer is free to select from a large range and combine them together. The customer “picks” the items they require from a range and then “mix” them together in the bag or container. This could be for any product but is widely used for pick and mix sweets.

What are the origins of pick and mix?

Early beginnings

F. W Woolworth invented pick and mix in the USA around 1886. 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 counters were packed full of sweets wrapped in shiny foil from factories across Great Britain and Ireland.

Back then, customers would fill bags at the service counter and be amazed 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’, with ice cream proving to be a popular choice. 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.

At the beginning of the 20th century, not many shoppers had refrigeration at home, and so it would be another fifty years before freezers would become common. This made ice cream very 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.

Success in the UK

While 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 visited Cadbury in Bournville and secured large supplies of slab chocolate. He also made deals with Barker and Dobson for other boiled candies and found suppliers for toffees, bonbons, gum drops and liquorice allsorts. These 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. These 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 sweets had been made exclusively for Woolworths, and many went on to be bestsellers, including raspberry ruffles, toffee, clotted cream fudge and butterscotch.

Captivating displays

Staff would need to top up the impressive 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.

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.

Weigh-out sweets weren’t the only thing that were on offer. Woolworths also worked with suppliers to come up with a range of packaged confectionery. Cadbury, who produced chocolate and fudge candies to be sold alongside their original slab chocolate, came into play here. The company always had two suppliers for each product type and would follow Frank Woolworth’s tactics of playing them off against each other to keep 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. Customers were amazed and delighted by the number of different sweets on display and the number of sweets that could be crammed into their bags for such little money. And so by the 1950s, Woolworths finally accepted the nickname Pick n Mix, given proudly by its customers.

The famous pick and mix sweet counter became even more popular in the 1960s when a new generation of sweet manufacturers began to produce sweets in a wide range of colourful and exotic flavours. These unique sweets were often considerably more expensive than the traditional pick and mix sweets, but they remained hugely popular with customers. In the 1970s, Woolworths began to sell pick and mix sweets in its stores across the United States, and the company soon became the biggest retailer of pick and mix sweets in the world.

Unfortunately, Woolworths went into administration in 2008 and now no longer exists. However, the pick and mix legacy lives on.

Where can I buy pick n mix sweets now?

In shops

Pick and mix sweets are still largely available in supermarkets, off-licence stores, confectionery shops and other retail environments. After all, this is a British tradition that isn’t dying anytime soon.

Pick and mix online

If you’re ever in need of a last minute gift or simply crave a sugary snack, you can order pick and mix sweets directly to your door by ordering online.

Sugar Rush Sweeties are dedicated to supplying the largest range of classic pick and mix British sweets nationwide - whether you’re looking for retro favourites like black jacks or rhubarb and custard or vegan pick and mix, the choice is yours! From strawberry pencils to fruit salads, we’ve got you covered. Ideal for parties, special events and family gatherings, you can take your pick from over 100 varieties. All sweets come packed into a monthly box delivery or can be sent to your doorstep as a one-off purchase.

Online sweet shops make it a priority to keep up with the latest trends in the candy world, so you can order the trendiest treats from the comfort of your own home, and have them delivered straight to your door. What’s more, Sugar Rush Sweeties offer subscription services, meaning that you only have to make one order and you’ll automatically receive a new box each month. Your sweets will arrive neatly packaged, adding that touch of luxury that you expect from a quality product and making plain paper bags a thing of the past. Any queries? Don’t hesitate to contact our friendly team today.