Tag Archives: Class

Chocolate, Social Class, and Religion in Enlightenment Europe

Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate drinking in Eighteenth Century Europe

Across the countries of Enlightenment era Europe, elites distinguished themselves from other social classes through their exclusive social and consumption practices—musical evenings with private orchestras, fluency in multiple languages, and international travel as exemplified in the Grand Tour of the Continent’s most fascinating historical sites (Jacob, 2016). These class-defining practices notably included the drinking of chocolate as a beverage. Taken this way, chocolate “had been an elite drink among the copper-skinned, befeathered Mesoamericans”—i.e. the Olmecs and Mayans who first invented the idea of processing cacao beans into a chocolate drink—and it “stayed that way among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe” (Coe and Coe, 2019).

The relationship between chocolate consumption and the social position, ideology and religion of particular individuals in the Enlightenment period is not a simple one, however. While chocolate was clearly an elite drink that was also associated with the Catholic church, a more detailed investigation of consumption patterns and preferences among Enlightenment individuals shows that we cannot simply read off a person’s social position, religious outlook or ideological commitments from their beverage consumption preferences—nor vice versa. To try to do so would lead to serious error, and to understand the situations and choices of particular individuals it is necessary to look at the meanings they attached to various beverages, and the compromises they may have made in regard to their values, in a more nuanced way.

The Enlightenment period is considered to have been approximately coextensive with the 18th century in Europe (Robertson, 2015). Why did chocolate remain associated with the social elite in general over such a long period of time, in countries from Spain and Italy to France and England? Part of the answer is illuminated when we examine the slow progress made during the 18th century toward making chocolate more affordable through mechanical manufacture. Although Europeans had first become familiar with imbibing chocolate during the Renaissance, as late as 1772 the famous Encycopédie compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert depicted contemporary methods of chocolate manufacture that had barely advanced from those of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe, 2019).

In fact, some modest advances in mechanizing chocolate manufacture did occur during the Enlightenment period, notably in Great Britain’s American colonies, as well as in France. In 1765, a Massachusetts chocolate-making firm began used water power to grind cocoa beans, and in 1776 a hydraulic machine that could reduce chocolate to paste was invented in France (Morton and Morton, 1986). But it was not until the second quarter of the 19th century, with the invention of a new process of cacao refinement in Holland, that things really began to change (Coe and Coe, 2019).

This stagnation in technological progress helped to keep chocolate expensive during the Enlightenment era—and consequently out of reach middle class consumers, who had little choice but to choose cheaper drinks—notably coffee—instead. In the coffee-houses of 18th century Venice, for example, a cup of chocolate cost three times the price of a cup of coffee (Coe and Coe, 2019). In consequence, coffee remained by far the more popular drink in the Serene Republic.

Caffè Florian in Venice survives from the Eighteenth Century

This consumption pattern was not repeated across other Italian cities, however. In Rome and Naples chocolate remained the drink of choice. The foundation for Venice’s distinctive preference for coffee would appear to lie in the city’s historical success as a seafaring, trading republic that had first made its fortune as the gateway to Europe at the western terminus of the Silk Route (Norwich, 2012). The commercial origins of Venice’s wealth resulted in a civic culture dominated by its mercantile class, a social reality we see reflected in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. By contrast, in other Italian cities, most notably in the papal city of Rome and at the Vatican itself, chocolate was consumed heavily. The situation was similar in Naples, which was ruled by the Spanish branch of the royal Bourbon dynasty. The dominance of these latter cities by royal and aristocratic elites has been implicated by their citizens’ prevailing preference for chocolate over coffee, in contrast to the coffee-oriented beverage culture of Venice (Coe and Coe, 2019).

An image of Voltaire (with raised arm), Condorcet (seated at the right) and other philosophes discussing at the Café Procope in Paris

These differing patterns in chocolate consumption helped to justify the outlook of anti-clerical radicals of the era, who associated chocolate drinking with the oppressive Catholic Church (Coe and Coe, 2019). This does not mean, however, that all such radicals eschewed chocolate drinking. The case of Voltaire, perhaps the greatest anti-clerical thinker of the age, is instructive in this regard. While we might expect Voltaire to have been very much a coffee-drinker on the basis of his social position and ideological orientation, there is considerable evidence for his liking of chocolate as well as coffee. It is recorded, for example, that when Prussia’s young music- and art-loving king Frederick the Great invited the old philosophe to stay with him in 1740, much chocolate was imbibed by both (Sorel, 1998). Moreover, Voltaire maintained a liking for chocolate, as well as coffee, to the end of his life. The Marquis de Condorcet, youngest of the great philosophes, visited the elderly Voltaire at his estate at Ferney near Geneva in 1770. Condorcet later recorded that “a dozen cups of coffee mixed with chocolate” constituted “the only nourishment which M. de Voltaire took from five in the morning till three in the afternoon” (Condorcet, 2020). Even after the French Revolution, Voltaire appears to have “remained sufficiently of the ancien régime to prefer his morning chocolate … over all other hot drinks” (Coe and Coe, 2019). This was despite the cacao for the chocolate having being produced by slave labor.

