From Luxury to Commonplace: the prevalence of chocolate through the Industrial Revolution

Historians commonly attribute the rise in chocolate consumption during the Industrial Revolution to new cacao production techniques developed in the early 1800s, as well as much improved global transportation of goods. However, another hidden factor leading to the establishment of chocolate as the new world’s favorite luxury product was the sudden availability of discretionary income among the middle and working class.

In a little under one hundred years, the art of chocolate making was transformed from a low yield, mostly handmade luxury product into a mass produced, commonly available food through the innovation and inventions of several world leading chocolatiers. One major obstacle to the industrialization of chocolate previously was the inability to grind large numbers of cacao beans in a short amount of time. In 1795, Joseph Fry of J.S. Fry & Sons (a leading chocolate company in Britain), invented a steam powered cacao grinder which was significantly more fast and efficient than the slow horse drawn or wind powered grinders of the day (Cidel, 1002).

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

J.S Fry & Sons Milk Chocolate Ad – Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Another such innovation was the hydraulic cacao press created in 1828 by Van Houton, a Dutch chemist.

The press efficiently separated the cacao butter from the nib (the center of the cacao bean), which left a press cake which could then be ground into cacao powder – which soon became the primary ingredient in all chocolate products (Cidel, 1002) .  Eventually Joseph Fry developed a method combining  the previously wasted cacao butter with cacao powder and sugar to create chocolate in the solid form that’s loved throughout the world today (Coe and Coe, 1996). Thus, the production, and subsequent availability and consumption of chocolate were revolutionized by the mass chocolate producing machines.

Photo of Coenraad Van Houten

Van Houton – Image source: Cornell University

Additionally, with the advent of new methods of transportation (Szostak, 12) such as automobiles, railroads and steamships, the transfer of large quantities of goods, across large distances in a short amount of time was possible.  Those large imports of cacao beans and sugar met the demands of the newly mechanized chocolate factories, and paved the way for a chocolate production, packaging and shipping rate never seen before in history. So transportation, too, played a major role in the rise in chocolate production, and consumption.

Industrial revolution packaging facility – Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Equally significant, however, was the effect of the Industrial Revolution on working class citizens. Goods went from being handmade in the hundreds to being mass produced in the millions by machines. This resulted in cheaper products, a much larger economy and many more jobs. While the working class once struggled to put food on the table, suddenly they were able to purchase inexpensive food, clothes and other necessities, leaving them with discretionary income (Justman, 110) left over with which to buy luxury items previously reserved for the elite.

Chocolate, having been a royal luxury for so many decades, naturally became many people’s favorite discretionary purchase. In 1831 the amount of chocolate consumed by the average British citizen was only ¼ of an ounce; however by 1902 it had risen to 17 ounces (Bugbee, 1907). This trend continues to this day, with the average Englishman consuming more than 350 ounces a year (Carve, 1).

Although many think the rise in chocolate consumption during and after the Industrial Revolution was entirely the result of new production techniques and modes of transportation, chocolate would not have become a global food without the accompanying rise in household income brought about by the Industrial Revolution.


Sources Cited:

Cidell, Julie L., and Heike C. Alberts “Constructing Quality: The Multinational Histories of Chocolate.” Geoforum 37.6 (2006): 999-1007.

Coe, S., Coe, M., 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London.

Bugbee, James M. Cocoa and Chocolate: A Short History of Their Production and Use. Dorchester, MA: Walter Baker, 1907. Print.

Carve, John. “At 605,000 Tonnes a Year: Britons Take the Chocoholic Crown.” N.p., 13 Apr. 2006. Web. <;.

Szostak, Rick. “The Role of Transportation in the Industrial Revolution.” Choice Reviews Online 29.06 (1992): 29-3496. Print.

Justman, Moshe, and Mark Gradstein. “The Industrial Revolution, Political Transition, and the Subsequent Decline in Inequality in 19th-Century Britain.” Explorations in Economic History 36.2 (1999): 109-27. Print.



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