How Sweet It Is

By | September 4, 2015

I subscribe to a marvelous daily e-newsletter called Today I Found Out, which on more than one occasion has given me an idea for these rather long, historical digressions here on The Digital Nirvana, especially if there is some way—even a tangential one—I can work printing or graphics into it. A few weeks ago, the topic was “How Do They Get the ‘Ms’ on ‘M&Ms’?” I think most people reading this have a general idea; they use a variety of offset printing—which I expect I don’t need to explain—and a vegetable dye-based ink.

Printing of an older variety also played a role in the M&Ms origin story, which begins in the north of England almost a century and a half ago.

Henry Isaac Rowntree (1837–1883) was born in York and raised as a Quaker. In his adulthood, he became active in the politics of the day and he realized that his particular cause, Quaker Liberal Reform, didn’t have a newspaper. (Back then, newspapers were specifically aligned with political parties and movements. The idea of an objective and neutral press was a 20th-century idea.) So, in 1868, he founded one, the weekly Yorkshire Express. It was a propitious time to start a newspaper; the telegraph greatly enabled Rowntree to publish foreign news, stock market updates, and other items that came in via Reuters Telegram, one of the earliest wire services.

Running a newspaper is a full-time business, and, alas, Rowntree found that his attention was so devoted to the Express that he was neglecting his primary business: a confectionary company. Rowntree had started his career working for the Tuke family, owners of a candymaking company in Walmgate in York. In 1862, Henry bought the chocolate-making part of the business from the Tukes and ran it himself, expanding into a disused foundry two years later. However, the business began to founder after Henry started the Yorkshire Express, and by early 1869, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. It didn’t help that Henry was not the greatest businessman in the world, and the account books were a complete shambles. So he took on his older brother Joseph as a full partner and changed the name to H.I. Rowntree & Co. The first thing Joseph insisted upon was that Henry sell the Yorkshire Express, which he did. Joseph was horrified by the deplorable state of the accounts, so it was decided that Joseph would handle all the business aspects of the company, whilst Henry would attend to the manufacturing aspects. That made everyone happy.

And it worked. Alas, Henry did not live to see what would become the company’s massive success; he died abruptly of peritonitis on May 2, 1883. So, Joseph and company carried on. In the 1880s, Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles were effectively competing against popular French imports of the time, and by the 1890s the company had scaled up to become a major manufacturer of confectionery to compete with the venerable Cadbury’s. In the 1930s, Rowntree & Co., as the company had renamed itself, launched a chocolate-covered wafer called the Kit Kat, which you may have heard of, and in fact may be eating right now.

Meanwhile, in 1882, shortly before Henry’s death, Rowntree & Co. began making what it was calling “Chocolate Beans.” In 1937, the company renamed them “Smarties Chocolate Beans.” However, the powers that regulate trade thought the use of the word “beans” was misleading, so the company went with “Milk Chocolate in a Crisp Sugar Shell”—which was rather more of a mouthful than the candies—before settling on just calling them “Smarties.” They became massively popular and today are produced by Nestlé.

In the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, soldiers were quite fond of Smarties, or at least that was the impression made on Forrest Mars, Sr. Mars (1904–1999) was born in Minnesota, raised in Canada, and granted a degree in industrial engineering from Yale. His father, Frank C. Mars, had founded candy company Mars, Inc., and invented the Milky Way bar in 1923. (Mars pére and his wife would go on to invent the 3 Musketeers and the Snickers bars by the end of the 1920s.) Feuding with his father over where to take the business, Forrest went to Europe where he invented the Mars Bar, and did stints with Nestlé and Tobler. While bopping around Spain, he noticed the popularity of Smarties, and made a note of it. A few years later, he returned to the U.S. where he founded his own food products company, launching Uncle Ben’s Rice and a somewhat less successful line of gourmet foods he called Pedigree, a name since given to a brand of dog food.

In 1940, Forrest Mars formed a partnership with Bruce Murrie, son of the president of Hershey Chocolate, and the pair developed their own variant of Smarties, which they called M&Ms, using their initials (Mars & Murrie).

In a case of history repeating itself, M&Ms became very popular with American soldiers during World War II, and during the war Mars and Murrie exclusively made M&Ms for the military.

It was in 1950 that the company began printing the tiny Ms on each M&M, first in black and then, in 1954, in white. Peanut M&Ms also came in the late 1950s, despite the fact that Mars had a peanut allergy.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, you can indeed have personalized M&Ms printed.



Nat Bodian, “Looking Back at Newark Origins of World-Famous M&M Chocolates,” Old Newark Memories,

Elizabeth Jackson, Henry Isaac Rowntree: his life and legacy (reprinted from York Historian vol. 28),

“How Do They Get the ‘Ms’ On ‘M&Ms’?” Today I Found Out, August 10, 2015,

“Henry Issac Rowntree,” Wikipedia, last modified on July 23, 2015, accessed August 17, 2015,

“M&Ms,” Wikipedia, last modified on August 7, 2015, accessed August 17, 2015,

“Rowntree,” Wikipedia, last modified on July 23, 2015, accessed August 17, 2015,

“Smarties,” Wikipedia, last modified on July 6, 2015, accessed August 17, 2015,

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