A Food for the People: The Evolution of Chocolate through the Industrial Revolution

If the average person today were to be asked to imagine “chocolate”, their first thought might be a common product from one of the few major companies (e.g. a Hershey’s bar). But that person would likely also think of two, four, ten more examples of chocolate confections. The chocolate world is truly massive today, in volume and variety. Furthermore, chocolate is not a uniformly priced product, with clear hierarchies in different products under the chocolate umbrella, most clearly defined by differences in companies (A Lindt Truffle is considered across the consumer pool to be a better product than a Hershey’s Kiss). Yet chocolate was for centuries a food that looked very different from what it is today, and one consumed as an integral part of mesoamerican culture. The journey of chocolate through history is a transformation that intersected with a range of socioeconomic systems and changes. Specifically, we will see that the industrial revolution directly set the stage for the global commercialization of chocolate, and was the catalyst for shifting chocolate in the European market as a luxury good to one accessible to all consumers.

Cacao was likely first consumed as a food object before 400BCE by the Olmec civilization that preceded the Mayan civilizations, and residues of cacao were found in Mayan vessels dating back as early as 250AD (Martin, Lecture 1). According to Mayan hieroglyphs cacao was processed into drinks and used in a variety of functions – wedding rituals, burial rituals, as an energy snack for warriors before battle – and there was certainly a special place for early “chocolate”. Cacao beverages were not a snack for the general populace, and the notion that they were reserved for the elite carried into its early use in Europe. Coe writes that prior to the mid 16th century, “chocolate drinking […] in both pre-Conquest Mesoamerica and in Europe was the costly prerogative of the elite” (Coe, 377). Yet it was enormously popular amongst the rich and comfortable, so that even today we find remains of pots, cups, and saucers specifically and ornately designed for chocolate beverages. The following video shows the restoration of an entire kitchen dedicated to chocolate, in the Hampton Court Palace. In the video food historian Marc Meltonville remarks, “The thing about chocolate, is that it was absolutely the luxury item for Georgian England. If you could afford chocolate, you were something special.” We see in this video the wealth attached to chocolate consumption in the ornateness and specificity in the items designed for chocolate during the 1700s.

Up until the Industrial Revolution starting around 1760, chocolate beverages continued to be consumed by the economically comfortable. Chocolate was “taken” like a daily medicine to help digestion and combat alcohol’s effects, and was especially popular among the clergy (Coe, 432). After the Industrial Revolution however, we see a clear shift in who and how chocolate is consumed. Sugar, which had a industrialization history similar and tied closely with chocolate’s, grew from a luxury or medicinal good to be used sparingly by the rich, into a necessity of the masses. We find in Mintz’s narrative of sugar’s history, the “opening up of mass consumption [of sugar], from about 1800 onward. During the period 1750-1780 every English person, no matter how isolated or how poor, and without regard to age or sex, learned about sugar. Most learned to like it enough to want more than they could afford. After 1850, as the price of sugar dropped sharply, that preference became realized in its consumption. A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed into a virtual necessity by 1850.” (Mintz, 148). Over the same period of time, chocolate underwent the same shift from luxury/medicinal use to average consumptive use, via several important developments.

The first update to chocolate’s consumption was the improvement of medicinal procedures replacing the Galenic system of humors and temperaments. With the appearance of modern medicine, chocolate was deemed no longer a medicinal product – freeing its consumption as a leisure food to be eaten however and whenever people wanted. Therefore and “concurrent with these changes, the per capita consumption of chocolate, which had been fairly constant for centuries, shot up dramatically; this was coupled with an equally enormous upsurge in the intake of sugar, since the principal destiny of this new, solid chocolate was in the manufacture of confectionery and desserts.” (Coe, 500-501). Furthermore, the appearance of this “solid chocolate” as a product was a major step towards chocolate’s mass production. Specifically, in the year 1828, Johannes Van Houten’s invention of the “Dutch” process to refine cacao butter into an even less fatty cocoa powder allowed chocolate to be mass produced in the shape it is known today. In Coe’s words, “Van Houten’s invention of the defatting and alkalizing processes made possible the large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses” (Coe, 503). Solid chocolate was simply easier to manufacture at large amounts, and additionally easier to consume.

However, at the conception of Van Houten’s method, chocolate was still produced using human body strength. Below is an image depicting the mass labor needed to separate the fat from cacao nibs, in Van Houten’s factory.


The industrial revolution provided the solutions to the limitations of human power that had prevented a product that could be easily sold on a large scale, to be produced on a large scale. The two most important innovations that came with the industrial revolution were mechanized grinding and milling, which efficiently separated the necessary parts of cacao and reduced particle size for optimal chocolate production (Martin, Lecture 3). After these initial developments that jump-started mass chocolate production, we see an exponential growth in further innovations and production of chocolate. In 1847, Joseph Fry began selling the first chocolate bars for general consumption, but by 1868 Cadbury had greater success with “Cadbury’s Cocoa Essence” and holiday chocolate boxes. In 1879, Lindt’s conching process brought further smoothness and quality to chocolate, more efficiently (Martin, Lecture 3).

The ease with which chocolate could be mass produced was tied with reduced cost of production. These reduced costs in turn carried into cheaper prices for chocolate, and the extending of the consumer market into all socioeconomic classes. Below is an early advertisement for a Cadbury chocolate product.


The target audience for this advertisement is clearly not the rich elite – the ad features an older commonly dressed man whose chocolates have fallen because of wind, and children gather around to steal the fallen chocolates. The message of this poster is the popularity of the chocolates with people of all ages. The intended consumer for Cadbury’s chocolates is clearly very different than the Mayan consumers of chocolate, or of the royal consumers in Georgian England. This global shift in consumption patterns is really a reflection of food production changes in general over the same period as illustrated by Jack Goody. He writes, “industrial decadence, whatever its consequences for the haute cuisine […] has enormously improved, in quantity, quality, and variety, the diet of the urban working populations of the western world.” (Counihan, 72). The development of industrial processes made chocolate production more efficient and cost effective, fundamentally changing the nature of chocolate and making it the widely accessible food it is today. Though arguments of quality/variety degradation always arise with mass produced products, the shift of chocolate as a food for the rich to a food accessible to virtually all people is both undeniable and unignorable as a major part of the food market.

Sources Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. IBook.

Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York:    Routledge, 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 1: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’.” Aframer 199x. CGIS,   Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb, 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 3: Popular sweet tooths and scandal.” Aframer 199x. CGIS,   Cambridge, MA. 22 Feb, 2017. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Cadbury. “Cadbury’s Chocolates.” Image. Pinterest. 10 Mar. 2017.

Early Cocoa Press, Van Houten Factory, Amsterdam, 1828. Nederlandse Cacao Vereniging. Image.

Historic Royal Palaces. “The making of the Chocolate Kitchen” Historic Royal Palaces. Online video clip. YouTube. 3 Sep, 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.


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