Chocolate: From Sheep Droppings to American Staple

Chocolate is arguably the most versatile candy in the United States. From cakes to brownies to fondues, Americans consume chocolate in a multitude of ways. Not only is chocolate extremely versatile, it is one of the most popular forms of candy in America. According to internal sales data examined by candystore.com, last year almost half (eleven to be exact) of the top 25 candies sold on Halloween in the United States were some form of chocolate. (Daily Meal 2018) However, this wasn’t always the case. English-speaking Europeans weren’t very impressed by cocoa beans upon first meeting. In fact, the first English and Dutch sailors to discover cocoa beans on a Spanish treasure ship threw them overboard, confusing the beans with sheep droppings. (Cadbury) So how did chocolate make the transition from sheep droppings to a staple American delicacy that is easily available to anyone? Let’s take a look at its long journey.

Cocoa beans are home to Central and South America, and is speculated to have been a central part of Olmec culture since as far back as 1500 B.C.. (History 2018) The Olmecs passed their knowledge of chocolate on to the Mayans, who primarily used it in drinks to make something most similar to what we know today as hot chocolate. Although cocoa was a central part of Mayan culture, it was available to pretty much everyone in society. The rich and the poor were able to enjoy hot chocolate as a delicacy. However, the Aztecs saw chocolate in a completely different light. To them chocolate was a gift from their gods and was only available to the lower class at celebrations like weddings. Because it came from the gods, chocolate was believed to have divine properties and was used in the most Sacred rituals in Aztec society such as birth, death, marriage and sacrifice. Chocolate was regarded so highly in the culture that Aztec ruler Montezuma II drank gallons of chocolate a day as an energy boost and an aphrodisiac, and also kept cocoa beans reserved for the military should they ever go to war. In Aztec culture, cocoa beans were more valuable than gold, and it is speculated that many European countries were first introduced to chocolate by the Aztecs.

There are differing stories about how and when chocolate first arrived in Europe, however most agree that chocolate arrived in Spain first. The Spanish took the Mayan recipe and added some of their own spices like cinnamon and cane sugar. Soon after arrival, hot chocolate became a popular commodity, and by 1585, Spain was importing chocolate into its ports.  As its popularity continued to soar in Spain, simultaneously other European countries were visiting parts of Central America and bringing cocoa beans back to their individual countries. By the 17th century, chocolate was a popular drink throughout much of Europe, though it was reserved for the upper class. Similar to the Mayans and Aztecs, Europeans believed chocolate had medicinal, nutritional and even aphrodisiac properties. Chocolate would remain exclusive to the upper-class until the late 1700s when the steam engine made mass production possible. As imperialism spread to the Americas, chocolate went with it. Chocolate arrived in the British colony Florida in the late 1690s and by 1773 it was available to all people in the American colonies. Like the Aztecs, Americans believed that chocolate was beneficial in war, and thus soldiers were rationed chocolate in the Revolutionary War. In fact, chocolate was so highly regarded, that it was often given to soldiers instead of actual wages.

There were a number of different factors that led to chocolate being able to be mass-produced at an affordable price, and in the different forms that we are familiar with today.  First and foremost, Imperialism played a major role in the spread of chocolate. As European countries attempted to conquer the Americas and spread their influence across the world, they came in contact with chocolate. Some historians believe that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was the first to  discover chocolate when the Aztecs mistook him for a deity and welcomed him with a big feast where they served him large amounts of chocolate. (History 2018) This allowed him to bring the beans back to Spain, and aid in the spread of chocolate across Europe. A major breakthrough occurred in 1828 when a Dutch chemist discovered a way to make chocolate powder. (Fiegl 2008) His discovery paved the way for solid chocolate and the many different forms of chocolate that we are familiar with today. Later in the 1800s companies in Europe and America began making and selling different forms of chocolate candies. For the first time, chocolate became available to consume in different forms to everyone in society.  Another breakthrough, and perhaps most important was the creation of the steam engine. Before the steam engine, the process of creating chocolate was still very remedia, and hadn’t improved much from the formula used by the Aztecs. Before the introduction of the steam engine, grinding cacao beans into chocolate was a grueling process done by hand. It was inefficient to say the least. However, the steam engine allowed chocolate makers to make much larger quantities of chocolate. Joseph Storrs Fry was the first to buy a steam engine for chocolate production, and his success inspired others to do the same. (Coe and Coe 2013) As more people began streamlining their chocolate process, the price of chocolate also fell, which allowed all classes of people to enjoy it.  

Works Cited:

The Daily Meal, 2018. The 25 Most Popular Halloween Candies in America. https://www.thedailymeal.com/holidays/most-popular-halloween-candies-america-gallery

History.com, 2018. History of Chocolate.

https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/history-of-chocolate

Fiegl, A., 2008. A Brief History of Chocolate

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/?no-ist

Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D., 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London. Image Citations:

Mostafa, H., 2016., Chocolate And Children’s Teeth And Gums https://www.gumsaver.co.uk/chocolate-and-childrens-teeth-and-gums/

World Kids, 2017., A Sweet (and not so sweet) History  

https://kids.wng.org/node/2055

Johns, A., Spych, B., Kompler, C., Caruthers, D., Caruthers, D., & Green, R. (n.d.). James Watts Steam Engine, 2018. 18th Century Canvas Print https://fineartamerica.com/featured/james-watts-steam-engine-18th-century-dave-king–dorling-kindersley–science-museum-london.html?product=canvas-print

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