Nor was chocolate automatically the preferred choice of the religiously inclined. Many of the musical compositions of Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) that ostensibly appear entirely secular arguably bear the distinctive imprint of his Lutheran piety (Gaines, 2005). Moreover, although Bach’s life extended well into the Enlightenment era, his religious commitments appear to have made him resist the period’s secularized, religion-questioning avant garde culture. This caused tensions during his visit with Frederick the Great in 1747, when the old composer’s religious temperament led him to clash fiercely with the young king’s advanced Enlightenment outlook (Gaines, 2005). For Bach, chocolate may have been associated less with the Catholic church than with elite social, artistic and intellectual preferences that he would have regarded as questionable, to say the least. This is speculative and asks for further investigation. But perhaps differences in Bach’s and Frederick’s preferred beverages accentuated, or at least reflected, their intellectual and religious differences. At all events, while Bach wrote a cantata in praise of coffee, he wrote nothing about chocolate (Coe and Coe, 2019).

Works cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019

Condorcet, Nicholas. Life of Voltaire. Web. 6 March 2020


Gaines, James R. Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. Harper Perennial 2006

Jacob, Margaret. The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins 2016

Julius, John. A History of Venice. Viking 2013

Morton, Marcia, and Frederic Morton. Chocolate: An Illustrated History. Outlet 1988

Robertson, John. The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press 2015

Sorel, Nancy. First Encounters: A Book of Memorable Meetings. Random House 1998

Consumption as Class? The Evolution and Implications of Sugar Usage in 18th Century England

Until the 18th century, sugar was a commodity strictly confined to the nobility (Mintz 45). However, by the mid-1700s, the “poorest English farm labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea” (Mintz 45). In less than a century, sugar evolved from a symbol of the ruling classes to an everyday commodity consumed veraciously by the working class. Yet, this process cannot merely be explained by the social adaptation of consumption practices by class—though distinct social meanings ascribed to sugar certainly developed within the social hierarchy of England. Rather, the evolution of sugar in England is representative of a complex system of political and economic power, of production and consumption. This blog explores the historical evolution and significance of sugar consumption in England. I will begin by analyzing the evolution of consumption practices as sugar pervaded households throughout the social hierarchy. Then, I will contextualize sugar consumption in England within a broader historical narrative, arguing that consumption patterns in the country were unique. Finally, I will locate the distinctness of British sugar consumption within the political and economic mechanisms of 18th century England. Though early consumption practices were representative of a social hierarchy and served to validate social status, the mounting taste for sugar throughout English society conferred political and economic, rather than merely social, significance.

Social Evolution of Sugar Consumption 

Some historians link the growing demand for consumer goods, such as sugar, in 18th century Europe to consumption as a signal of respectability and class (Smith 3). This is especially salient when examining the nascent phases of sugar consumption in England. When the commodity first arrived from the Caribbean, it was both expensive and rare, characteristics that contributed to its popularity among elites (Godoy 1). Before sugar was made economically available as a sweetener, it was utilized among the elite classes as a spice or condiment, decorative material, and an additive in medicine (Mintz 79). The exclusive association between sugar and the elite class bestowed symbolic weight upon the product in English life, providing its users with validation of power, authority, and status.

Though the evolution of sugar as a sweetener signifies its initial dispersion throughout English society, this method of consumption also played a significant role in the social life of elites. The focal point of English nobility’s political and cultural life was London’s many chocolate and coffee houses (Coe and Coe 223). Sugar played a significant part in these institutions, as sugar was added to both substances in order to enhance palatability. To be associated with such pleasures was to be among the political and economic elite and to have access to decision-making processes. Further, these institutions were places in which respectability and privilege were conferred (Cocking, 2018). However, while the image below conveys that these posh establishments were initially limited to political and social elites, their existence represents the diffusion of sugar into the broader public domain.

White’s Chocolate House in London
Source: Cadbury/ Wikimedia

By the mid-1700s, sugar was consumed by a widespread population, evolving into a necessity rather than a frivolity. While sugar had previously been associated with elitism, the social expansion of sugar contributed to its development as an everyday commodity that linked sugar to proletariat survival. Among the working classes and the poor, sugar was utilized as a sweetener for tea and coffee, as well as to supplement the consumption of carbohydrates, such as porridges and breads (Mintz 118). As a cheap, accessible source of calories, sugar came to be synonymous with the everyday Brit and was gradually reduced from its status as a luxury product. The recasting of sugar as a symbol of the working class, rather than elites, is representative of extensification, in which larger numbers of persons were becoming familiar with the good on a regular basis (Mintz 122).

