When I asked a large internet population for words they associated with chocolate, they delivered a slew of responses: sweet, dark, craving, decadent, happiness, disgusting. Despite over 75 replies, only one included the mention of currency or money.
However, for hundreds of years currency was one of the primary uses for cacao beans, the staple from which chocolate is made. From trading cacao for farm animals, services, and street food to representing vast sums of wealth held by those in power, cacao beans were the primary medium of exchange in Mesoamerica—a system that prevailed for centuries after the first European colonizers moved to the Americas. While we certainly don’t use cacao beans directly as money anymore, this lesser-known use of cacao has persisted in society for centuries after the last cacao bean was used as coinage. Indeed, when we broaden our definition of currency, the monetary value of chocolate endures throughout the history of cacao in the post-Columbian world.
In ancient Mesoamerica, cacao held a place of utmost honor. In Aztec and Mayan societies, it had three main uses: as a drink, as a religious symbol, and as currency. In this essay, we will be focusing primarily on its use as a currency. As Sophie and Michael Coe state in their book, The True History of Chocolate, “Cacao beans were employed as ready cash and to buy small items used in housekeeping” (Coe & Coe, 59).
These beans were, literally, used as coins in a definite system of money.
So ingrained was the use of cacao beans as money, that there were people within these societies who became experts at making counterfeit cacao beans. Overall, this was a complex and well-defined system of currency using cacao beans, rather than metal, as legal tender. It is, in all regards, the first documented case of cacao as currency.
Before analyzing the use of cacao as currency in the modern world, we must also define exactly what currency is. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, currency is “something (such as coins, treasury notes, and banknotes) that is in circulation as a medium of exchange.” The use of cacao beans in Aztec and Mayan society fits this definition concretely. People used beans as coinage, and for each bean, there was a specific value attached. But in order to investigate the use of cacao as currency in our modern world, we must broaden our definition of currency past physical money. Instead, currency can be more generally defined as anything used transactionally as a medium of exchange.
With this definition in mind, we can now investigate how cacao was used transactionally in recent history. One prevalent case of chocolate as currency occurred not long after cacao was introduced to Europe. As goods increased their flow between Europe and the Americas, Spanish royalty began to serve chocolate as a drink to showcase an exotic good from their land overseas. This tradition quickly spread amongst other royal families in Italy, France, and Britain through marriage and other political and social interactions. Before long, chocolate became the European nobility’s most fashionable drink. In this way, the nobility of 17th century Europe was trading chocolate in exchange for social reputation. This came as a cost to them financially, as cacao needed to be sourced from the Americas in an era when this necessitated a grueling and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. But to have chocolate gave them social standing, much as a fashionable dress or necklace would. In this way, chocolate was used as a social currency for Europe’s nobility of the 17th century: chocolate in exchange for reputation.
It is impossible to discuss chocolate as a social currency without considering the tradition of Valentine’s Day in modern society. A heart-shaped box of chocolate is considered the quintessential Valentine’s day gift, a declaration of love packaged in a shiny red heart. Countless chocolate ads such as this one, appearing in Times Magazine on Feb. 9th, 1962, broadcast the same message: give chocolate to receive love.
So deeply rooted in our society is the notion that chocolate can buy love that in the world, approximately $1.7 billion is spent on chocolate—and the majority is spent by men (Zayas, Pandey, & Tabak, 1) .
By looking at Valentine’s Day chocolate through the lens of social currency, it is evident how the use of chocolate as currency has prevailed through today.
From the roasted cacao beans of ancient Mesoamerica to the drinking chocolate of European nobility and the heart-shaped chocolate boxes of today’s world, cacao has thoroughly ingrained itself into the fabric of human trade. Whether it be a social or physical currency, there’s no denying that people are willing to trade chocolate for other intangible goods.
1: From my Instagram page (not cited further to maintain anonymity)
3: Page 6, Life magazine Feb. 9th, 1962, https://books.google.com/books?id=gE0EAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=twopage&q&f=true
“Currency.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/currency.
“The True History of Chocolate.” The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 2019.
Zayas, et al. “Red Roses and Gift Chocolates Are Judged More Positively in the U.S. Near Valentine’s Day: Evidence of Naturally Occurring Cultural Priming.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers, 24 Feb. 2017, doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00355.