Imagine if only the Wall Streeters, movie stars, or world leaders were able to enjoy chocolate. Imagine that they all had access to special “clubhouses” where they would talk to each other while consuming chocolate. Such a scene seems ridiculous in a world where one can buy a 5-lb Hershey’s chocolate bar for less than $20. Yet the exclusivity of chocolate in the times before its mass production was a reality especially prominent in 17th century England. The wealthy members of society did indeed frequent chocolate houses—a counterpart to coffee houses of the same time—to interact with each other using the social lubricant called chocolate. Although modern society would likely condemn chocolate houses as elitist or discriminatory in nature, chocolate houses played a crucial part in defining chocolate’s social association with pleasure and paving the path for the commercialization of chocolate.
Chocolate initially faced many obstacles in gaining popularity among the British. According to Dr. Matthew Green, “chocolate was an alien, suspect substance drunk associated with popery and idleness (i.e. France and Spain).” (Green) In addition to the underlying British disdain for French and Spanish products, England already possessed a commodity culture revolving around coffee. (Ibid) When chocolate was first introduced to mid-1500s Spain as the drink chocolatl, it entered the Spanish commodity market as the primary non-alcoholic beverage of the time, with little competition. (Off 30) In contrast, 17th century England had coffee houses, which had spread coffee before the arrival of chocolate. (Green) As a result, chocolate in England needed to overcome the customer base of coffee in order to succeed. All of these circumstances pointed to the same conclusion: a demand for chocolate had to be created.
Chocolate houses established a customer base by advertising chocolate as a kind of miracle food. A Spanish doctor named Antonio Ledesma recorded that “[chocolate will] make old women young and fresh, Create new motions of the flesh. And cause them long for you know what, If they but taste of chocolate.” (Ledesma 6) A British scholar named James Wadsworth translated Ledesma’s writing to be used in the quest to make chocolate appealing. In addition, a Member of Parliament named Samuel Pepys shared that chocolate was “used to settle my stomach…my head being in a sad state taking through the last night’s drink.” (Barber 55) Finally, physician Henry Stubbe recorded the use of cacao as an aphrodisiac, and to be used “if one is tired through business and wants speedy refreshment.” (Stubbe 3) While this “evidence” was closer to propaganda than known fact, it succeeded in attracting a considerable audience. Chocolate became known as the item to have, making chocolate houses the places to be.
The rise of chocolate houses inspired some of the earliest associations of chocolate with pleasure, further increasing its desirability. It is important to note that chocolate houses were not the only places to purchase and consume chocolate. Pre-existing coffee houses offered chocolate for purchase as well. Furthermore, a coffee house was just as much a place to get involved with the talk of the town, meet acquaintances, or read the news as a chocolate house. (Coe 168) The primary element that separated the two establishments was the presence of pleasure in chocolate houses. One of the most prominent chocolate houses in late 17th and early 18th century England was White’s, established in 1693. (Grivetti 584) White’s, also known under the name “Mrs. White’s Chocolate House,” and quickly became known as a place for “all accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment”—food, gambling, and theater to name but a few. (Wheatley 492) People maintained a level of social decorum at coffee houses, but at chocolate houses raffish behavior was permitted, even encouraged. (Ibid) The link between chocolate and leisurely activities at chocolate houses such as White’s contributed to the growing enjoyment of chocolate, and can be considered the start of its modern affiliation with words such as “sinful” or “guilty pleasure.”
Top: A chocolate house in 17th century England
Bottom: A coffee house in 17th century England
Note the composed, more serious mood of the coffee house, and the frivolous, less formal mood of the chocolate house. The coffee house patrons are depicted with only slight or no smiles, while the chocolate house patrons are depicted with open smiles and informal postures. The social nature of coffee houses was no excuse to lose one’s manners or become overly relaxed, and discussions would focus on the more academic or political side. In contrast, social interactions in coffee houses lent themselves to gossip and informal conversation.
With chocolate consumption on the rise, there was an increased incentive to make chocolate more available. Chocolate houses had become so popular that their clientele far outmatched that of coffee houses and taverns. (Brenner 99) In response, cacao plantations were established in the West Indies, Jamaica, and even Venezuela. (Off 44) In 1732, a Frenchman named Monsieur Dubuisson invented a table mill designed to grind cacao, making chocolate production easier than before. (Ibid 47) A few decades later, Englishman Joseph Fry had kicked Dubuisson’s invention up a notch by employing a steam engine to grind cacao. (Ru 12) Chocolate was still far from being regularly available to the masses. However, the expansion of cacao groves and such inventions, combined with the development of chocolate-based recipes—designed to use only a little chocolate and a lot of accessible ingredients—marked a turning point where chocolate was no longer limited to the elite.
A 17th Century Hot Chocolate Recipe: Recipes like this one were focused on ingredients such as milk, water, and spices, so as to minimize the amount of chocolate needed to enjoy a chocolate beverage.
It seems odd to picture a time when chocolate was scarce, and even undesirable. But consider other in-demand items that experienced a major shift. Lobsters were once used as prison food, but are now widely consumed as a delicacy. The original iPod paled in comparison to the Sony Walkman, only to become a global brand over the past decade. Similarly, chocolate in England overcame not only prejudice against foreign products, but also the presence of other social foods such as coffee. That chocolate would not have become widespread without the advent of chocolate houses is unlikely. Considering its ubiquity today and the number of other countries that had access to cacao, chocolate would have found its way onto the global stage one way or another. However, by popularizing chocolate and inspiring the expansion of greater chocolate production, chocolate houses played a significant role in expediting the globalization of chocolate.
“17th-century hot chocolate recipe.” National Trust. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.
A chocolate house in 17th century England. Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. N.p., 18 July 2006. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.
A coffee house in 17th century England. Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. N.p., 6 August 2013. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.
Barber, Richard William. Samuel Pepys, esquire: secretary of the Admiralty to King Charles and King James the Second. Berkeley : University of California Press: n.p., 1970. Print.
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Ledesma, Antonio Colmenero de, and James Wadsworth. A curious treatise of the nature and quality of chocolate. Imprinted at London: By I. Okes, dwelling in Little St. Bartholomewes, 1640. Print.
“London’s Chocolate Houses.” Herb Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
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Stubbe, Henry. The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolata. London: Printed by J.C. for Andrew Crook, 1984. Print.
Wheatley, Henry Benjamin. London past and present: its history, associations, and traditions. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2011. Print.