Today, coffee shops are a modern staple. While everyone goes to them to buy an assortment of teas and coffees, they also go for the ambiance. They go to study, to catch up with friends, and to do business. What we know today as the modern coffee shop – whether that be national chains like Starbucks or local neighborhood joints – has its origins in the Enlightenment period.
In fact, the modern coffee shop is closely associated with, surprisingly, the history of the social practices that developed out of the “Age of Reason’s” economics and social understandings of chocolate. This age saw rapid rises in both consumerism and critiques of social norms, and although it spawned more well-known events like the American and French Revolutions, this time period also drastically changed how Europe and the British colonies engaged with chocolate, coffee, and tea.
Each region’s interaction with these drinks depended on a series of economic and cultural factors. On the surface it might appear as if economic factors were solely responsible for dictating how and why chocolate was consumed in different regions. However, cultural and social understandings were also crucial for influencing the ways that countries engaged with chocolate, coffee, and tea.
In Northern Europe, the consumption of chocolate – which at the time was a beverage – grew alongside the region’s consumption of coffee and tea. All of these drinks were served in the first coffeeshops, which were called coffeehouses. These places became popular due to rising demand for spaces where the middle class and gentry could come together to discuss social issues, politics, and develop critical opinions of the established social norms.
Coffeehouses were boisterous places of debate as Dr. Matthew Green reminisces in his TED talk, and these spaces contributed to literary, philosophical and radical innovations (McComb, White). The first coffeehouse was opened in Britain in 1655 by a Turkish merchant, and from there, the institution grew rapidly (Mintz, 111). Coffeehouses became places where people could get both their news and their cheap, quick fix for the day.
“You have all Manner of News there: You have a good Fire, which you may sit by as long as you please : You have a Dish of Coffee ; you meet your friends for the Transaction of Business, and all for a Penny, if you don’t care to spend more”
– Late 17th Century French Traveler (Mintz, 111)
In English coffeehouses, chocolate was consumed at a significantly lower rates than coffee and tea. In 1680, coffee was consumed at about 224,000 pounds a year as chocolate was only consumed at about 6,000 pounds a year. At first chocolate competed with coffee, but by 1750, it was served alongside coffee and not in competition to the drink (McComb). There were two prominent reasons why chocolate was not consumed at as high of rates.
First, it was more expensive than coffee and tea. The transportation costs of getting cacao to Europe from the Americas were expensive, and high tariffs also radically increased the price of the good (Gay). However, while the price made chocolate less desirable, this is not the whole story; the social associations that Northern Europeans had with chocolate also decreased the amount it was consumed.
Chocolate was heavily associated with the Catholic clergy, so many philosophes in coffeehouses avoided chocolate beverages out of principle. They understood coffee to be a sobering stimulant that led to productivity, while in contrast, chocolate was associated with leisure and the aristocracy (Coe). Moreover, in England, nobility was not the same as it was in Spain: only the eldest sons could inherit land and titles and the rest became commoners. Because of this, there was less incentive to maintain chocolate as an aristocratic privilege, as it was mostly a drink only for the elite in most countries because of its price. Men in coffeehouses preferred egalitarian environments for diverse debates, so coffeehouses became places where people of all ranks sat alongside each other. Hence, chocolate lost its aristocratic allure in England as men let go of class distinctions and flaunting wealth in coffeehouses (White).
In Southern Europe, chocolate was heavily consumed. Throughout Europe, Spain – the nation of chocolate drinkers – was known for producing the best chocolate. Chocolate was the preferred drink of the church hierarchy, and it was only reserved for the upper and middle classes. At breakfast, they ate it with cold water, and at night, they consumed it before their evening siestas (Coe).
Because Spain did not have a popular movement of philosophes building coffeehouses, coffee was in short supply in Spain until the latter half of 18th century. When coffee-houses finally sprung up in Madrid, only men were allowed inside, while women had to stay in their coaches and have cold drinks brought to them (Coe). This was a common practice in coffeehouses because of the common belief that women were not able to reason.
As chocolate became with royal and papal absolutism, which were “inimical” to the Enlightenment, Spain eventually popularized tea and coffee. Spain wanted to hold a dignified position among modern nations, but chocolate beverages did not lose their cultural popularity among the elite. As coffee and tea came to symbolize civilization and liberty, the Spanish still partook in social gatherings that centered around their traditional chocolate consumption. These traditions were characterized by foreigners as “tedious and boring” (Coe).
In general, British colonists consumed more chocolate than those in Britain even though they were isolated from the phenomenon of British coffeehouses and mostly took their chocolate drinks at home (Coe, Gay). They consumed more because chocolate was cheaper in the Americas. They did not have to pay importation duties or the steep costs of shipping cacao across the Atlantic Ocean. However, chocolate consumption varied between the Northern and Southern colonies.
The Northern and Mid-Atlantic colonies became large-scale chocolate manufacturers, and in the 18th century, the colonists knew a lot about the chocolate they were eating. They would refer to chocolate by its port of origin, and they knew much more about where their chocolate was coming from than could even be possible to trace in the present day. However, while they produced a lot of chocolate, they exported over 70% of the chocolate they produced to Europe. Instead of consuming chocolate in exorbitant amounts like the aristocratic elite in southern Europe, they looked to coffee as a stimulant to increase their productivity like Northern Europeans (Gay).
The Southern colonies, on the other hand, were mainly consumers of chocolate: they modeled the posh customs of the aristocracy in Spain. Chocolate was a sign of wealth in social circles, However, southern colonists adapted recipes to meet the needs of their own cultural tastes. Because many did not like the fattiness of traditional chocolate drinks, southern colonists steeped cocoa shells in hot water, which created an infusion similar in flavor and color to coffee. This was not seen as a “lower” sort of drink for those who could not afford chocolate, but instead, was a product of the wealthy. Southern colonists also ate cocoa in puddings, creams, and ice creams, and developed chocolate almonds which became a staple recipe in many households (Gay).
As these three examples demonstrated, economics played a role in how, where, and by whom chocolate was consumed. However, cultural and social associations did as well. Some chose to consume chocolate to raise their social status in their communities while others rejected it to support the egalitarian and “productive” communities around them. While these traditions birthed the coffeeshop (albeit it looks much different today), it also might still influence our understandings of coffee and chocolate. Most people drink coffee to stay awake and be productive, while chocolate is seen as an indulging activity that we consume when we are sad or wanting to be unproductive.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.
Gay, James F. Chocolate Production and Uses in 17th and 18th Century North America. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009, https://americanhistory.si.edu/sites/default/files/Gay_Chocolate Productio.pdf
McComb, Sophie. Fostering Enlightenment Coffeehouse Culture in the Present. The University of Texas at Austin , May 2015, www.cns.utexas.edu/images/CNS/Sofie_McComb-Enlightenment_Coffeehouse_Culture.pdf
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.
White, Matthew. Newspapers, Gossip and Coffee-House Culture. The British Library, 11 Apr. 2018, www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/newspapers-gossip-and-coffee-house-culture#.