Popularizing Chocolate:

How British Coffeehouses Paved the Way for Chocolate Among the Masses

 Chocolate consumption used to be practiced exclusively among the upper echelons of society in the 18th Century. Today, you can make yourself a cup of hot chocolate by adding a spoonful of cocoa powder to some hot milk or water. How did we get from chocolate being  reserved for the wealthy to a product ready-made for consumption among the masses? The rise in popularity of chocolate during the Industrial Revolution is largely credited to technological advancements that enabled a more streamlined process of making chocolate. However, the chocolate boom was not just a result of improved technological advancements but a continuation of an already established practice of making chocolate available to those who could afford it in Great Britain. This is not to say that chocolate wasn’t expensive prior to the Industrial Revolution- it was definitely expensive- but rather than chocolate being served in aristocratic homes in France, coffee houses that were open to all men made much of the sales of chocolate in Great Britain (Coe, 2013, 166). The “democratization of chocolate” was already in motion, facilitated by a culmination of technological advancements during the Industrial Revolution and purposeful marketing shift gear toward the working class that built on established social practices surrounding chocolate in Great Britain. Thus, the classism that chocolate represented in countries such as France or Spain did not inhibit or slow the chocolate boom in Great Britain.

Interior of a London Coffee House c. 1700
The British Museum

Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe argued that the fall of the aristocracy and the waning power of the Catholic Church significantly contributed to the chocolate boom in The True History of Chocolate, but from where the chocolate boom spread is as fundamental as to where it spread (2013, 232). While the landed gentry as well as chocolate pots made almost entirely of silver existed in Great Britain, their power was limited through their constitutional monarchy. Furthermore, the Interregnum and the Glorious Revolution reinforced the limitations of the power of the monarchy and the aristocracy over the people’s will. These obstacles for absolutism and chocolate’s more neutral symbolism, albeit expensive, made producing and marketing chocolate much less of a loaded venture in Great Britain. Chocolate, like sugar, was better able to transform from a symbol of status to a product regarded for its taste and energy in Great Britain (Carla D. Martin, lecture, February 20, 2019; Mintz, 1985, 152). Thus, the fact that the Industrial Revolution originated in Great Britain enabled a faster transition that popularized chocolate to a broader population.

Hot Chocolate consumption in Versailles under King Louis XIV

In contrast, the absolutism and decadence of Louis XIV as well as the aristocracy’s intentional isolation from the rest of the French population created an entrenched system that laid the foundations for the French Revolution. William G. Clarence-Smith cites that many philosophes in salons “defiantly drank coffee” due to chocolate’s supposed connection to the monarchy and the aristocracy (2016, 47). However, he also suggests that it did not always reflect the reality, as some towns such as Bayonne had normalized daily chocolate consumption and Queen Marie Antoinette reportedly liked coffee just as much as chocolate (Clarence-Smith, 2016, 47). Nevertheless, the perception of chocolate as a commodity for the aristocracy that stemmed from King Louis XIV’s reign and his love for chocolate played a pervasive role in slowing the democratization of chocolate. Just as fashion in France was dictated by political affiliation during the French Revolution, the connection of chocolate to the aristocracy made chocolate consumption a divisive issue. Therefore, popularization of chocolate among the masses was only possible after the restoration of the monarchy in 1815 after the Congress of Vienna (Coe, 2013, 243).

Great Britain’s winning recipe of technological progress during the Industrial Revolution combined with chocolate’s neutral symbolism helped pave the way for the rising popularity of chocolate among the masses. Part of this was a result of the realization that with these cost-cutting techniques and innovations, marketing these products to the masses was significantly more profitable than catering to the elite (Carla Martin, lecture, February 20, 2019). Coe and Coe also noted that as innovations enabled the creation of “eating chocolate” such as bars, older forms of chocolate such as cocoa powder became more and more affordable for the masses (Coe, 2013, 241). The attention paid by companies such as Fry and Cadbury to the potential profitability of selling to the masses was instrumental, but it also spoke to the feasibility of this feat that stemmed from the fact that chocolate was not simply just for the elite in Great Britain. Its availability in coffee-houses already hinted at a market for chocolate among the masses that companies could build upon during the Industrial Revolution.

While the decrease of power and influence of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church did play a role in the popularization of chocolate in France and other countries in continental Europe, Great Britain’s government and coffeehouses laid the foundations for an environment that supported marketing and selling chocolate to the masses. While innovations were certainly occurring in Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands, the British were integral to the rise of chocolate among the masses. The societal norms surrounding chocolate facilitated an easier transition in selling and marketing chocolate to a broader audience without the prejudice and obstacles of other European countries.

Bibliography

“Cadbury’s Cocoa Advertisement.” Antique Adverts. Accessed March 7, 2019. http://www.antiqueadverts.com/catalog/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=58

Clarence-Smith, William G. “Chocolate Consumption from the Sixteenth Century to the Great Chocolate Boom” in Squicciarini, Mara P., and Johan Swinnen. The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford: Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2016.

Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

“Interior of a London Coffee-house.” The British Museum. Accessed March 6, 2019. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=290256001&objectid=752544

“La famille du Duc de Penthièvre dit la tasse de chocolat.” Wikimedia Commons. Accessed March 14, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_famille_du_Duc_de_Penthi%C3%A8vre_dit_la_tasse_de_chocolat.jpg

Martin, Carla D. “Week 4: Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture. February 20, 2019.

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

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