One of the artefacts Dr Toni Risson unearthed as part of her research into Australian lollies
One of the artefacts Dr Toni Risson unearthed as part of her research into Australian lollies
15 December 2011

Cultural historian Toni Risson experienced the sweet rewards of hard work when she received her UQ doctorate last week.

Dr Risson’s PhD thesis, conducted within the School of English, Media Studies and Art History, was entitled A Magic Bag: The Power of Confectionery in the Lives of Australian Children.

Her project is the first of its kind to investigate lollies as a significant cultural artefact in Australian society.

Through investigating the manufacture, distribution and consumption of lollies, Dr Risson’s work explores the cultural roles they have played in Australian childhood.

“By examining the topic of lollies, my thesis is also a history of Australian childhood and the shifts that occurred in children’s lives throughout the twentieth century,” she said.

“I drew information from all kind of sources, and from all over the country, but the real-life stories were the highlight: when Australians reminisce about their childhoods, often eating lollies has a significant place in their childhood memories.”

Completing her research involved gathering the stories of nearly 300 people, many of whom shared their experiences of feeling enchanted by the opulence and colour of the lolly counter.

“Until now academic research hasn’t recognised the importance lollies and their significance in children’s lives. It’s also a tragedy that so much information about our manufacturing history is already lost,” Dr Risson said.

“Around 20 books have been written in the last 15 years about confectionery in England and America (often company histories), but Australian confectionery is all but absent from any kind of research. Only one biography has been conducted: Jill Robertson documented the life of Australian confectioner Macpherson Robertson in 2004.”

The Confectionery Manufacturers Association and confectionery giant Nestle gave Dr Risson access to their archives during the project.

“My first task was to sort out the Australian brands and Australian products. I also found priceless artefacts that might otherwise never have seen the light of day,” she said.

Dr Risson’s research focus turned to lollies while she was writing a history of Greek cafés in Ipswich for her honours thesis and many participants spoke of large confectionery counters.

“Courses offered during my undergraduate degree at UQ Ipswich gave me the opportunity to conduct self-directed research and I feel lucky to have had the freedom to explore my own research topics,” she said.

“My work does not examine health issues. We are responsible for the health of our children, but without understanding that lollies are part of the magic of childhood we have little hope of decreasing the amount of sugar children consume.

“We tend to imagine lollies as mere junk food. They cannot be so easily dismissed. One of the results of my research is that it unlocks the power of lollies in children’s lives.”

Much of Dr Risson’s research has already been published in cultural studies journals. Next year she will work on a completing a coffee table-style book that makes her work accessible to a wide readership.

The Bribie Island Seaside Museum is curating an exhibition based on Dr Risson’s current research. The exhibition runs from December 17 to late February, 2012.

Media: Dr Toni Risson (07 3281 1525, 0439 664 291) or Dania Lawrence (07 3365 9163,