Battle of Beans: Why Coffee Houses Flourished While Chocolate Houses Died Off

The middle of the 17th century marked the introduction of three caffeinated “exotic” beverages to England: coffee, tea, and chocolate. The first coffeehouse was founded in 1652 by Pasqua Rosée and quickly gained popularity among the British populace (Green, 2013). Five years later in 1657, the first tea house and the first chocolate house both opened (Knapp, 1920; Green, 2017). By the early 18th century, thousands of coffee, tea, and chocolate houses lined the streets of London (Green, 2013). Since then, coffee and tea houses have both flourished, while chocolate houses, despite a recent resurgence spurred by bean-to-bar chocolate makers, remain few and far between.

Although it is tempting to ascribe the decline in popularity of chocolate houses solely to industrial innovations that allowed for the mass production of solid chocolate, the Survey of London research project, which details the architectural history of London, shows that most major chocolate houses closed well before the first solid chocolate bar was produced in 1847 (Coe & Coe, 2013). The reasons for the decline in the number of chocolate houses before this date are threefold: (1) the cost of buying and making chocolate was significantly more than that of coffee or tea, (2) the associations of chocolate houses with idleness, decadence, and venery were often mocked by cartoonists and satirists, while coffee houses were associated with politics, news, and knowledge, and (3) the 1724 excise act banned the importation of finished chocolate product, allowing only the importation of cacao and increasing the labor cost of preparing chocolate within British homes. All three reasons led to the preference of tea and coffee beverages over that of chocolate beverages.

Although coffee, tea, and chocolate made their debut in London within five years of each other, chocolate quickly established its role as a luxury good. “Chocolate-drinking was more expensive; chocolate made less liquid per pound that tea or coffee; and chocolate was more complex to prepare than the other drinks,” (Loveman, 2013).

Cacao-grinder-in-journal-of-first-Earl-of-Sandwich
Chocolate Preparation in the 17th Century

In addition to chocolate houses, chocolate drinks were found in coffee houses, though their higher cost and the lower levels of caffeine made them less popular than coffee (Green, 2017). Although chocolate beverages in coffee and chocolate houses were out of the price range of most Brits, many were preparing the drinks for a lower cost by mixing cocoa paste or tablets with water in their own kitchens, but even this homemade chocolate was not as cost effective as coffee or tea (Loveman, 2013). The higher cost of chocolate compared to tea and coffee made it less available to the average Brit at the time, contributing to its role as a luxury good. This, in turn, fed into the belief that chocolate houses were social spaces of the idle rich.

While initially, coffee houses and chocolate houses both provided forums for political discussion, the high cost of chocolate and the concentration of chocolate houses around St. James’s Square led to them being bought almost exclusively by aristocrats (Green, 2017). Additionally, chocolate houses, including White’s and Chaves’s, often featured looking glasses as part of their decor, and by the end of the 17th century, much of the conversations here revolved around fashion, gambling, and love affairs, the latter of which both fueled and was fueled by beliefs in the aphrodisiac properties of chocolate (Loveman, 2013; Green, 2017). In contrast, conversations in coffee houses included topics in literature, politics, and revolution (Green, 2013). “Roger North felt the need to differentiate between the vices of the coffee-houses (irreligion, sedition, and treason) and those propagated by ‘a new Invention called Chocolate-Houses, for the Benefit of Rooks and Cullies of Quality, where Gaming is added to all the rest, and the Summons of Whores seldom fails; as if the Devil had erected a new University,’” (Loveman, 2013). This is exemplified in Richard Steele’s publication, The Tatler. Published three times a week under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, the magazine purported to obtain its contents from the first-hand accounts of reporters placed in White’s Chocolate house to collect gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment, Will’s Coffee House to gather poetry, The Grecian Coffee House to collect knowledge, and St. James’s Coffee House to gather foreign and domestic news (Aitken, 2004). The associations of chocolate houses with debauchery and coffee houses with more serious topics is also exemplified in the cartoons of the time. Below are two cartoons by Thomas Rowlandson, depicting a chocolate house and a coffee house.

chocolate-05
Chocolate House
coffee
Coffee House

The negative associations of chocolate houses and their increasing exclusivity quickened their decline and conversions to gentlemen’s clubs.

In 1724, the British government, hoping to increase chocolate manufacture within England, instituted an excise tax on chocolate “made or sold in Great Britain” and banned the importation of chocolate or cocoa paste (Loveman, 2013). By limiting imports to cacao nuts only, the British government increased the labor cost of producing chocolate to sell, which in turn lowered the incentive to sell chocolate in chocolate houses. The Survey of London research project notes that three of the most popular chocolate houses closed before the invention of the first chocolate bar. The Cocoa Tree had been converted into a gentlemen’s club sometime between 1752 and 1762, while White’s was converted to a gentlemen’s club as early as 1736 (“St. James’s Street”, 1960). The owner of Ozinda’s sold the coffee house to his brother in 1724, and the building was demolished in 1748 (“Pall Mall”, 1960).

Industrial innovations reduced the production cost of chocolate and allowed for the mass production of solid chocolate, but by this time, chocolate sales in England had already fallen to less than half of tea and coffee sales (Loveman, 2013). Chocolate beverages were still being prepared in homes, but marketing focused heavily on solid chocolate, leading to the rise in popularity of solid chocolate over liquid chocolate. Although the cost of chocolate was less of an issue after industrialization, the domination of solid chocolate on the market and the associations of chocolate as a luxury item precluded the resurgence of chocolate houses until recently with the bean-to-bar movement.

Works Cited:

Steele, R. (1709). The Tatler. Project Gutenberg, 1, ed. G. A. Aitken, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13645/13645-h/13645-h.htm

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson.

Green, M. (2013). The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse. The Public Domain Review, 7, 2013.

Green, M. (2017). How the decadence and depravity of London’s 18th century elite was fuelled by hot chocolate. The Telegraph. Retreived from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/surprising-history-of-london-chocolate-houses/

Knapp, A. W. (1920). Cocoa and chocolate: their history from plantation to consumer. Chapman and Hall, Limited.

Loveman, K. (2013). The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730. Journal of Social History, sht050.

Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power. New York: Viking.

“Pall Mall, South Side, Past Buildings: Ozinda’s Chocolate House”, in Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1, ed. F H W Sheppard (1960), p. 384. British History Online Retrieved from http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/p384

‘St. James’s Street, West Side, Past Buildings’, in Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1, ed. F H W Sheppard (1960), pp. 459-471. British History Online Retrieved from http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp459-471

Image Sources:

Image 1: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Cacao-grinder-in-journal-of-first-Earl-of-Sandwich.jpg

Image 2: http://andreapenrose.com/wp-content/uploads/chocolate-05.png

Image 3: http://imageweb-cdn.magnoliasoft.net/nmm/supersize/pw4936.jpg

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