Sweet fun

Visitors to Ashburton Museum often comment on the magnets and key rings in the shape of classic New Zealand lollies for sale in our retail area. Colourful and varied, they have  attract a lot of interest as many people recall similar lollies from their own childhood.

They have proved popular, especially with less-young visitors, who, like me, can recall going to the dairy and asking for a ‘mixture’. This mixed selection of sweets typically ranged from 10 cents to a very extravagant dollar. Though many will remember paying in pence, and getting several lollies for 1p or later, one cent.

The museum’s mixture could be seen as a snapshot of kiwi culture. We have jet planes, wine gums, spearmint leaves and milk bottles, alongside ‘eskimos’ (a term no longer acceptable), plus chocolate fish and pineapple lumps. We even have a jaffa thrown in for good measure.

1. Chocolate and cigarettes being sold at McKee_s Store, corner Beach Road and Willow Street.

More sweets

Lollies I remember that aren’t in our mixture were small pink things called smokers – rather hard and made of some spicy musk flavoured concoction. They were used to fill up the bags of mixtures, but overuse was considered unsporting of dairy owners.

Larger lollies that didn’t feature in mixtures included spacemen cigarettes, which were white with a red tip and made to look like real cigarettes. Most children just called them smokes and some tried to look really grown up by pretending to actually smoke them (how times have changed!). A perennial question mark hung over red SOS cough lollies.

The aniseed was rather addictive and could be eaten in class as it was a medical remedy not a lolly. Or were they, hence the quandary? They did turn your mouth a tell-tale red and, if one reads Janet Frame’s autobiography To the Is land over indulgence could cause drowsiness.

On discussing ‘lollies we have known’ with others, we have come up with additional gems of ‘toasties’, K bars, buzz bars, toffee milk bars and sparkles. My favourite bar was a santé bar, which was just a piece of chocolate. At 5 cents it was a bit expensive but well worth it.

2. Too strong for most children, Hacks cough lollies were popular with adults.

Rainbow lollies

My lolly expertise is rather limited as my corner dairy was actually a ‘supermarket’ and they didn’t have a large range, plus I have always preferred chocolate or potato chips to the hard sugary objects many children loved. This is rather odd for someone who comes from Oamaru as among the other things that town can boast, it is the home of Regina confections. This business, now called Rainbow, did their bit for ‘Kiwi kulture’ by inventing a number of treats such as fruit puffs (like eskimos but, well, ‘puffy’), pineapple lumps and even an early form of chocolate fish.

As well as making sweets and chocolate the company also had a bubble gum factory. In order to encourage sales, Regina issued a number of sets of collectible cards. Alongside the two thin slabs of bubble-gum, there would be a card with the popular culture icon of the day. While nowadays this accolade seems to be restricted to sports players (at least two separate series of All Blacks were produced), once upon a time the cards were of ‘real’ stars- such as Abba and the Garbage Gang. Even I was enticed to collect a set of Star Wars cards, which, when you pasted them together, formed a poster!

3. 'Wholesome' and 'appetizing', these peppermint sweets may not have been everyone_s ideal treat.

Museum gum

When I got older I thought my association with bubble gum was over, but when I worked at the museum there, I was given the task of cataloguing the ‘collection’ of Regina, when they were bought out by Allens.

Among the moulds for chocolates and a long forgotten series of 1920s conversation lollies (like the later message hearts which had comments that ranged from ‘I love you’ to ‘you stink’), I was faced with cataloguing and storing their enormous bubble gum collection.

I really had no idea there had been so many series of cards, and so much bubble gum produced in my home town. One of the most bizarre conversations I think I have had during my many years of working in museums, has to be being trying to convince a conservator at Te Papa that my request for information on how to store bubble gum and chocolate in a museum environment wasn’t a late April Fool’s Day joke.

Once we decided how to store it, I was surprised by the number of people who still collected the cards. There were also many people who, when we displayed the packets and advertising material, were taken right back to their younger days and I was told many stories about the ‘value’ of a curly wirly or how someone ate so many chocolate covered cinnamon bars they were sick.

Sweets are a natural part of childhood and are far more than the nutritional value or taste. They can transport us back to a time in our lives when opening a bag of sweets was full of mystery and could stir in our young hearts the full range of emotions from anger and disappointment to sheer joy. They remind us of a time when stress was having 50cents in your hand and not being able to decide what to buy.

By Kathleen Stringer


  1. Chocolate and cigarettes being sold at McKee’s Store, corner Beach Road and Willow Street.
  2. Too strong for most children, Hacks cough lollies were popular with adults.
  3. Wholesome and appetizing, these peppermint sweets may not have been everyone’s ideal treat.
  4. The colourful packet belied the plain contents of these peppermint sweets from the door to door Rawleigh’s salesman.

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