EXCLUSIVE: there’s a Quality Street plot-twist

Quality Street is changing again, but this time the reason is going to break your heart

If you think you’ve heard all of the news about the changing Quality Street to paper wrappers then think again. There’s a plot-twist in this news story which hasn’t been shared in print before, and — as someone who knows the history of the brand better than anyone else — I’m going to share it with you now.

It feels like every year there’s another news story about Quality Street changing, (or shrinking, or going vegan…) and every year I have to explain why the story isn’t quite true. But not this year. This time the brand is changing and it will never look the same again.

A 1939 Quality Street tin
Quality Street in 1939. The contentious purple sweet front and centre.

An historic brand, made with love in Yorkshire

Since May 1936 Quality Street toffee and chocolate assortment has been a British family favourite to mark all sorts of occasions, but most of all Christmas. There’s something wonderfully festive about the brightly coloured jewel-like sweets, and the good-natured squabbles on Boxing Day over who took the last purple one.

This was what Harold Mackintosh had hoped for when he created the brand at his toffee factory in Halifax, West Yorkshire. He wanted to use cheaper British ingredients (British sugar and butter) — as opposed to more expensive imported cocoa — to make a toffee-centric assortment that everyone could enjoy. He wanted a brand which was affordable for working families, but felt like so much more than the sum of its parts. He wanted a mix of toffees, caramels, and chocolates, with a variety of flavours, shapes and textures, all wrapped up in a mixture of different wrappers. He wanted opening a tin of Quality Street to be an explosion of colour; a feast for the senses.

Still from one of the first black and white Quality Street TV ads showing a lady holding a bursting tin
One of the first Quality Street television ads. Quality Street has been on our screens since TV advertising started.

Little savings add up to a big difference

But what many people don’t know, is that Harold Mackintosh also wanted to save the world. Harold lived through the Second World War, and although he may have been too old to fight, he wasn’t too old to do his bit. First he looked to his own business empire and tried to find little savings which could add up to a real difference. Quality Street packaging was an obvious extravagance; he had the colours of paint used on tins reduced down to a sketchy minimum which made the tins look half-finished. He knew Quality Street fans would be disappointed with the economy version, but in a wartime emergency he hoped they’d understand.

A wartime Quality Street tin using fewer colours of paint to help the war effort
A wartime Quality Street tin (this one borrowed from the Bankfield Museum for photography) with “paint rationing”.

Next he looked around for something he could do to help beyond his own business empire. As a man who had inherited a factory from working class parents he was under no illusions about precisely what would be needed to save the world from Hitler and the Axis powers: it was going to take money. Money would be needed to pay soldiers, munitions workers, and RAF pilots; money would be needed for every aspect of the fight for freedom, just the way it was needed to run a business.

Harold believed that government savings bonds (now known to us as NS&I) could make a huge difference if lots of people saved small amounts. Harold spearheaded the campaign to get ordinary British people saving for victory. Thanks to Harold, billions of pounds were raised. The nation showed their gratitude by making him a baron, and then a viscount, and giving him a seat in the House of Lords.

Fast forward to the year 2022 and the world needs saving again. Sir Harold’s beloved home county of Yorkshire has seen extreme weather which has flooded out homes and businesses and melted roads under 40°c heat. And it’s not just Yorkshire; there are even worse climate-driven catastrophes happening all over the world. What would Sir Harold do if he were here? How would he try to make a difference for his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren?

New wrappers with an old twist

Harold would look for small savings which add up to a big difference, and that’s precisely what Nestlé have done. Forget the newspaper headlines telling you Quality Street is using paper wrappers for the first time in 86 years, they’ve got it all wrong. Here’s the plot-twist: Harold used waxed paper wrappers in the first Quality Street assortment all those years ago and the brand is going back to its roots. That’s right, the first Quality Street assortment was one third paper wrappers, one third foil, and only one third cellophane. These new Quality Street wrappers appearing in supermarkets up and down the country are in fact the authentic, original, pre-war wrappers and they don’t sparkle like cellophane, they sparkle like sustainability. They sparkle like one less thing to feel guilty about.

A typed memo from 1935 showing Harold Mackintosh's original idea for Quality Street
The original 1935 memo from Sir Harold Mackintosh planning the first Quality Street assortment — with waxed paper wrappers!

But why do they need to change at all? Because we eat two billion Quality Streets a year, and nearly all of those wrappers end up in landfill. Landfill rots and gives off gases which contribute to the galloping climate change which is threatening our very existence. If climate change isn’t halted there will be no Quality Street at all. There will be no us. This is an emergency situation; a worldwide crisis. We need to do everything we can — even if it feels insignificant in the broader scheme of things — to reduce the burden we’re putting on nature. We need to start thinking of landfill as a luxury, and start questioning every little thing we send there. Lots of small changes can add up to a big difference.

A post-war Quality Street tin showing illustrations of the sweets on the underside
A tin of Quality Street from the 1950s (also borrowed from the Bankfield Museum). Can you spot the waxed paper wraps? The Malt Toffee, Orange Toffee, Nut Royal, and Dairy Fresh Toffee are all in waxed paper wrappers.

The new Quality Street wrappers aren’t new at all, they’re recyclable paper with a thin film of wax just like Harold wanted in his original assortment. The foil wraps are still there, and so are all your favourites. This is a huge deal for the manufacturer, and right now they need to hear their consumers backing them up. If you’re on social media tell them you’re glad they’ve made the change. They’re going to get a lot of flack over the next few months as all the Karens (*apologies to all the people actually called Karen. You have a great name, I’ve always liked it) and some of the lazier journalists who want to stir up controversy and anger to sell an extra story. This is going to be the toughest sell the brand has ever had to make, but let’s make it worth it. And let’s make their competitors follow their lead. We’ve got the chance to save the world, and Harold would be cheering us on.

Two post-war Quality Street cartons