The Consumer Revolution

Some historians have argued that European society experienced a “consumer revolution” throughout the eighteenth century, marked by the increased consumption of non-European consumer commodities (Smith 5-6). Indeed, it appears as though such a “revolution” occurred with regards to sugar consumption in England. Over a period of seventy years, English per capita consumption of sugar nearly quadrupled, indicating significant dispersion of the commodity throughout English society (Rivard et al. 424). As the following case study reveals, some individuals consumed sugar in excess daily.

“A Vindication of Sugars ,” written in 1715, argues for the beneficial nature of sugar. This entry suggests that the Duke of Beaufort survived to an old age because of his excessive sugar consumption.
Source: The British Library Board

William Wadd remarked in 1816, “ For one fat person in France or Spain, there are one hundred in England” (5), which is suggestive of the unique nature of English sugar consumption. In other European colonial societies, such as France, sweet delicacies were reserved only for the monarch’s court and highest-ranking nobility (Green 1). During the French revolution, indulgence in sugar came to be associated with immorality, as the history of the marquis de Sade—whose affinity for “pastry and sweets” is well-documented—exemplifies (Coe and Coe 230). Rather than permeating social classes, sweetness came to represent the hedonistic nature of the ruling elite. Thus, the widespread nature of sugar consumption in England represents a unique phenomenon that simultaneously reflected and enabled political and economic influence at the time.

Consumption Beyond Class

The extensification of sugar has explanations beyond the social structure of British society. The taxation of sugar served to bolster the financial resources of the British Empire. By the mid-1700s, the annual taxes procured from sugar imports sustained the ships of the British Navy (Godoy 1). As the navy was the primary mechanism through which British influence was spread throughout the globe, sugar served a political purpose in the British Empire. The expansion of the British Empire was enabled by the importation and consumption of sugar. Economically, widespread consumption of sugar in England solidified demand from British sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The novel, everyday uses for sugar that developed among the British working class necessitated the continued production and importation of the commodity. Further, sugar enabled the widespread consumption of chocolate, coffee, and tea, encouraging the demand for these items, as well

Sugar Plantation on the British colony of Antigua 
William Clark/ Wikimedia

Conversely, the availability of sugar was also reflective of state and business interests. Compared to other colonial powers at the time, England approached the colonization of the Caribbean most aggressively. According to Mintz, England “fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves… and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system” (38). Demand for sugar was conceived of, in part, by British suppliers, who realized that production and consumption were inextricably intertwined (Mintz 42). Despite a significant influx of sugar from British sugar islands throughout the 1700s, demand in the country continued to rise significantly—in this case, consumption matched production. Though sugar was initially consumed by and symbolic of elites, the British expansion of planation production necessitated a differentiation of sugar usages and an expanded consumer market. With this in mind, the spread of sugar can be viewed, not necessarily as an example of social extensification, but rather as a construction of the state. Thus, the diversification of sugar consumption cannot be merely identified as a social phenomenon. Rather, it is embedded within the broader political and economic mode of English colonialism.

Works Cited

The British Library Board. Sugar in Britain. British Library, London.

Clark, William. The Mill Yard. 1823. British Library, London.

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire.” NPR, 7 April 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire. Accessed 8 Mar 2020.

Green, Matthew. “How the Decadence and Depravity of 18th-Century London Was Fuelled by Hot Chocolate.” The Telegraph, 23 Dec. 2018. http://www.telegraph.co.uk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/surprising-history-of-london-chocolate-houses/. Accessed 8 Mar 2020.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

Rivard, Christopher, et al. “Sack and Sugar, and the Aetiology of Gout in England between 1650 and 1900.” Rheumatology (Oxford, England), vol. 52, Nov. 2012. ResearchGate, doi:10.1093/rheumatology/kes297.

Smith, Woodruff D. Consumption and The Making of Respectability, 1600-1800. Routledge, 2002.

Wadd, William. Cursory Remarks on Corpulence, or Obesity Considered as a Disease: With a Critical Examination of Ancient and Modern Opinions, Relative to Its Causes and Cure. 3rd edition, Smith and Davy, 1816.

White’s Chocolate House. 1708. London.

Sugar’s Twist: The Change in Chocolate Consumption


Today, chocolate is a foundational treat in the Western diet. The way in which we consume cacao, the critical fruit in any chocolate creation, has drastically changed overtime. What began as the key ingredient in divine medicinal energizer drinks in Mesoamerica has drastically changed to a sugar-infused, unhealthful dessert in modern society. In turn, treats such as chocolate are seen as villains in modern day obesity problems.

In this project, I seeked to understand the modern chocolate palette and contrast that with more traditional chocolate recipes. Thus, I compared subjects’ reactions to common, modern brands such as Hershey’s with that of a pure 100% cacao bar as well as several recipes between these extremes. I interviewed these subjects to better understand their taste palette. In doing so, I hoped to gain a more concrete understanding of why this shift occurred. To do this, I need to outline the greater history of chocolate and compare that to my own study.

