How Did the Kit Kat Candy Bar Get It's Name?

Posted on 07 Nov 2013 17:41

The Kit Kat candy bar, which is written on labels as one word, KitKat, is now produced by Nestle but was originally invented in York, England in 1935. However, the name Kit Kat, or Kit Cat, was not always used for the crisp wafer and chocolate treat we know today.

The story starts in 1911, when a confectioner named Joseph Rowntree of Rowntree's in York, England, registered the product names Kit Kat and Kit Cat. It is often claimed that he got the name from a popular nightclub in the West End of London called the Kit Kat, but this club was around after World War I in the 1920's and Rowntree coined the name in 1911.

A story is told about the club's having low ceilings so that it could only accommodate "kat" paintings, which were wide but not very high paintings from which the edge had to be snapped off to fit in the room. This is claimed to have inspired the name of the chocolate covered wafers since they snapped when eaten. Since the wafer product hadn't even been invented when Rowntree registered the name, however, this story makes no sense. There was also, in the 17th century, a Whig party club in London called the Kit Kat club, which apparently was named with the shortened form of the name of the pastry chef and pie maker named Christopher Katt, who owned a pie shop nearby their meeting place and often supplied the club with tarts.1

Kit Kat was also a vogue term in England, in general, at the time, so it is quite possible that Rowntree's choosing the name had nothing to do with these establishments. Still, the political and literary club was quite famous and highly regarded, so it is not impossible to believe it was Rowntree's inspiration, it simply is not the only possible one.

How did the Kit-Kat candy bar get its name?
How did the Kit-Kat candy bar get its name?

As a matter of fact, in the late 1800's there was a weekly magazine called Kit-Kat, which boasted it's low price (50 cents a year or one cent a single copy) but high quality. This magazine was published Keighton Bros. of Philadelphia, PA. But it goes to show that Kit-Kat was and extant term and associated with more than just the aforementioned clubs, unless the magazine took the name from the earlier club, which we have no way of knowing.

Even though Rowntree registered the names in 1911, he did nothing with them until the 1920's. But he used them for a box of chocolates rather than the chocolate covered wafers, which weren't invented until years later. These chocolates were eventually phased out. Rowntree then set his sights on making a candy bar that a man could "take to work in his pack up."

old KitKat candy bar newspaper advertisment

Old Kit Kat newspaper ad, c. 19372

old KitKat candy bar newspaper advertisment

Old Kit Kat newspaper ad, c. 19372

On August 29, 1935, Rowntree introduced the "four-finger chocolate-covered wafer to London, which was greeted with great appreciation by the public. Low and behold, he did not use the snappy name of Kit Kat, but instead called the treats "Rowntree's Chocolate Crisp.' Fortunately, Rowntree had an observant marketing director named George Harris, who, in 1937, got rid of the boring name and introduced the Kit Kat chocolate Krisp. The product remained popular in the U.K., got through the tough times of of World War II, and eventually started spreading throughout the world. In 1950's, when television commercials began to be made, the famous KitKat tag line "Have a break, have a Kit Kat" was born, and has stuck to this day.

Truck Load of KitKat Flavors

Now here is something you probably didn't know. I was surprised to find this out. The KitKat bar has been offered (in various parts of the world), in over 120 other flavors besides chocolate. Yep. Strawberry KitKat, mandarin orange KitKat, Cherry KitKat, Custard KitKat. None of those are so strange. It's a coated wafer so more stuff can go with it besides just chocolate. So why not watermelon, cucumber, wasabi, or adzuki bean? All have been offered. This is because, Nestle, which markets KiKat everywhere besides the US (Hershey hanldes the US, under license from Nestle) makes special flavors of KitKat to suit the tastes of specific regions. That is why they offer miso, green tea, or soy sauce flavored in Japan, among others. They even break it down further, so that specific islands of Japan have specific varieties. Among them are green beans, yuzu fruit, red potatoes, sweet potato, blueberry, and kinako (soybean). Nationwide, believe it or not, the most popular flavor is the soy sauce. As well as exotic flavors, the formula itself is often changed, offering a coarser texture or a smaller bar, etc.

In today's era of market research, it is common for different varieties of products to be offered to suit local tastes. For instance, Oreo changed it's formula to suit the Chinese market (the Oreo cookie initially failed there). But KitKat probably boasts the greatest number of flavor varieties of any snack food, candy, or cookie.

1. Ayto, John, and John Ayto. The Diner's Dictionary: Word Origins of Food & Drink. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.
2. Westwood, Emma. "An Edible Icon: The Evolution of the 'Kit Kat'" Tablet to Table. Ed. Emma Westwood. 8th ed. Vol. I. Terico Pty, 2013. epub

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