Imagining a childhood without the sweet taste of a Hershey’s bar proves unfathomable: Chocolate lines the shelves of every convenience store while entire holidays have become synonymous with the consumption of chocolate products. In other words, chocolate is everywhere and loved by everyone. However, chocolate did not always represent a cherished staple found in every household. From the advent of chocolate beverages in Mesoamerica to the sophisticated chocolate houses of seventeenth-century Europe, chocolate constituted an experience only afforded by the very rich, powerful, and influential. As much a status symbol as a food to be enjoyed, chocolate remained a bastion of society’s elite until the inception of cost-reducing machinery of the Industrial Revolution. During the Industrial Revolution, breakthroughs in the manufacture of chocolate transformed cocoa from a beverage consumed exclusively by the upper class to a mass-produced commodity of every socioeconomic status.
To fully appreciate chocolate’s rise to widespread popularity, its exclusive origins amongst society’s elite cannot be overlooked. As described by anthropologists Sophie and Michael Coe, “for at least 28 centuries, chocolate had been a drink of the elite and the very rich” (Coe 232). Indeed, the Maya – who mostly consumed chocolate in its liquid form – served cocoa during feasts for the political and economic elite as a display of power and wealth. Viewed as a food of the gods, the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs regarded chocolate, and particularly chocolate foam, as a status symbol amongst wealthy merchants and nobility (Leissle 30–31). Moreover, once trade introduced cocoa to European society, chocolate remained a staple among the elite as a “validation of social position” due to its high production costs and laborious manufacturing process (Mintz 90). Spanish royalty craved chocolate, even crafting ornate dishware such as the mancerina solely for the consumption of liquid chocolate (Coe 137). By the late seventeenth century, chocolate houses became well-established all throughout European cities, serving aristocrats, upper class individuals, and eventually, those seeking to discuss society’s most contentious political issues (Coe 210). Thus, chocolate became cemented amongst Europe’s elite as the only social class able to afford the new commodity.
Van Houten’s invention of the hydraulic press in 1828 revolutionized the manufacturing process of chocolate, driving consumption across socioeconomic levels. Prior to Houten’s hydraulic press, manufacturers manually boiled and skimmed cacao butter from chocolate in a time-consuming and expensive process. In response, Houten invented a powerful hydraulic press that pulverized cacao butter out of chocolate, leaving a solid cake of grindable cocoa powder. This much more efficient process, known as defatting, reduced production costs and made the solid consumption of chocolate easier in cakes, ice creams, and biscuits (Coe 242). Additionally, Houten introduced the process of “Dutching,” which utilized alkaline salts to improve cocoa powder’s miscibility in water. Dutching also made the powder darker in color, leading many consumers to believe it possessed a stronger chocolate flavor (Leissle 55). This defatting and alkalizing method simplified cocoa production and led to the “large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses, in both powdered and solid form” (Coe 242). Overall, Houten’s innovative production reduced manufacturing costs, which in turn allowed more widespread consumption of chocolate outside the upper class.
The firm of J.S. Fry & Sons’ breakthrough discovery in 1847 introduced the first solid chocolate fully intended for eating, rather than drinking. Following Van Houten’s invention of the hydraulic press, much more cacao butter could be separated from cocoa than ever before. Francis Fry and Joseph Storrs Fry capitalized on this increased production of cacao butter in their invention of the Chocolat Délicieux à Manger, or more commonly, the “chocolate bar.” To create chocolate bars, the Fry firm invented a way to mix cocoa powder and sugar with cacao butter from Houten’s defatting process. By mixing cocoa powder with cacao butter as opposed to warm water, Fry could produce a thinner paste capable of being molded into chocolate bars (Coe 243). While a short-term high demand for cacao butter concentrated solid chocolate bar consumption amongst the wealthy, the price of cocoa powder plummeted, placing chocolate well “within the reach of the masses” (Coe 242). Nonetheless, Houten’s hydraulic press and Fry’s mixing techniques allowed for the mass-production of chocolate, causing a substantial reduction in price that dramatically increased chocolate consumption (Alberts and Cidell 123). Consequently, chocolate no longer constituted a bastion of European elites to symbolize their wealth, but rather, progressed towards becoming a household staple.
Revelations in Switzerland revamped chocolate from a bitter and gritty product into a smooth and varied decadence. Although the Englishman Nicholas Sanders first combined milk with chocolate in 1727, his product did not constitute “milk chocolate” per se, but rather, a beverage mixing chocolate liquor with hot milk (Coe 249). The chocolate industry could not produce true milk chocolate as they lacked a design that prevented dairy from spoiling (Alberts and Cidell 124). In 1867, however, Swiss chemist Henri Nestlé discovered how to create milk powder via evaporation. In collaboration with the Swiss chocolate manufacturer Daniel Peter, the two men combined Nestlé’s powder with cacao butter to produce the first true milk chocolate bar. Perhaps, more importantly, Rudolph Lindt significantly improved the quality of chocolate with his invention of “conching” in 1879 (Alberts and Cidell 124). A traditional conche used heavy granite rollers to grind cocoa and sugar mixtures into small particles that produced smoother chocolate with intensified flavor. As a result, the conching process induced a boom in worldwide chocolate popularity and soon became a standard procedure in the industry (Coe 250–51). Therefore, Swiss inventions of the late nineteenth-century heightened chocolate popularity (and consumption) through the emergence of milk chocolate and a final product with smoother texture.
Industrial Revolution developments in chocolate production culminated in the application of the assembly line. Perhaps, Milton S. Hershey’s chocolate empire represents the most sophisticated implementation of the chocolate assembly line. Described as “the Henry Ford of Chocolate Makers,” Milton Hershey established a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania calibrated for mass-production (Coe 253). Without the hydraulic press, conche, powdered milk, and other mechanistic breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution, Hershey would not have been able to adopt machinery for the widespread production of standardized chocolate recipes. The efficiency of the assembly line – made possible by the Industrial Revolution – dramatically increased production of chocolate, helping offset manufacturing costs and boost consumption across socioeconomic levels. For instance, by the late 1920s, Hershey’s factory produced about 50,000 pounds of cocoa every day (Coe 256). As such, the adoption of a mechanized assembly line increased efficiency and production while creating chocolates of identical taste, texture, and quality for all of society.
Chocolate, as it is known today, would have never been possible without the manufacturing breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution. Lindt’s conche introduced the smooth texture of chocolate loved throughout the world while Houten’s alkalization process paved the way for Oreo to become “milk’s favorite cookie.” More importantly, Houten’s hydraulic press, Fry’s mixing techniques, and Hershey’s assembly line have allowed chocolate to become adored by all of society regardless of socioeconomic status. Thanks to these major breakthroughs, chocolate has transcended social disparities, making the world just a tad sweeter.
Alberts, Heike C., and Julie Cidell. Chocolate Consumption, Manufacturing, and Quality in Europe and North America. Oxford University Press. www-oxfordscholarship-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu, https://www-oxfordscholarship-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198726449.001.0001/acprof-9780198726449-chapter-6. Accessed 24 Mar. 2020.
Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition., Thames & Hudson, 2013.
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