In doing so, I more clearly saw the ties chocolate has to class as certain chocolates are associated with nobility and others are seen as the chocolate of the common man. This class structure has deep historical roots that continue to affect the way we see chocolate today

Chocolate in Mesoamerica

In Mayan, Aztec, and other native american cultures, cacao was a holy fruit. Originating around the equator in the American continent, cacao grows on a tree of the same name. Classical prints suggest that the most common form of chocolate consumption was as a beverage. The oldest known depiction of chocolate consumption is on the Princeton Vase, a work from around 750 A.D (See image above). On the right hand side of this image, we see a women  pouring a chocolaty beverage from one container to the other. We believe this to have been a method for raising the foam, which was considered the most popular part of the beverage (Coe 48).

It should be noted, however, that it would be quite simple minded to believe that these people consumed chocolate in a singular way. As modern chefs have the skill to craft a plethora of dishes from a few simple ingredients, mesoamerican chocolatiers too had the ability to prepare numerous chocolate treats including beverages, porridges, and powders (Coe 48).

These cultures mixed in several savory flavors with their chocolate such as chilli, maize, and ceiba (Coe 86). This is very different, however, from the sweet, sugary treats we often associate with chocolate today. During our tasting session, we served some chocolate options with little to no added sugar. When we served a pure 100% cacao bar, there was instant disgust. The subjects compared the taste to that of a branch or chalk. One subject went so far as to claim that, if served in another context, she would never associate the flavor with that of chocolate. That is, counterintuitively, she doesn’t recognize cacao, pure chocolate, as chocolate at all.

Additionally, we served a Taza chocolate that was 87% cacao. Taza tends to market themselves as traditional mesoamerican chocolate. Similarly, there was some disgust amongst the subjects. They were disappointed by the lack of intensity of flavor and the limited sweetness. One subject commented that she feels like she doesn’t like the chocolate because she is uncultured. This mindset reflects the common notion that artisanal chocolate are for high-class “chocolate snobs.” To a certain degree, this idea matches the structure of mesoamerican chocolate culture. In Aztec culture, for example, chocolate was typically saved for warriors and the nobility. It was difficult and expensive for lay people to consume the treat (Coe 75). In other words, chocolate was only for the elite members of society.

Introduction in Europe – Sugar

When the conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, europeans were introduced to cacao for the first time and witnessed the local chocolate customs. Soon after, the product was introduced to Europe itself and was immediately sought after due to the exotic nature of the product. This was during the Baroque period in Europe and it was in the iconically extravagant baroque mansions where the product was first enjoyed in Europe. As was the case in Mesoamerica, only the elite could afford chocolate. Thus, chocolate was immediately associated with the gilded and marble halls that defined the period. Undoubtedly, this created a strong connection between chocolate consumption and nobility.

At first, it was consumed in very similar ways as in Mesoamerica, as a warm beverage with some mix of spices to enliven the flavors. One of those spices was sugar. Sugar was first introduced to Europe around the 12th century. For the first few centuries, it was thought of as a spice (Mintz 79). Sugar was inaccessible to most and even the wealthiest needed to carefully ration the expensive product. Humans, however, have a powerful natural liking for sugar. Thus, it was used to sweeten other bitter food groups. Included in this list of foods that europeans mixed with sugar was chocolate. The introduction of foreign products such as tea, chocolate, and coffee increased the demand for sugar in Europe.

The opportunists across the Atlantic in the New World hoped to take advantage of this demand. Sugar production, however, was very labor intensive. Tragically, the chosen solution for this dilemma was one of human existence’s greatest crimes: slavery. The inception of the triangle slave trade brought African slaves to the new world to do hard physical labor (See the map to the left for details). This free labor allowed europeans to produce sugar and other goods more affordably and to a greater quantity.

With greater sugar supply, the price of sugar plummeted to an accessible price in Europe. By the turn of the 17th century, sugar could be consumed by all people and in greater quantities (Mintz 86). In turn, when europeans used sugar as a sweetener for other foods such as chocolate, they would use it in much greater quantity. For example, in a Spanish chocolate recipe from 1644, for 100 cacao beans, ½ a pound of sugar was added (Coe 133). Thus, sugar was clearly not a sprinkled on spice anymore, but an essential element in a chocolate recipe.

In addition, the increased production of cacao and sugar changed the image of class associated with chocolate. Once the prices dropped so that it was more accessible, it was no longer a luxury reserved for the few.

During our chocolate tasting, we had bars such Cote d’Or that we conjectured are similar to the flavors enjoyed in Europe during 17-19th centuries. Relative to the bars with more cacao content, this bar was quite popular. The students appreciated the sweetness and the mix of flavors. One subject even said that, relative to the Taza bar, he felt this type of chocolate was “more accessible.”

