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.
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.