DEMOCRATIZING CACAO INTO THE AMERICAN HOUSEHOLD

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Nestle’s 2012 advertisement emphasizes chocolate’s special place in the heart of the American home. Using cookies, the commercial weaves the ingredient into several nostalgic narratives—the college homecoming, grandma’s pride after a soccer game victory, and an afternoon with mom. Whether it be in candy bars, brownies, or cake, chocolate has a strong hold in the American identity and its classic recipes. But, if we know that chocolate originally belonged to the Mesoamericans, how did it become so incorporated with our own household pantries? We can better understand how this happened by briefly looking at the production and consumption side of cacao in relation to its sister good: sugar.

Chocolate for the Elites

While Americans today can buy convenience store chocolate for change in their pockets, early consumption of cacao was largely reserved to the upper classes. Predating to the Aztecs, cacao was taken as a frothy drink and used in fertility and sacrificial rituals, to fortify warriors, and to mark status.[1] As currency and tribute, workers would offer the drinks to lords visiting the cacao orchards. The nobility used cacao beans as currency, and so consuming them was a show of luxury and power. Later, the Aztec political tribute system surrounding cacao cultivation was extended by the Spanish to help subjugate the native population after 1521. Through this, chocolate continued to be recognized as a manifestation of political power. This association traveled with the beans sent back to Spain.

Chocolate’s high value bounced across Europe and remained an indulgence for royalty and nobility there. While originally sought by the Spanish as a form of medicine or nutritional supplement, chocolate drinks quickly became symbols of decadence. For the Mesoamericans, cacao drinks were more savory than what we are used to today, accenting them with achiote, vanilla, and ear flower. Although they did sweeten their chocolate with honey and fruits, “the Maya and Aztecs” had nothing approaching the European sweet tooth” that was looming in the future.[2]

Cacao and Sugar

There was a similar but distinct parallel in consumption between cacao and sugar. Similar to how chocolate was reserved for the rich, sugar was also scarce. First used as a spice, medicine, and sweetener, cane sugar was used in small amounts for the royal court around the 12th century.[1] As time passed, the royal court increasingly demanded more and more sugar as sweeteners and decorative pieces to entertain their guests. Coinciding but separate demand for chocolate and sugar by the privileged became supported by plantation work in colonies abroad, and the British colonies in America gradually became exposed to both foods. Chocolate first arrived in the British American colonies around 1670 and spread throughout New England’s wealthy just as it had done in Europe.[2] Consumption gradually rose, and America’s own chocolate industry was born from the strained “relationships with the British colonial government.”[3] With the Industrial Revolution, new technologies helped improve the efficiency of production of both goods, making them cheaper and more accessible by the public. In return, as the public’s appetite grew, larger amounts of the raw materials were grown. Cacao plantations relied even more “heavily on the slave labor prevalent throughout the European colonies, which kept prices down.”[4] 

Innovation and proliferation of sugar and chocolate merged in the American diet via the rise of chocolate giants. Hershey started “producing milk chocolate bars en masse in 1893 with German machinery purchased at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.”[5] Mars created chocolate bars in the 1920s with nuts and nougat. Both are examples of companies who remained competitive by making products with less cacao solids and cheaper ingredients, such as sugar. Mass-market chocolate came to dominate by playing on tastes for sugar and fat, despite pure dark chocolate being costlier and more valuable.  Here, while having traveled similar historical paths, chocolate and sugar crossed each other and became inextricably linked. More efficient production of both aided its adoption into an existing social structure associating female homemakers with sweetness.

Entering the Realm of the Homemaker

A 1905 advertisement for Peter’s Original Swiss Milk Chocolate

The American home was influenced by a division of labor inherited from the United Kingdom. In England, the late 19th century saw a decline in bread consumption and increase in meat and sugar consumption. [1] During this period, the man tended to be the breadwinner and therefore meat was reserved for him to provide him the energy to carry out manual work. In contrast, women and children would eat meat once or twice a week, and so their caloric intake was supplemented with sugar.[2] It is this relationship between sugar and women that would likely grease the wheels for incorporation of chocolate into the American diet. The 1905 advertisement above[3] draws on historic ideas of health. As mentioned before, cacao’s high fat content and concentration of iron, magnesium, potassium, and other minerals was recognized as far back as Spanish conquest and the Mesoamericans. Sugar was given to children as an energy boost. For these two reasons, mothers might be more inclined to buy it for their children as it was “as wholesome as bread and butter.”


A 1904 advertisement for Royal Chocolate, found on in the
The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics

Furthermore, incorporation of chocolate in homemade desserts was sustained by the rise of home economics. This movement placed the mother as responsible for running her household like a business. Eleanor Lucas writes in Practical Ideas for the Housewife that women are “the torch-bearers” for the “lamp of love and the lamp of science” that “should burn in every home.”[1] She asserts that household economics “is no petty effort to make the home prettier and the food more palatable, but a movement to safeguard the integrity of the home.”[2] A common belief was that the costly living expenses of the working classes were the result of “badly selected items of the daily regimen, of wasteful methods of preparation, of un-thrifty and hand-to-mouth methods of buying.” As such “housekeeping and cooking educators partnered with industry in the name of ‘domestic science.’”[3] Guides such as The Boston Cooking-School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, gave homemakers household tips and recipes that increasingly incorporated the use of chocolate into desserts. These recipes included chocolate and cocoa, chocolate blanc mange, chocolate blanc mange with corn starch, chocolate icing, and chocolate pie with meringue.[4] These cookbooks also contained advertisements like the one above for cocoa powder that appealed to the desire to be efficient and economical.[5] In sum, it was a series of coinciding and often shared forces between chocolate and sugar that allowed both to be so prevalent today.

Works Cited

Alberts, Heike C., and Julie L. Cidell. “Chocolate Consumption Manufacturing and Quality in Western Europe the United States.” Geography 91, no. 3 (n.d.): 218–226.

“Brownies.” US History Scene (blog). Accessed March 16, 2019. http://ushistoryscene.com/article/brownies/.

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

Hill, Janet McKenzie. The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics. Boston Cooking-School Magazine, 1904.

Lucas, Eleanor. “Practical Ideas for the Housewife.” The Designer and the Woman’s Magazine XXVI, no. 5 (n.d.): 449.

Mintz, Sidney W. (Sidney Wilfred). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 1985. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:EBSCO_9781101666647.

“Nestle TV Commercial For Chocolate Chip Cookies.” iSpot.tv. Accessed March 16, 2019. http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7kif/nestle-chocolate-chip-cookies.

Period Paper. “1905 Ad Lamont Corliss Co Milk-Chocolate Cookies Child Food Products New EM2.” Period Paper. Accessed March 16, 2019. https://www.periodpaper.com/products/1905-ad-lamont-corliss-co-milk-chocolate-cookies-child-food-products-new-york-104294-em2-572.

Direct Citations


[1] Lucas, “Practical Ideas for the Housewife.”

[2] Lucas.

[3] “Brownies.”

[4] Hill, The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, iii.

[5] Hill, xxiv.


[1] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 144.

[2] Mintz, 146.

[3] Period Paper, “1905 Ad Lamont Corliss Co Milk-Chocolate Cookies Child Food Products New EM2.”


[1] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 83.

[2] “Brownies.”

[3] “Brownies.”

[4] “Brownies.”

[5] Alberts and Cidell, “Chocolate Consumption Manufacturing and Quality in Western Europe the United States,” 224.


[1] Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 95.

[2] Coe, 112.

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