Rise of Big Chocolate

The chocolate industry transformed during the industrial revolution when mavericks like Forrest Mars and M.S. Hershey created their brands. With distinctly sweet recipes and crisp business models, they created the chocolate giants we know today.

Hershey and his partners experimented with various chocolate recipes. They soon came to their perfect solution when they added a ton of milk and sugar. It created a smooth, creamy chocolate that melted in one’s mouth. It had a bite similar to that of “al dente” pasta (D’Antonio 107). This iconic chocolate bar exploded into a sensation. In the process, however, they ran into the issue of collecting all the ingredients and relying on others for some of the processing. To alleviate this dilemma, Hershey sought to vertically integrate the industry. That is, he attempted to control as many of the processes himself as possible. For example, when he had issues getting a consistent source of milk, he founded his own dairy farm so that he could control that supply chain. He did this by founding a town dedicated to his brand — Hershey, PA (D’Antonio 115).

The natural appeal of chocolate gave the industry an inherent public relations advantage and the idea of a perfect little town dedicated to chocolate resonated with many progressives. Hershey easily sold this idea to the public and they ate it up. He was going to make the ultimate chocolate dream come true (D’Antonio 116). Everything about Hershey screamed a people’s brand — it was chocolate for everyone. Their product was sweet, creamy, and affordable and still to this day, people can’t get enough.

This popularity was matched in our study. Upon blindly trying a piece, one subject simply exclaimed, “This is dat good s**t.” The cheapest bar in our collection was also perhaps the most well-liked. Some subjects suggested that it reminded them of their childhood. Thus, big chocolate brands benefit from an exponential path to success. That is, as many people have eaten a Hershey bar before, they are more likely to enjoy it again in the future as it will remind them of positive memories. Thus, a sweeping step in the market of young children creates a set of loyal lifetime customers.

Along these lines, it’s interesting to compare the methods of marketing of a big chocolate brand like Hershey’s against earlier chocolate cultures and modern, high-class chocolatiers. Both of the latter chocolates were targeted to the upper class and aimed to sell a degree of nobility. Hershey on the other hand has a simple branding that is designed for everyone. We see that in one of the original design for their brand that can be seen below. The notions of class that preceded Hershey both in mesoamerica and Europe have evaporated with their affordable, delicious chocolate.

Health Concerns

With brands like Hershey drastically increasing the amount of sugar in a typical chocolate bar, the health concerns around chocolate changed as well. Today, the health concerns around big chocolate are well-advertised, but that fact wasn’t always so clear. In fact, in 17th century Europe, sugar was used as a medicine. Upon sugar’s arrival in Europe, some scholars alluded to classical Islamic texts which raved about the medicinal purposes of sugar (Mintz 96). The stimulant became a standard sight at apothecaries across Europe and some even believed it was a type of panacea (Mintz 101).

For years, researches struggled to undoubtedly prove the negative effects of sugar. For years, big sugar was able to swerve criticisms and even would go as far as claim that sugar helped people lose weight (Taubes 2). Because there was not a consensus about the negative effects of sugar, big sugar companies did not need to cover anything up. Instead, they simply needed to maintain this level of uncertainty (3). With large PR schemes, these companies wanted to maintain the notion that sugar was safe for consumption (6).

Eventually, however, as we know today, the truth did come out: sugar can cause conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Regardless, americans and other people around the world continue to eat the sweetener in great quantity (See figure on the left). Because of this, obesity has risen concurrently. In our little study, we saw that people typically enjoy a good deal of sugar in their chocolate. When I asked the subjects to rank our six chocolates, there was a strong correlation between enjoyability and sugar content.


The way in which chocolate has been prepared and consumed has drastically changed overtime. Notably, today, we use a lot more sugar to prepare chocolate. Thus, people today recognize chocolate for the creamy and sweet flavors of milk and sugar.

On a positive note, these changes broke down the class structure associated with chocolate. No longer is chocolate reserved for the wealthiest and most noble. People of all ages, classes, and genders love and enjoy the treat.

On a darker note, the increased sugar content in chocolatey treats have contributed to the health defects caused by too much sugar consumption. In the 20th century, we saw a steep increase in obesity and that effect has a direct link link to sugar consumption.

Regardless of how you interpret this trend, you cannot refute the claim that we consume and see chocolate in a drastically different way than how it was when it was first introduced to europeans. These drastic changes walked foot by foot with the increase in sugar’s role in both chocolate consumption and our daily diets as a whole.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey. Simon & Schuster 2006.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power.. Penguin Books, 1985.

Taubus, Gary and Kearns Couzens, Kristin. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Lies.” Mother Jones.  November/December 2012.

