The Advent of Conspicuous Consumption: Chocolate as Status Symbol in European Bourgeois Society

Before the nineteenth century, chocolate in Europe had only been available to the aristocratic classes and royal courts. In eighteenth-century Europe, during the Age of Enlightenment, the drink associated with the poor classes was alcohol and the drink of the small but growing bourgeois class was coffee: chocolate became stereotypically aristocratic during this period. Coffee was associated with bourgeois work while chocolate was associated with aristocratic leisure activities: coffee “gave to the mind what it took from the body, while chocolate was thought to do the reverse” (Coe 200). Chocolate was enjoyed by all classes in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations we have studied in this class, yet the consumption of chocolate was remarkably exclusive to the highest class in Europe. This is demonstrated by the presence of chocolate in royal family portraits such as 1762 portrait of Maria Theresa and her family, including daughter Marie Antoinette, celebrating Saint Nicholas. A large silver chocolatière and two cups are central to the portrait, seen on the breakfast table.

Fig. 1. 1762 Portrait of Maria Theresa and Family in Vienna

Marie Antoinette brought her love of chocolate from Vienna to the French court when she married Louis XVI. While Marie Antoinette was very abstemious and only consumed a small amount of chocolate at breakfast, her influence made chocolate into a craft within the French noble court (Coe 219). Chocolate has become part of the mythology of decadence that brought upon the deluge of the French aristocracy. The Versailles website features an article on “Hot Chocolate in Versailles,” which recounts how Marie-Antoinette brought her own personal chocolate-maker from Vienna to the court of France: http://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/key-dates/hot-chocolate-versailles. This chocolate-maker was seen as a skilled craftsman, sometimes even combining chocolate with Orange blossoms or sweet almonds.

Chocolate is again revealed to be a status symbol for eighteenth-century European nobility in a 1768 portrait of Princesse de Lamballe and her family drinking chocolate, titled La Tasse de Chocolat. Chocolate is depicted in paintings as the stereotypical drink of the French aristocratic class, establishing the identity of the Lamballe family as refined and noble. However, it is important to note that chocolate in France during this period also became elaborate in its uses besides the way it is portrayed in historic paintings as a beverage. Chocolate biscuits, pastilles, mousse, conserve, marzipan, creams, truffle-like delicacies, chocolate sugared almonds, and chocolate wafers were also innovated during the pre-revolution period in France. These types of chocolate items are still what make up the luxury chocolate industry today, as France has become the capital of luxury products.

Fig. 2. Princesse de Lamballe in 1768 Portrait, La Tasse de Chocolat

The strong association of chocolate in Europe with luxury and aristocracy during the nineteenth century became essential to its importance among the rising bourgeois. Nineteenth-century Europe saw a transformation in attitudes towards consumption, which became a way the bourgeois could establish themselves as part of the leisure class and gain social influence. As revealed in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, chocolate began to be consumed by the bourgeois during this period who sought a higher status, as Charles’ first wife, a bourgeois lady, “had to have her cup of chocolate every morning” (Flaubert 11). You further see it in advertisements on nineteenth-century theater cards targeted towards a bourgeois audience such as those for producer of chocolates, Chocolat Debauve & Gallais.

Fig. 3. Advertisement for Chocolat Debauve & Gallais

This is because the bourgeois had begun to partake in what economist Thorstein Vleben would term ‘conspicuous consumption’ at the end of the nineteenth century in his work, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Vleben articulates how consumption had become a tool to differentiate the leisure class from the working class, and how the working bourgeois male used goods and the leisured status of his wife to elevate himself in society. Since chocolate had already been established as a luxury good of the royal courts, it had great significance and popularity amongst the bourgeois partaking in conspicuous consumption. Debauve & Gallais, the producer of chocolates that created the above advertisement, initially created chocolates for the court of Marie Antoinette alone. Once the manufacturing guilds of the ancient regime became obsolete and the economy was transformed by the second industrial revolution and rising bourgeois, such historic chocolate makers started producing for a broader audience. However, Debauve & Gallais among others still advertise their products as part of an ancient aristocratic tradition. Debauve & Gallais is still famous for its chocolate coins, “first developed for Queen Marie Antoinette in order to ease her distaste for taking medicines” as stated on the website: https://www.debauveandgallais.com/.

Conspicuous consumption gave rise to the association of chocolate with luxury and widespread consumption of chocolate in Europe and the US that we see today. The popularity of chocolate in European bourgeois society was dependent on its association with an aristocratic past, since European bourgeois society sought a higher status. Chocolate is still understood as a treat or extravagance in the modern West, which contrasts the original nutritional or ritualistic uses by the Mayans and Aztecs.

Works Cited

Vleben, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. London: MacMillan & Co, 1899.

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

Flaubert, Gustave, et al. Madame Bovary : Contexts, Critical Reception. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton, 2005.

Fredric Woodbridge Wilson Collection of Theater, Dance Music. French Advertising Trade Cards, 1882 and Undated, 1882.

“Hot Chocolate in Versailles.” Chateau de Versailles. Online. Last accessed May 17, 2020.

“Queen Marie Antoinette Pistole Sampler.” Debauve & Gallais. Online. Last accessed May 17, 2020.

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