The Role of English Chocolate Houses

Introduction

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Today it seems hard to imagine that fifteenth century England, like much of Europe, had no contact with either cacao or chocolate. Even more surprising is the fact that the first Englishmen who came across cacao had very little interest in it. According to Sophie and Michael Coe these men, who were most likely 16th century pirates and adventurers, even went as far as to burn an entire load of cacao (Coe 161). However, despite this initial nonchalance, the English soon came to embrace cacao beans and the chocolate products that were made from them. In fact chocolate became so popular in London that during the 1650’s, many people found an occupation selling large batches of readily available chocolate (Loveman 30). Furthermore by the end of the seventeenth century chocolate houses, specific venues for consuming prepared chocolate drinks, had sprung up across the country (Morton 21). Though initially linked to coffee houses, these houses eventually developed their own unique identity. Chocolate houses are historically significant because they helped to define the current global relationship between human beings and chocolate. In addition to expanding the social functions of chocolate, English chocolate houses also facilitated the commercialization and democratization of chocolate products.

Shown above: A chocolate house where people could pay for chocolate and company.
Shown below: A house made of chocolate.

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A Typical Chocolate House

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In order to show how English chocolate houses shaped the modern social and economic roles of chocolate, it is necessary to describe the general experience of the patrons who visited these establishments. According to Morton, a man entering a chocolate house would “toss a penny on the counter to pay for admission to the place and the right to rifle through free news sheets. Then he would pay for his chocolate, which wasn’t cheap, and join a table of cronies to sit and chat” (Morton 21). Importantly, the type of chocolate served in these chocolate houses was very particular. In contrast to the cold, bitter chocolate consumed in some ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, the chocolate drunk by English socialites was warm and sweet. This change was so distinct that physician Henry Stubbe actually recorded the English tendency to “use milk instead of water, or half milk and half water, or else to thicken the drink by adding eggs” (Loveman 30). Clearly, although chocolate had been adopted from the New World, it underwent significant taste it hybridization in England.

Shown above:An Aztec woman pours chocolate from one vessel to another. This liquid is unsweetened and bitter.

The Social Nature of Chocolate

Based on Morton’s description it is clear that chocolate houses functioned primarily as social institutions. Interestingly, chocolate has always had moderately social roots. Notably, in ancient Mayan societies the phrase to chokola’j meant to drink chocolate together (Martin, 2). However, chocolate houses served to affirm and strengthen the place of chocolate in the social sphere. Specifically, these houses were prime public spaces for the discussion of world news, current affairs, and politics. In fact, it was while sipping chocolate at a local chocolate house that one political group, the crypto-Jacobites, plotted the downfall of King George I (Green 1). Chocolate houses also reinforced the social nature of chocolate by linking chocolate to entertainment and leisure. In addition to serving food and tasty beverages, these houses were often also the sites of “card playing, dice and other gambling” (Morton 21).

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White's was a very famous 18th century chocolate house. This scene clearly places more emphasis on social conversations than on the actual chocolate being served.

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The social legacy of White's has survived. Today, it is an exclusive, private gentlemen's club.

 

The Commercialization and Democratization of Chocolate

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Another consequence of the rise of the English chocolate house was the increasing commercialization of chocolate. The countries of colonial Europe were certainly not the first nations to pull chocolate into the sphere of business. Most notably, cacao beans had already functioned as currency in past Aztec civilizations (Martin 2). However, English chocolate houses were instrumental in making chocolate a consumer product. Coe tells us that in 1657 “Louis XIV granted a monopoly for chocolate to Daniel Chaliou” (Coe 166). This decision reflects the capitalistic culture of England, which benefited “shopkeepers and enterprising private businessmen” (Coe 166). Consistent with its status as a commodity, chocolate was promoted using strategic advertisements and propaganda. According to Green, the 18th century saw “a slew of pamphlets [appearing] proclaiming the miraculous, panacean qualities of the new drink, which would boost fertility, cure consumption, alleviate indigestion and reverse ageing [and act as a] powerful aphrodisiac” (Green 1).

Shown above: An advertisement for chocolate emphasizes its exotic nature, convenience, and affordable cost.

The commercialization of chocolate acted as a catalyst for its democratization. While chocolate was confined to the aristocracy in other European nations, it was available to any Englishman who could afford to buy it and was “on offer to all those who patronized coffee shops” (Coe 166). Additionally, although expensive chocolate was still purchased mainly by elite men, several chocolate recipes were aimed at the wider population and stressed the addition of eggs and milk (Loveman 39).

 

Conclusion

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Although chocolate was initially viewed in England as foreign and unfamiliar, it was gradually accepted and modified into a distinctly English luxury good and served in chocolate houses across the country. Importantly, the implications of this transformation were long lasting. Today chocolate is still closely associated with leisure and has become tightly interwoven into the fabric of English social life. Furthermore, the global chocolate economy has continued to grow, and the making and selling of chocolate is a booming business.

Citations

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Loveman, K. “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640-1730.” Journal of Social History 47.1 (2013): 27-46. Web.

Martin, Carla. “AAS119 Lecture 2.”Feb. 2016.

Morton, Marcia, and Frederic Morton. Chocolate: An Illustrated History. New York: Crown, 1986. Print.

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