Chocolate was introduced in earnest in England shortly after the British conquest of cacao-producing Jamaica in 1655 (Coe & Coe, 165). Within the next century, drinking of chocolate became increasingly popular in British society, enjoying a rise akin to that of coffee and tea, though perhaps not quite as steep (Loveman). However, though chocolate was ostensibly a drink available to all Englishmen, the aristocratic overtones of chocolate houses based off of their political and leisurely nature meant that in practice chocolate was only a drink of the elites.
In their book, The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe are quick to note the subtle differences in chocolate throughout Europe after it was introduced. For England in particular, they note its availability to all, in contrast with France, writing: “In France, chocolate was strictly for the aristocracy, while in England it was available to all those who had the money to pay for it, and it was on offer to all who patronized coffee-shops. Chocolate was becoming democratized” (Coe & Coe, 166). The key word in this sentence, however, is “available”. Chocolate was technically “available” to all because it was sold commercially at establishments that theoretically anyone could enter. But did this happen in practice?
Another main feature of chocolate houses in England was their political nature. Coe and Coe note that Charles II attempted to shut down coffee houses in 1675 because he thought they were hotbeds of sedition; chocolate was sold at these coffee houses, and “coffee house” was an umbrella term that included chocolate houses (Coe & Coe, 168). Moreover, at the Cocoa Tree, a popular coffee house established shortly after Charles’ decree, modern excavation discovered an underground passage to another pub in London, presumably for means of escape should the house be raided by governmental forces (The Telegraph). The presence of this passage belies the high stakes of the politics being discussed at chocolate houses. Politics were surely discussed by the masses, but the masses did not need to fear the Crown, as the individuals doing the talking wouldn’t have had the means to back up their words. The fact that the original patrons of Cocoa Tree desired an escape hatch when it was built means that the house was intended for influential members of English society, people whom the government needed to worry about.
Chocolate houses were more famous in contemporary times for their social overtones than their political ones, though. Most of the original houses were built in St. James Square, which, according to The Telegraph, was “a self-contained aristocratic estate of great and good houses for nobles and gentry” (The Telegraph). Chocolate may have been technically commercially available to anyone, but the location of the chocolate houses in the nicest part of London indicate that its being marketed as an elite drink. In her article, The Introduction of Chocolate to England, Kate Loveman concurs with this, writing that, “in the 1690s, chocolate houses began to be depicted as part of the daily routine of the elite” (Loveman). It is a safe assumption that the daily haunts of the elite were to a certain degree exclusive.
This assumption was borne out in contemporary English accounts of chocolate as a drink of decadence and chocolate houses as monuments to that decadence. Loveman notes that, “in the 1690s, chocolate was increasingly portrayed as the drink of the idle rich” (Loveman). This picture of White’s Chocolate House, published by Cadbury in 1708, seems to depict an aristocratic clientele.
The ornate décor of White’s and the powdered wigs and flowing dresses of its patrons indicates that chocolate houses were places of socializing and leisure. In addition, though the lithograph does not depict it, White’s was famous for featuring a large looking glass, which fueled popular perceptions of the vanity of its customers (Loveman). This reputation was enhanced by the reputation of the drink itself as an aphrodisiac, making it easy for satirists and detractors to point to the sexual promiscuity it implied (Loveman). Moreover, rather than politics, Loveman notes that chocolate houses were notorious places of gossip first and foremost (Loveman). All of these phenomena contributed to the larger general trend of chocolate and chocolate houses being consigned exclusively to the elite class of England.
In addition, the current trajectory of chocolate houses indicates something about their roots. White’s in particular has become an all-male “gentleman’s club”, and was a hot topic in English newspapers when Prime Minister and former member David Cameron declared it a sexist and anachronistic institution, calling for it to start accepting women (Daily Mail). In fact, Benjamin Disraeli famously quipped that the two things that an Englishman truly had no control over were membership into the Knighthood and membership at White’s (Daily Mail). With its current status as a bastion of patriarchy, conservatism and exclusivity in England, it is hard to imagine that, in a far less progressive era, White’s, and other houses like it, was anything but what it is today.
Though chocolate may be branded by some as the drink of the masses in England because it was commercially available to all, the elitist reputation and overtones of the houses in which it was sold meant that, functionally, chocolate was an elitist drink from the beginning in England.
Wikimedia: Chocolate House, London, 1708 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jpg