From Liquid to Solid: The Industrial Revolution and the Chocolate Bar

Since the 1880’s, world chocolate consumption has increased considerably every year. Today, chocolate can be purchased in a variety of forms, but the most common way the treat is typically enjoyed is in a solid form, as a candy bar or confection. However, the way in which chocolate has been historically consumed changed significantly in the late 19th century from a liquid beverage, reserved for elites, to a solid form, easily accessible to the lower and middle classes.

For over 2,000 years, chocolate was prepared by hand and drunk primarily as a beverage. After the Spanish invaded Mesoamerica, the ancient methods of preparing cacao were emulated by Europeans seeking to indulge in the chocolate experience for roughly 200 years. These methods mainly involved the same fermentation, roasting and grinding techniques employed by the Mayans and Aztecs. The new European cacao connoisseurs even appropriated the tools used by the indigenous Americans in order to prepare the chocolate drink, including the metate, a heated stone to grind the cacao on, and the molinillos, a utensil used to produce a thick foam by whirling the liquid (Coe & Coe, 115).

jaguar metate
A traditional metate used by the ancient Mesoamericans for grinding cacao.

The high costs of cacao beans, combined with the labor intensive methods of preparing it, limited its consumption to the upper classes and elite in Europe and the Americas until the mid 1800’s, when chocolate changed, “from a costly drink to a cheap food (Coe & Coe, 232). Arguably, for the first time in history, chocolate became accessible to the masses and spurred what Clarence-Smith has dubbed the “chocolate boom” that emerged between 1870 and 1914, on the heels of the Industrial Revolution (Clarence-Smith, 5).

This massive increase in chocolate consumption can be partially attributed to technological advancements in the middle of the 19th century. In 1938, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented the hydraulic press in order to efficiently remove the fats, or cocoa butter, from the cacao beans. Then in 1847 Joseph Fry found a way to mix cacao, sugar and cocoa butter into a smooth paste and cast it into bars. The new solid chocolate rapidly gained popularity in Europe, and was praised but the upper classes (Coe & Coe, 232-241). After Henri Nestle discovered a way to powder milk, Daniel Peter came up with the idea to add it to chocolate, and in 1879, Peter introduced the first milk chocolate to the world.

Yet, these technological advances do not in themselves explain the new popularity of solid chocolate coupled by its large scale consumption by the masses. While these inventions did contribute to more efficient methods of processing chocolate, as well as the solid chocolate style, they do not account for it’s widespread accessibility. In fact, the largest chocolate company in England at the time of these inventions only employed sixteen people, hardly a workforce capable of preparing and distributing chocolate to the entire country, much less to overseas markets (Clarence-Smith, 51). Further, immediately after the chocolate bar was introduced by the Fry company, solid chocolate became more expensive than its liquid alternative (Coe & Coe, 241). For a short period, it seemed as if solid chocolate had become the food of the elites and would remain a luxury item.

The explanation for the subsequent international rise of solid chocolate can be more closely linked to the sociopolitical and economic changes that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. Namely, the falling prices of cacao and the increasing middle class, who for the first time could afford some of the more rarer commodities with their weekly pay-check. The end of mercantilism, the advent of free trade, and lessened tariffs decreased the cost of transportation and increased cacao imports to Europe (Clarence-Smith, 52; Poelmans & Swinnen, 22). Further, slave trade was increasingly exploited by growing cacao plantations up until the late 19th century, contributing to the commercialization of cacao production which further decreased cacao prices.


Demand for the cacao products was boosted by the birth of the consumer class in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution led to the steady increase of income for the average worker, and the new purchasing power of the general public led to an increase in demand for the finer amenities they had previously been unable to afford, such as meat, sugar and chocolate. These societal changes provided the impetus for chocolate manufacturers to develop chocolate products that could be easily packaged, preserved, and distributed, and which also had relatively long shelf lives. Further, it had to be a product that could easily be packed and eaten without too much preparation on the part of the working class. These prerequisites led the chocolate companies to market primarily solid chocolate products, which grew in popularity and became the new international standard, preferred over its previous liquid form.

In conclusion, the demand of the new consumer class, the falling prices of cacao, along with the technological advancements during the Industrial Revolution contributed to the widespread popularization of solid chocolate. Further, the swift rise of chocolate consumption in the 19th and 20th centuries led to mass production, as seen in the video below, and today the solid chocolate continues to dominate the global market in finished chocolate products.


Works Cited:

Image 1, Jaguar Metate. MFA

Image 2. Fry’s Chocolate. Wiki Commons. 

Clarence-Smith, W. G. Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765-1914. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

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

Nardinelli, Clark. Industrial Revolution and the Standard of Living. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Poelmans, Eline and Swinnen, Johan. “A Brief History of Chocolate” in The Economics of Chocolate. eds. Squicciarini, Mara P., Swinnen Johan. Oxford Univ Press. 2016. Print.

Walker, Timothy. Slave Labor and Chocolate in Brazil: The Culture of Cacao Plantations in Amazonia and Bahia (17th–19th Centuries). Food and Foodways 15 (1–2): pp. 75-106. Available Online.


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