Willy Wonka’s Twisted Chocolate Factory: Chocolate’s Evolution

Figure 1: Slaves perform harsh labor in the tropics. The slave trade accounted for almost all of the cultivation of cash crops in Europe from the 16th century to the 19th century.

To the majority of the world’s consumers, chocolate is often categorized with other sugary confectioneries. Instead of Mesoamerican traditions, candy-lovers daydream of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the tale of a mystical place where molten chocolate rivers flow down waterfalls and Oompa Loompas carry large bags of sugar through forests of licorice. Yet, the road to Candyland was not nearly as glamorous as the average consumer’s daydream. In fact, a large galvanizing factor in the European democratization of chocolate consumption was the interplay between increased supply from slave labor, advertising, and higher levels of disposable income.

When Cortez first added sugar to chocolate, he recognized the vast potential of sweetened cacao in the European market[1]. However, prior to the late sixteenth century, bees were the only source of sugar in northern Europe[2]. As demand for sugar and cacao exploded in the late fifteenth century, Europeans sought new ways to increase production of both these cash crops. As a result, sugar and cacao plantations began to erupt all over the tropics of South America and the Southern United States. And where there were plantations—there were slaves.

The triangular slave trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa was formed in roughly 1500 CE and lasted until 1900 CE as a strategy to bolster the number of unskilled farm laborers within Europe’s Caribbean “crown jewels”. Roughly 12 million slaves were brutally transported from Africa to Latin America[3]. Crammed shoulder to shoulder in small holding areas, men, women and children were treated as commodities until they either died, or reached their tropical destinations. On the plantations, slave labor produced coffee, sugar, cacao, and other lucrative agricultural commodities for export to Europe. Millions of slaves would work endlessly in the fields, often putting in upwards of 18 hours a day. This hard work paid off and plantation production increased exponentially[4].

Figure 2: An ad for Fry’s “Five Boys” showcases the targeting of young children by early chocolate companies.

With supply eventually outpacing demand, sugar and chocolate became commonplace among daily life of the European masses[5]. Individuals like Joseph Fry, George Cadbury, and Baker Chocolate Company were in the midst of creating chocolate empires. They began releasing advertisements which targeted a younger crowd. They sold chocolate as a solution to crying, angry, or generally unhappy children. In releasing ads that attracted children, these companies were able to draw parents into the mix. After all, children were likely not doing the purchasing, but kids were happy to be the consumer. For example, early ads by Fry’s show a young boy experiencing the different “stages” of consuming chocolate. He craves it, then he is blissful when he receives it. Furthermore, Cadbury often featured a young blonde, blue-eyed girl in their advertisements to show that their chocolate was suitable for children as well. By the mid nineteenth century so much cacao and sugar was available that companies like Cadbury, Fry’s, and Nestlé were able to establish chocolate as a staple good in Europe. Chocolate products began to appear in candy stores alongside Lifesavers, Altoids, and other mega-brands[6].

Yet, none of the manufacturing capacity that made these companies successful would have been possible without the industrial revolution. In 1828, Coenraad Van Houten—a dutch chemist—developed the hydraulic press which would change the face of chocolate processing forever[7]. While chocolate was hot in demand as early as the 17th century, it was the hydraulic press that created the technological efficiency and capacity to separate cocoa butter from cocoa powder in large amounts of cacao with relative ease.

Figure 3: A child purchases candy from a vendor. Chocolate was prevalent in shops like this one.

Still, it was not only the machines themselves that perpetuated chocolate’s success in Europe, it was also the economic opportunity. Big businesses like Cadbury, Fry’s, and Nestle began recruiting workers to maintain their facilities. Thus, the corporate machine was born. Millions of paid workers began to flood the floors of chocolate factories, newspaper factories, textile factories, and other economic powerhouses. The arrival of better technologies enabled the economy to grow, providing the average person with the opportunity to earn more and purchase goods that were once out of financial reach. The standard of living increased dramatically during this period[8]. While high society still played a substantial role in the consumption of chocolate, the common man could now afford to eat it as well. Not only was the high cacao supply placing downward pressure on prices, but higher levels of disposable income created a harmonious balance of economic conditions that permanently solidified cacao’s place in the European diet. By the time the 20th century had arrived, chocolate was a mainstay in candy stores across Europe. Young children and adults alike could afford to purchase chocolate bars for pennies[9].

As cliché as it may sound, chocolate’s evolution was indeed bittersweet. Both benefits and drawbacks were experienced throughout the 200 years of chocolate’s rise to prominence. To quote Willy Wonka after Charlie Bucket returns the coveted everlasting gobstopper, “so shines a good deed in a weary world.”[10] Chocolate in many ways is a good deed in a weary world. It is a product that has brought so many people pleasure over the last few centuries. Yet, its production led to the pain and suffering of millions.

Figure 1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Slaves_ruvuma.jpg

Figure 2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Frys_five_boys_milk_chocolate.jpg

Figure 3: http://candytrail.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/old-fashioned-candy-store.jpg

[1] Alden, Dauril. “The significance of cacao production in the Amazon region during the late colonial period: an essay in comparative economic history.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1976): 103-135.

[2] Abbott, Elizabeth. “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” (2011).

[3] Rose, Willie Lee Nichols, ed. A documentary history of slavery in North America. University of Georgia Press, 1999.

[4] Abbott, Elizabeth. “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” (2011).

[5] Martin, C. 2015. “African and African American Studies 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. Emerson Hall, Harvard University. Lecture.

[6] Abbott, Elizabeth. “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” (2011).

[7] Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

[8] Abbott, Elizabeth. “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” (2011).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Warner Bros, 1971. Film.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s