From the Food of the Gods to the Food of the People: How Chocolate Became Democratized

Referring to chocolate, the Italian conquistador Girolamo Benzoni wrote that it “seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity” (Coe and Coe 110). Given this statement, it seems incredible that today in much of the world, we have come to know chocolate as a sweet, decadent luxury food. Much of chocolate’s transformation – from a bitter drink reserved for elites to a sweet, inexpensive candy – has to do with changes that occurred in Europe beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing through the Industrial Revolution. Colonialism, along with the advent of plantation agriculture and industrial technology, all functioned to alter the perceptions and attitudes surrounding chocolate in Europe and the New World, democratizing it, until it eventually became the mass-produced food that so many people know and love today.

Chocolate, the solid food that it is most commonly known today, comes from the fruit of the cacao tree. In ancient Mesoamerica, the cacao tree was sacred; images of cacao trees are linked to gods and the afterlife in Aztec and Maya religions (Leissle). This religious association is what led Linnaeus to give cacao the genus name Theobroma, which translates to “food of the gods” (Leissle). Archeological evidence also suggests that cacao was made as a drink primarily for Aztec and Maya elites. After Spanish conquistadors arrived in Central America and became accustomed to cacao, the association between cacao consumption and elites was transferred to Europe. The Spanish were the first to introduce cacao to Europe in 1544, when Dominican friars brought a Kekchi Maya delegation to meet Prince Philip of Spain, and they brought cacao with them (Coe and Coe). Soon after, consumption of chocolate drinks, inspired by Mesoamerican recipes, became popular in European royal courts. As chocolate’s popularity grew in Europe, its association with aristocracy was solidified. For example, it became a potent status symbol for French nobility to own a silver chocolatière, or chocolate pot, as seen in the image below. In Baroque France, distinctive silver pieces such as this one signified that the owner was of a high enough social class to be able to purchase cacao and enjoy chocolate drinks on a regular basis.

Image of a traditional French chocolatière. From: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/196366

As European nations colonized the Caribbean and Central and South America, the resulting increase in agricultural production through slave labor allowed chocolate’s popularity to grow even further as it became increasingly accessible to working-class people. The establishment of New World cacao plantations and using the labor of African slaves allowed European powers to control the production of cacao and import it at lower costs (Martin and Sampeck). Additionally, transatlantic triangular trade allowed cacao to be transported to West Africa and Indonesia, where it was also cultivated for European consumption, with West Africa, specifically Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, becoming the primary production center of cacao after the abolition of slavery (Martin and Sampeck; Leissle). Thus, under colonial influence, cacao production was able to expand to meet the growing demand for chocolate among the upper classes.

This increasing desire for chocolate was reinforced by the massive growth of the sugar industry at the same time and by the same means of production (Mintz). However, it was not until the rise of capitalistic economies and increasing industrialization that sugar and chocolate consumption really increased dramatically in Europe (Coe and Coe). Until the Industrial Revolution, chocolate was primarily consumed as a drink; a number of industrial processes were important for transforming chocolate into solid food. For example, the process for manufacturing Dutch process cocoa powder involved a more efficient method of separating cocoa butter from cocoa powder, which allowed the powder to mix more easily with water (Coe and Coe). Using this technology, the Fry company was able to create a recipe for the first true chocolate bars, involving cocoa powder, sugar, and melted cocoa butter. From then on, chocolate was on its way to being considered primarily as a relatively inexpensive food, especially as the number and size of chocolate companies grew and other technological innovations emerged for creating desirable and marketable chocolate confections.

Demand for eating chocolate and cultivation of cacao in West Africa mutually reinforced each other’s growth, which incentivized large chocolate companies to create more efficient and cost-effective manufacturing techniques. One such company is Hershey’s, an American-based enterprise which is responsible for creating a recipe for milk chocolate that could be mass produced faster and cheaper by using liquid condensed milk rather than powdered milk as European companies did (D’Antonio). The image below, from a booklet produced by Hershey’s, showcases an additional aspect that contributed to their manufacturing success: their factory. The photos of the interior of the factory underscore the massive scale of their operations, and this indicates that chocolate production had become fully mechanized at this point in time – a far cry from the small-scale production of chocolate by hand in ancient Mesoamerica.

Pages from The Hershey Corporation’s “The Story of Chocolate and Cocoa”. From: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/18558585

The printing of this pamphlet also highlights not only that Hershey’s was committed to utilizing the most current manufacturing technology, but also that large companies’ success depended a large part upon public opinion of their operations. As chocolate became increasingly affordable and available to people in Europe and America, companies needed to compete for customer loyalty within the capitalist market. Advertising was and remains crucial for companies to target specific consumers and persuade them to buy their product instead of a similar product from another company. Ads such as the one for Fry’s chocolate below often associated chocolate with images of innocence and the desire for sweetness. The customer buying the chocolate is a young girl, which associates childhood, innocence, and femininity with chocolate and sweetness. The children outside are all gazing longingly at the chocolate, too, which suggests that Fry’s chocolate is something that everyone wants to enjoy. Most importantly, the Fry name is written all over the ad, so that everyone who views the ad remembers the name.

Fry's Chocolates
Fry’s Chocolate advertisement. From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/muohio_digital_collections/3092807797/

Advertising helped chocolate companies become household names, and led to chocolate brands developing recognizable, signature tastes. Thus, chocolate was completely transformed into a commodity for all people to enjoy. None of chocolate’s evolution to this status as an industrialized, highly processed, and popular food would have been possible without the increases in production of cacao and sugar as a result of colonialism and plantation slavery, as well as technological improvements during the Industrial Revolution. All of these changes allowed chocolate’s price to drop significantly, and it also led to chocolate’s shift from drink to solid food. So, when we eat a chocolate bar, we can credit its existence to the changes in production and consumption that corresponded to industrialization and globalization in the past few hundred years.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

D’Antonio, Michael D. “Here There Will Be No Unhappiness.” Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 106–26.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

Multimedia Sources:

Collections, Miami University Libraries-Digital. Fry’s Chocolates. 8 Dec. 2008. Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/muohio_digital_collections/3092807797/. Accessed 14 Mar. 2019.

Hershey Chocolate Corporation. The Story of Chocolate and Cocoa Booklet. 1926. National Archives at Philadelphia (RE-PA), US National Archives Research Catalog, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/18558585. Accessed 14 Mar. 2019.

“Pierre Vallières | Chocolate Pot | French, Paris | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/196366. Accessed 14 Mar. 2019.

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