The Truest Chocolate Lover

“Chocolate is a physical incarnation of happiness for me”, said my sophomore friend, when I casually asked her what role chocolate plays in her life. I laughed at her response and figured she was just the typical avid chocolate lover, the kind that jumps up and yells “I’ll eat it!!” to any mention of chocolate. Little did I know that this friend of mine would be the perfect candidate for an interview for my chocolate class because of her “bougie” opinion of chocolate but ignorance, for lack of a better word, of the issues surrounding this sweet. She embodies a true chocolate-lover who strictly buys chocolate because she loves the taste, and doesn’t buy into marketing strategies.

Memories created around chocolate:

Anytime she eats chocolate, my interviewee is reminded a lot of her family at home who also loves chocolate. Every single holiday, she and her siblings buy their mom chocolate as a gift. Every year on her dad’s birthday, her family makes a “really rich chocolate mousse cake”. Every single day, her parents eat a square of chocolate after lunch for dessert. Even while in college, her mom sends her chocolate in care packages.

It is not uncommon for a sweet like chocolate to mean so much to a group of people. In fact, throughout history, chocolate has had great significance in social settings. In ancient Mayan society, the word “chokola’j” meant “to drink chocolate together” (Martin). When chocolate was introduced in England in the 1650s, the act of drinking chocolate in chocolate and coffee houses while socializing and talking about politics and playing games quickly became popular (Coe 165). Chocolate-house-london-c1708

A chocolate house in London, 1708

Chocolate evidently still has a social nature, as it is a common snack at get-togethers or holiday events. Even while writing this, my friend brought us chocolate to enjoy while studying together. My interviewee clearly also enjoys eating chocolate with others, like her family, and chocolate, therefore, has become a special part of her life.

This family doesn’t just enjoy any chocolate, however. To my surprise, my interviewee knew the exact percentage of cacao that she and her parents like best. She told me that her parents always buy 72% Ghirardelli bars and that she, specifically, prefers bars with 85-88% cacao, but “the percentage has been increasing over the last three years”. She went on to explain that in high school, she “was super down with 72” but then started eating 77 and found that she liked it better, and so “kept trying darker chocolate and kept really liking it”.

Ghirardelli chocolates with different cacao percentages

When I asked if that’s because she prefers the bitter taste usually associated with darker chocolate over the sweet and dairy taste associated with milk chocolate, she answered, “No, I actually feel like it gets sweeter as it gets darker and I love it”. I found this opinion interesting, especially coming from someone who knows the exact percentages of cacao she prefers, and should then know that milk chocolate contains more sugar than dark. One look at the ingredients for milk chocolate compared to dark would show this fact. For instance, the top ingredients for a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Kiss are “sugar, milk, and chocolate”, while the top ingredients for a Lindt’s 90% Excellence Bar are “chocolate, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder” (Martin). Although my friend could be considered “dumb” for thinking that the darker the chocolate the sweeter, I consider her a true chocolate lover who could care less about the ingredients and just wants to enjoy the taste.


Health effects:

It seemed fitting to ask if my interviewee cares at all about the health effects. I, too, prefer dark chocolate over milk or white but one of the main reasons is because I know it’s less unhealthy for me. Not only is there less sugar, but there are studies that show that dark chocolate, specifically, can reduce heart attack risk and blood pressure (Watson). But when I asked my interviewee if she ever considers the nutritional or health effects, she yelled, “oh, hell no!”. She said that she sometimes eats chocolate in small amounts to not feel guilty, but when she’s purchasing chocolate, she never thinks about the fat and sugar content. Instead, she bases her decisions solely off what taste she prefers. She told me, “If I’m choosing between two different chocolates, I would never go for the one with less sugar content”. She added that she convinces herself that the sugar and caffeine in one square of chocolate is “enough to perk her up” so she uses it as an “award” when studying.

The origins:

I asked her if she ever thinks about where the cacao in the chocolate she eats comes from and she answered that she sometimes does, but “actually has no idea” how chocolate is made. She continued to say that she knows there are such things as cacao nibs and has always wanted to know more, but from the way she was talking, I could tell she was more interested in the machinery and technology aspect and less of what actual cacao farmers in places like Ivory Coast do. When I threw in the word Africa, my interviewee started reminiscing on a “chocolate passport” that her aunt once gave her that had different South American and African countries on it, but then quickly said, “I feel like a lot of chocolate bars have information on them about what country it’s from but it doesn’t really influence what I buy”. She proceeded to say that she sometimes buys Endangered Species chocolate because it makes her feel “better” about herself but she knows in her heart that it’s just a marketing strategy.

endangered species
Endangered Species ad

I asked her if she knew about the child labor issues surrounding chocolate, to which she responded that she figured there were labor issues but not child labor, in particular. She told me that she knows chocolate is the “biggest thing that’s fair trade-oriented” and that she always notices the Fair Trade symbol. But when I asked her if that affects her in anyway, she said it doesn’t because she feels “so removed” from the issues at hand and that she thinks the label was “made for elites to feel better about our choices, as if we’re actually making a difference”. When purchasing chocolate, the Fair Trade label Fair_Trade_Certified_Logo-CMYKdoes nothing to sway my friend in any direction. The organization that claims to “improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives” with “day-to-day purchases” of products with their label has failed to influence the decisions of customers like my friend, who comes from a social class that may be more likely to spend the money in the first place (“What is Fair Trade?”).


