When Europeans brought chocolate from Mesoamerica to Europe they reconstructed the customs and beliefs around it to fit Europeans’ cultural framework, needs, and interests. However, this adoption and cooptation of chocolate did not look the same across and within Europe either. In England, chocolate took on a unique and distinct role in society, culture, and politics due to the English chocolate-house.
Though cacao and chocolate had been known to Europeans since the 16th century, chocolate drink did not become available to the English until the mid 17th century (Coe 161). Chocolate was embraced by the English soon after they began to indulge in coffee and tea (Coe 163). Chocolate drink joined coffee and tea in “one of the greatest English institutions,” the coffee-house (Coe 167). These coffee or chocolate-houses reflect the unique cultural role chocolate took on in England.
Compared to the cultural placementof chocolate in Spain and France, where it was primarily seen as an indulgence for the aristocracy, in England chocolate took on a different social significance. England’s economy was built on private businesses and individual shops, unlike France’s state centralized and monopolized economy (Coe 166). Therefore, in England, rather than a product confined to the most elite social realm, chocolate became available in a more public domain for those who could afford to indulge. Because of this, chocolate drink itself took on a different form in England. Instead of the lavishly prepared drink of the European aristocracy, English chocolate had to be affordable and practically accessible to the working public, who had fewer resources and less time to engage in chocolate consumption than the elite of France and Spain (Coe 169).
In English chocolate-houses, the recipe for the drink looked different than it had in Spain. According to physician Henry Stubbe, English chocolate drinkers liked milk and eggs in their chocolate, as opposed to the Spanish (and originally Mesoamerican) method of mixing chocolata and water to make the drink (Loveman). Though the Spanish and the English both added sugar. Scholar Kate Loveman argues that, although this recipe adjustment may have been to cater to the taste preferences of the English, it was also a means of making chocolate a more cost effective and affordable indulgence. Thereby, allowing chocolate-houses to serve a wider range of customers, at least in their earlier iterations.
Early chocolate and coffee houses were accessible to more of the English population, especially if they chose to drink coffee during their visit instead of the more expensive chocolate. Yet, Chocolate houses did not have a static position in English society. Though they began as reasonably accessible to the public, in a period of growing contentious political upheaval, they also began to take on a different identity as a space for a political and social elite (Cocking). This shift corresponded to a more luxurious chocolate product, for which this more elite class of patrons were willing to pay. This shifted these establishments into a place of leisure exclusively for the elite (Loveman). The growing elitism of these coffee-houses and the decadent chocolate they offered also corresponded to their growing role as a sight of political importance.
Chocolate houses were not only social but also political institutions. In 1675, Charles II created a “Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses,” in response to the concern that the emerging anti-Stuart Whig party was using these houses as places to spread gossip and, therefore, of damaging political libel (Coe 168). Yet because of the cultural centrality and importance of these institutions, the English public had no interest in complying with Charles II’s proclamation and it was eventually forgotten.
The chocolate-house as a sight of chocolate drinking in England also created a distinct gendered relationship to chocolate. Whereas in its Mesoamerican origins chocolate did not have a clear male or female orientation and association, among Europeans, chocolate became highly feminized (Martin 46). Chocolate was considered to have a particular effect on women; in positive ways on their fertility (reflecting some link to its Mesoamerican cultural association); and in possibly dangerous ways on their emotional state. Yet the coffee-house presented a different gendered association. These institutions primarily catered to men. Though “respectable ladies” could visit these houses, they were predominantly male establishments (Loveman). This linked this form of chocolate drinking to an elite group of male patrons, and connected chocolate to this politically and socially powerful population.
While chocolate took many forms over the course of its journey to and adaptation in Europe. The English chocolate house is one of many instances of chocolate instilling and perpetuating cultural and social trends. As an indulgence marketed partially to the public as a new exotic social treat, then curated as a luxury for the increasingly wealthy and powerful, chocolate in English chocolate houses fueled English society and politics in the 17th and 18th century.
Keywords: chocolate, coffee-house, England, politics,
Cocking, Lauren. “The Rambunctious, Elitist Chocolate Houses of 18th-Century London.” Atlas Obscura, 28 Nov. 2018, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/history-of-gentlemens-clubs.
Coe, Sophie D. (Sophie Dobzhansky). The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Loveman, Kate. “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730.” Journal of Social History, vol. 47, no. 1, Sept. 2013, pp. 27–46. academic-oup-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu, doi:10.1093/jsh/sht050.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60. Crossref, doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.