Life is Like a Box of Chocolates…

A few years ago when my siblings and I were cleaning out my parents’ family home of fifty five years I came across an item that I had never seen before. As a child, we had explored every nook and cranny of that big old Federation home in Sydney. We left no cupboard unexplored, no drawer unscrutinised. So when climbing a ladder to reach the very top shelf in the linen cupboard, I was pleasantly surprised.

There’s just something intriguing about wooden boxes. They’re a place to keep precious or treasured items. I stood on my perch, rubbed my hands across its grainy surface reading the words. California Chocolates. I guessed they were from California until I ventured more closely and saw that they were available at exclusive retail stores across Sydney. Written in clear block letters was, MADE IN AUSTRALIA.

That’s good, I thought to myself as I climbed down and ventured to open the box. I was greeted with that stale, musty aroma, similar to that of old books. Oh how I love that smell! Inside were bundles of yellowed sheets that were the perfect size for the box. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that they were the receipts for my parents’ mortgage, beginning in 1958. Every single receipt was arranged into groups, gathered with an elastic band, oldest to newest, until the house was paid off five years later, with the help of leasing out rooms to various tenants. In between the layers of receipts was a typed letter from the solicitor discharging the mortgage. Looking at the date in 1962, I realise that fourteen months after the mortgage was paid out, they had their first of four children.

California plus receipts (2)

So the California Chocolate box is now in my possession. My siblings could see how enamoured I was at discovering this piece of my family history and knew that I would treasure it. (I also thought that it would be a terrific motivator to make me pay off my own mortgage!) After a year of renovating my new home, I finally unpacked the chocolate box, opened it up, breathed in its contents and placed it on one of my shelves. Not long afterwards, we had our older neighbours over for a drink. I chatted away to June who told me all about her mother’s antiques. I brought up about how I like boxes and I found an old wooden chocolate box at my parents’ house.

June matter-of-factly said, “Oh yes, that would’ve been a California Chocolate Box. Everyone was given a California Chocolate Box for a wedding gift and you would keep your mortgage receipts in it.”

I was dumbfounded. What an amazing little piece of Australian social history I may have come across. And from that point onwards I knew that I would have to include that chocolate box in my novel. And so off I went and did some research.

Each city had their own famous chocolatiers. Melbourne had Hillier’s and Newman’s. Sydney had Alexander’s and California. Adelaide had Ritz then Haigh’s. The California boxes themselves were made of redwood and considered to be fashionable. The cream-filled contents were guaranteed to be packed perfectly so that you could send a parcel of California Chocolates anywhere and they would arrive safely. The perfect gift for Christmas, weddings, births anniversaries etc, contained an exclusive variety and flavour of chocolate that was unique to California and of course to Sydney.

In 1922, Fred Rice returned from the United States with a bundle of secret recipes and a store of Californian redwood boxes. Not long afterwards another man bought the business but sent it broke within a few years. Mr Doctor bought the company in 1940 and it stayed in the family until 1977. His son and wife expanded the business until production costs made it less viable to continue making chocolates by hand. So instead of switching to automation the small empire consisting of the Alexandria factory and all eight stores passed into history. Many buyers and sentimentalists gathered to watch the auction.

Very little of this research ends up in my book but instead creates the backbone to a crucial point in my main character’s life. In the book, we see how she has worked extremely hard to pay off the Australian dream. Housing was in shortage in the 1940s and 50s.Natalie and her husband took on borders and tenants to help pay off their own mortgage. It was not easy having other people live in your house when you were newly married. They took turns cooking in the kitchen. They shared one small bathroom.

I see Natalie, as I can envisage my parents. Firstly, admiring the simple beauty of the wooden box. Then relishing every single one of those sweet delights. I can imagine how they felt placing the last receipt into that box and putting it somewhere safe. My mother tucked it away into the deepest and highest shelf in the linen cupboard. There it sat for over fifty years. A symbol of achievement. A representation of freedom. A tiny piece of Australian history.

5 thoughts on “Life is Like a Box of Chocolates…

  1. I love details like this about our history, too, and it saddens me that so much of our unique history has been lost because no one thinks to write it down! My novel’s set historically, too, and in one section, I had a nurse ringing a bell at the door of each maternity hospital room to announce the end of visiting hours—I’d made that detail up, but thought it sounded feasible before PA’s. Later, I bound a draft of my novel-in-progress and gave it to my husband to read. He handed it back with few comments, the pages largely unmarked, and didn’t point anything out to me (yes, I know, not very useful!). So, I kept his largely unmarked copy by my computer and used it if I wanted to flick to a section not on my screen. One day as I was flicking through the chapter in the maternity hospital, I saw where he’d written at the top of one page, ‘Chimes’, and nothing else. When I asked him about it later, he told me that he remembered at the end of visiting hours, the nurses carrying a little xylophone and wandering to the door of each ward and playing a tune. What a great detail—so much richer than ringing a bell!


  2. Hi, The father of my cousins wife Diane made the boxes for the California Chocolates. The boxes were hand made. We are always on the lookout for these boxes to add to her collection as each one has a number on the bottom. So it was interesting to read your story.


  3. The way it was told to me is that my uncle, John (Jack) Oliver started work with Fred Rice as an accountant. Every year he got as a Christmas Bonus, shares in the company. When Fred Rice decided to return to Claifornia uncle Jack had enough shares and savings to buy the business. This he continued to run up until his passing. In 1942 my sister and I lived with the Olivers while my mother nursed my sick father. Uncle Jack would bring home the odd block of chocolate as a treat. I recall that several times he brought home containers of the hand dipped chocolates, wrappings and large chocolate boxes that we would sit around the table and wrap the chocolates and fill the boxes. These were given as raffle prizes for the War Effort. They started using cardboard boxs during World War II as an austerity measure.
    When Jack Oliver died the business was taken over by his daughter and her husband L. S. Doctor.


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