Chocolate, Politics, and Gambling

Far from what their name might suggest, “chocolate houses” are sadly, not houses made from chocolate. Instead, London chocolate houses were 18th century bastions of wealth in which luxurious chocolate drinks were served alongside steaming plates of leisure to the obscenely rich, who wanted nothing more than to relax, schmooze, and discuss their plans to overthrow the king on the side. With the Enlightenment roaring in the background, the chocolate houses became excellent places for English noblemen with too much money to unload their wallets and their newfound nihilism.

Interior of a chocolate house
Portrayal of interior of a chocolate house

Nested within exclusive aristocratic communities—most notably one called St. James Street, these lavish havens were erected in the same spirit as the already extensive and wildly popular coffeehouses of the time (“London’s Chocolate Houses”). Previously, chocolate drinks were merely sold as an afterthought at these coffeehouses, due to the much more popular and established nature of coffee, the beloved brown drink of choice. Comparatively, chocolate was its aloof foreign cousin and had barely arrived from France in the 1650s (“Discovering Chocolate”). However, the media began extolling chocolate as a medicinal, magical substance with aphrodisiacal properties, and it wasn’t long before people bought into the hype and the so-called chocolate houses sprang up to cater to this niche demand (Green).

The chocolate drinks themselves were brewed from blocks of cocoa and tended to be dark and bitter concoctions very much unlike the fluffy, sugary hot chocolate that we drink today which—quite literally—pales in comparison (“Discovering Chocolate”). These exotic drinks were often mixed with a handful of off-key flavors, with some recipes including Indian pepper, jasmine, and ambergris—a bile duct secretion found in the intestine of sperm whales (Choat; Kemp 8). Chocolate was very much an expensive, luxury drink, both due to the elaborate nature of its recipe as well as the high taxes involved in importing it to England (“Hot Chocolate”; “Discovering Chocolate”). However, this likely only served to play into the tendencies of an elite class that was less concerned with the essence of the drink and more concerned with making showy displays of wealth.

deans_corner_choc_pots_x
Chocolate pots

White’s Chocolate House, which opened in 1697, was perhaps the most famous chocolate house, among others such as Brooke’s, Ozinda’s, and the Cocoa Tree (Green, Algernon 152). Though these chocolate houses were ostensibly places that served chocolate drinks, in reality, this was by far their least important function. Behind their exclusive doors, the chocolate houses actually served as arenas for the gritty world of high-stakes gambling. According to The History of White’s, which candidly refers to White’s as a gaming club, “There is nothing, however trivial or ridiculous, which is not capable of producing a bet. Many pounds have been lost upon the colour of a coach horse, an article in the news, or a change in the weather” (Algernon 101). Furthermore, these bets often pitted people’s lives against each other, with gamblers making wagers on who would live longer—“There is scarce one remarkable person upon whose life there are not many thousand pounds depending, or one person of quality whose death will not leave several of these kinds of mortgages upon his estate” (Algernon 102).

White's Chocolate House
White’s Chocolate House

Beyond the morbid business of high stakes gambling, the chocolate houses also doubled as sites for people of various political parties to convene and vent their political frustrations. White’s, in particular, was unofficial home to the Tories, while Brooke’s served the Whigs (Algernon 152). The Cocoa Tree purportedly had a secret escape route for Jacobites to escape capture by authorities (Green). This affiliation with political parties was a large part of the reason why chocolate house membership was so exclusive. Belying their unassuming names, chocolate houses were actually extremely political.

In light of these revelations on the true nature of chocolate houses, the importance of chocolate drinks may seem only secondary. However, far from it, chocolate was the sticky lubricant that bound all these forces together. Perfectly packaged as an item of the elite, chocolate was the impetus for driving a culture of extravagance, which in turn, popularized chocolate among not just elites, but all of England. Compared to our culture in which the most iniquity associated with chocolate is the guilt that accompanies a sweet tooth, it is amusing, to say the least, to think that chocolate once went hand in hand with decadence, political dissent, and a penchant for anarchic gambling.

Works Cited

Algernon, Henry. The History of White’s. Vol. 1. London: Waterlow and Sons, 1892. 101,102,152. Print.

Choat, Isabel. “A Chocolate Tour of London: A Taste of the past.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/dec/23/chocolate-tour-of-london&gt;.

“Discovering Chocolate.” Cadbury. Kraft Foods Australia Pty Ltd. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <https://www.cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Discovering-Chocolate.aspx&gt;.

Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/10515620/The-surprising-history-of-Londons-lost-chocolate-houses.html&gt;.

“Hot Chocolate, 18th-19th Century Style.”Jane Austens World. 9 Aug. 2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2008/08/09/hot-chocolate-18th-19th-century-style/&gt;.

Kemp, Christopher. Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2012. 8. Print.

“London’s Chocolate Houses.” Herb Museum. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.herbmuseum.ca/content/londons-chocolate-houses&gt;.

Multimedia Sources

Bourne, Leah. “The Top 12 Most Exclusive Private Members Clubs In London Read More: Http://stylecaster.com/the-top-12-most-exclusive-private-members-clubs-in-london/#ixzz3SKINBGoc.” StyleCaster. StyleCaster Inc, 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://stylecaster.com/the-top-12-most-exclusive-private-members-clubs-in-london/&gt;.

Digital image. Replacements, LTD. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.replacements.com/thismonth/archive/v1301t.htm&gt;.

Jones, Bob. “The Lost City of London.” The Lost City of London. N.p., 03 May 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://lostcityoflondon.co.uk/2014/05/03/oh-divine-chocolate/&gt;.

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