As I was walking through the National Portrait Gallery the other day, I came to a particular room containing portraits of members of the Kit-Cat Club. Anyone who knows my candy preferences will understand my fascination with this society. The group was apparently the most popular social circle of the 18th century, in which prominent figures such as John Locke and Joseph Addison met in local taverns to discuss literature and Whig politics. I thought the group’s homonymy with the candy bar was a coincidence, but the club is indeed the inspiration for the Kit-Kat bar.
The most popular origin story for the Kit-Cat club’s name begins with the owner of the first tavern where the group met, Christopher Catt, and Catt named his mutton pies “Kit,” which was an accepted abbreviation of the name “Christopher.” But there is an epigram written by John Arbuthnot, a physician and satirist, that hints toward another possible origin:
Whence deathless Kit-Kat took his name
Few critics can unriddle
Some say from pastrycook it came
And some from Cat and Fiddle.
From no trim beaus its name it boasts
Grey statesmen or green wits
But from the pell-mell pack of toasts
Of old Cats and young Kits.
It was in the year 1935 that the first modern day “Kit Kat” — replacing mutton with chocolate — made its appearance, produced by a company called Rowntree’s. The original name was “Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp,” but the company had inexplicably trademarked the names “Kit Cat” and “Kit Kat” 24 years before then, and in 1937 the candy bar was reintroduced as “Kit Kat Chocolate Crisp.” It was a sought-after commodity during World War II and grew in popularity throughout the 20th century.
If you have eaten a Kit Kat in the United States and the United Kingdom, you will know they are not the same. In 1970, Hershey’s made a deal with Rowntree’s to produce the famous bar in America. In 1988, Nestlé purchased Rowntree’s and acquired the Kit Kat, but Hershey’s retained its rights in the United States. Similarly, Japan’s Kit Kats are made by Fujiya, which is why they are known for having such a variety of odd flavors.
The story of Kit Kats is almost like the story of America itself, coming across the Atlantic and breaking from its forefathers. And, when you place them side by side, the two Kit Kats really aren’t so different after all. But now, a poem:
Whence deathless Kit Kat took its flavor,
A candy buff sure knows,
And Hershey’s deal shall never waive, sir,
For so the chocolate flows.
But Nestlé is still doing fine,
They just built a new factory,
Yet America’s Kit Kat, that is mine,
Keep yours, you bloody Tory.
Email Thomas Devlin at [email protected]