My interviewee is actually quite correct in saying that the label just makes customers “feel good”. Ndongo Sylla explains in The Fair Trade Scandal that in theory, through the Fair Trade strategy of pricing some goods made from raw materials produced in the South at a slightly higher price, the living conditions of workers in the South should be improved. Sylla writes that although Fair Trade products have gone up dramatically in sales, the actual economic gains are low, especially for the poorest developing countries – the minority producers which Fair Trade USA seemingly favor most. The countries ranked by the World Bank as upper middle-income countries account for 54 percent of the producer organizations that have received Fair Trade certification, while only 21 percent are low-income countries. This means that from a marketing standpoint, Fair Trade has been successful. Sylla concludes that “whatever definition of poverty and economic vulnerability used, the conclusion is the same: Fair Trade tends to exclude the poorest countries”, and yet, its “Fair Trade” label gives consumers a false confidence (as shown in the video below). Thankfully, there are people like my interviewee who aren’t completely fooled.

Chocolate as a luxury:

I then asked my friend how she chooses her chocolate: What’s the most important detail to her? And does she choose some brands over others? She immediately answered that she looks at the percentage of cacao first, then the price. Her cutoff price is around five or six dollars, since she doesn’t like the texture and taste of some really expensive chocolate (her example was Taza chocolate that makes her feel as if she is eating “chocolate sawdust”) but also “won’t buy sh*tty chocolate”. I, of course, asked her what she defines as “sh*tty chocolate” to which she responded, “like Hershey’s dark chocolate, like the kind that says extra dark and it’s not even that dark”. Another friend overhearing our conversation commented that my interviewee sounded like a “chocolate elitist”, and I honestly couldn’t disagree because I felt a tad offended. Sure, I don’t think Hershey’s chocolate is the best of the best, but I do love Hershey’s extra dark and it was a low blow to my heart. She added that she doesn’t like salted or flavored chocolate (like added orange flavoring) and that Ghiradelli is her favorite because it’s “perfectly good and on the cheap end”.

Next, I asked her if she thinks everyone can afford to and has the liberty to be this picky when it comes to a simple snack like chocolate. To my relief, she replied that “it’s definitely a bougie thing” and “definitely a luxury, not an essential” but she’s willing to spend the money for her contentment. My interviewee explained that when she was younger, her family considered themselves in the upper middle class and although they may be lower in economic status now, she said with a laugh, “I developed my tastes while we had more money and I refuse to back down now”. Whenever she eats chocolate, she said she refuses to chew it like others might, and instead breaks the bar into small pieces and sucks on each piece individually to get the full taste. Being in college, she said she doesn’t eat as much as she does at home with her family, but sometimes gets “some good chocolate” for “pretty cheap” at Trader Joe’s. She added, now more than before, if I’m buying myself chocolate, I know I’m indulging myself so I’m willing to spend more”.

It’s certainly true that better-quality chocolate is a “luxury” for some economic classes, and chocolate has been linked to notions of class since its origin. From Mesoamerica to Baroque Europe, chocolate was solely associated with the elite class. The chocolate houses mentioned earlier were only used by the upper class, and in France, chocolatières were prized by the nobility (Coe). Since then, chocolate has certainly become more widespread and is consumed by all economic classes. Some products of brands like Hershey’s and Mars are even considered a “cheap commodity” that is available in almost every convenience store. This doesn’t change, however, the stigma that still exists around “good” chocolate and “sh*tty” chocolate. As there continues to be a wide gap between “Fair Trade”, “better quality”, “saving animals”, or “higher percentage of cacao” chocolate and the cheapest Hershey’s bar, chocolate will always be associated with different classes. If more consumers are like my interviewee, however, maybe we’d have less conflict. In a perfect world, all consumers would have the freedom to ignore marketing strategies or sugar content or price and solely buy chocolate based off of preference of taste. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic and not everyone can afford to do this or wants to. But props to my interviewee and friend for being the truest chocolate lover I have ever met!

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Martin, Carla. “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization”. Harvard University, CGIS, AAS 119x. 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University, CGIS, AAS 119x. 2017.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal, Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014.

Watson, et al. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Vol. 7. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2013.

“What is Fair Trade?”. Fair Trade USA. Web. 2016.


