My interest in Saunders Malt Extract began when I received a note from a reader who remembered being fed the stuff from a spoon as a child. She described the taste as being “like honey”. The product is still around. It is currently marketed as “a rich extract of roasted malted barley that provides a delicious and nutritious boost when baking”. It’s also used by home brewers. However, Saunders Malt Extract was originally sold as a health food – one of particular benefit to growing children.
Although the Saunders website attests that the product’s history dates back to 1873, various newspaper articles confirm that it was first developed in 1892. William Saunders, the founder of the company, migrated to Australia with his wife, Janet, and her parents in 1852. He initially lived in Buninyong, on Victoria’s goldfields, where he worked making candles, before forming a company with his father-in-law, James Howie, to make soda water. James was a maltster in a brewery and it seems William absorbed some of his expertise. After James died, in 1869, William moved the family to Melbourne to become a brewer.
In 1892, his company, William Saunders & Son, began the manufacture of Saunders Malt Extract. The Fitzroy City Press reported on the new industry:
One of the latest additions to our industrial resources is that recently started by Messrs. William Saunders and Son, at their large and commodious works, Lennox-street, Richmond. Messrs. Saunders and Sons have fitted up their premises with the latest and most improved machinery for the manufacturing of malt extract. We have seen a sample of their product, which is equal to any of the imported article and infinitely cheaper. Its purity and excellent quality is testified to by the report of Mr. Blackett, the Government analyst, who speaks in the highest terms of its efficacy in building up the human system. … The malt extract has now been placed on the market, and its merits should ensure it a large sale.
At first, the company left it to retailers to advertise the product. As early as 1893, it featured in the list of “Special lines for the week” at the department store, Foy & Gibson, classified as a patent medicine, while the Geelong druggists, Bull and Owen advertised it “for medicinal use and bread making”. In Queensland, the sole agents, Henry Berry & Co. resorted to multiple entries in the classifieds, tucked between an advertisement for a large villa residence at Toowong and one for F. Triton’s range of bedsteads.
Perhaps it was after the death of William in 1903 that his son (also William) became more aggressive in his marketing efforts. Around 1908, display advertisements began to appear touting the efficacy of Saunders Malt Extract in promoting robust health in babies and children. For decades to follow, this was to be the product’s primary claim to fame. The most famous symbol of the malt extract’s extraordinary powers, and one which still appears on the modern pack, was the James Northfield illustration of a plump toddler toting an I-beam on one shoulder.
Originally located in Lennox Street, Richmond, W. Saunders & Co moved their manufacturing operation to Abbotsford in 1911. The building still exists and is heritage listed. In addition to their malt extract Saunders made a version incorporating cod liver oil, a yeast product known as Zeestos, a medicinal product called Maltocret Emulsion and even a stock food lick. The benefits claimed for Saunders Malt Extract sound extravagant by today’s standards: it was meant to be effective in cases of indigestion, consumption (TB), constipation and marasmus (extreme malnutrition), while during the Spanish flu epidemic, it would purportedly help people resist the disease. In the 1930s, it was advertised as building strong bones and teeth.
As late as 1956, Saunders advertising was recommending that children be given malt extract daily, by the teaspoonful with warm milk or spread on bread and butter. “Saunders Malt Extract contains NO sugar, but is rich in Proteins and Vitamin B,” they claimed. “It builds strength and aids digestion.” The product is, in fact, very high in carbohydrates and most of that is sugars – just not derived from sugar cane.
Unsurprisingly, Saunders Malt Extract is no longer considered a health food. The days of children being fed a spoonful after every meal to help “build them up” are long gone as we face an epidemic of childhood obesity. However, it is still a staple in many pantries and is used in cakes and biscuits, milkshakes and even as a sandwich spread, as well as being a vital ingredient in many home brews. The company is still family-owned and all-Australian.