Chocolate and Social Class Identity in the United States

From the earliest uses of cacao in Mesoamerican empires, to the globalized chocolate of the 21st century, chocolate recipes and methods of consumption have mirrored the wealth and status of consumers. However, in America today, these differences are generally less pronounced than they have been throughout history. Chocolate is widely available and consumed in the US, with over $18 billion worth purchased each year.[1] That is slightly less than one-fifth of all chocolate consumed worldwide, as shown in the pie graph below. Yet most Americans consume mass-produced chocolate, with Hershey and Mars owning roughly 75% of the US chocolate market,[2] while craft and “premium chocolate” controls less than 12% of the market.[3] Given the dominance of cheaper, mass-produced chocolate in the US, and the relative rarity of finer and more artisanal chocolate products, I am interested in the question of how US chocolate consumption is affected by social class. This question became a major theme of an interview I conducted of a close friend. My interviewee is in her 50s, and throughout her life has changed social class significantly. She described how chocolate has changed meaning to her as she moved from lower-middle class to upper-middle class, and how chocolate was perceived differently by people she met. By placing her experiences within the greater context of research presented throughout this course, I aim to show how the experience of chocolate consumption among American consumers still reflects social hierarchies, though often with more subtlety than chocolate-based hierarchies throughout history.


The US represents roughly 18.1% of global chocolate consumption.[4]

Though chocolate consumption has become normalized in the United States today, chocolate has not always been available to people of lower social classes, and even today global chocolate consumption is skewed heavily toward Europe and the United States. Therefore, before I address the stories I learned from my interviewee, and the insights these stories provide, I will first briefly cover the history of how social class and chocolate consumption have been linked from the Maya and Aztec, to the U.S. and other countries in the present day.

The Maya and Aztec empires treated cacao beverages as foods of the Gods, and thus gave these foods a high position in societal hierarchies and religious worldview. Cacao beans were used as currency by the Aztecs, were fed to elite soldiers, and were often consumed by kings and other rulers.[5] Yet it is important to note that though cacao was expensive and prized, from as early as the Maya civilization there were versions of the beverage that were accessible to citizens of lower social classes.[6] These beverages were often mixed with corn or other add-in ingredients, using a lower concentration of cacao than what was found in the more religiously-important beverages.[7]

Though chocolate consumption changed forms when it was brought to Europe by colonizing powers, it remained linked to social hierarchies. Cacao beans were even used as currency by the Spanish, and the British used chocolate to symbolize wealth as well.[8] At first, Europeans continued to consume cacao as a drink, though they adapted all the materials necessary for doing so, using metal cups, molinillos, and metal tea pots.[9] The 1800s were a period of massive change as the system of corporate mass-produced chocolate that we are familiar with today first emerged.[10] By the end of this century, chocolate in Europe and the United States was a food available to people of all economic classes.[11]

Though chocolate was available to a greater range of social classes in Europe, there were (and today still are) huge class disparities between those who produce chocolate ingredients and those who consume the finished product. Sugar, a necessary component of European chocolate, as well as cacao, both relied on slaves shipped in crowded, dangerous, and dehumanizing conditions from Africa to South America and the Caribbean.[12] Once on sugar plantations, slaves were forced to complete dangerous and relentless labor on plantations that resembled factories in terms of their organization and output.[13] Even after the formal abolition of slavery, cacao plantations in Sao Tome and Principe were found to employ slave labor during the early 1900s.[14] These abuses are not just a thing of the past – even today there have been scandals unveiling the use of child labor on certain cacao plantations in Cote d’Ivoire and other major cacao-producing nations in Africa.[15] There is also huge economic and material disparity between the farmers who produce the majority of the world’s cacao in West Africa, and the European and American consumers who purchase the processed result of this labor.

Chocolate and social class have been linked throughout history, but the experience of my interviewee points to a type of consumption-class connection that has been little explored in the U.S. Though Americans of all classes consume chocolate in relatively large quantities, my interviewee shows how her understanding of chocolate and her patterns of consumption reflected her social class and differed from those of people she met who came from higher social classes.

My interviewee grew up as one of five children in a small, crowded, three-bedroom house. Her family lived on Long Island, in a town that served as a far suburb of New York City. Her parents both worked, and members of the family often didn’t see each other all together until the weekends. It was a busy existence and money was often tight.

One tradition that brought together my interviewee’s family was their weekend trips to visit their grandparents in Queens. The five kids and their parents would all load into the family station wagon and make the short drive over, stopping at a drugstore to pick up some snacks along the way. My interviewee distinctly remembers that each weekend they would buy a Whitman’s Sampler: a box of small chocolates of assorted flavors. Each weekend, the family would sit together and share the chocolates, guessing at the flavors and fillings that each would contain and comparing their favorites. It was a tradition that brought the family together and became a memorable part of my interviewee’s childhood.

The Sampler brought the family together and contributed to enjoyable weekend memories, yet there was another reason why it was the family’s choice each week. Whitman’s Sampler each week was a form of chocolate that could easily be afforded by my interviewee’s lower-middle class family, and easily purchased at pharmacies and other stores in the area. It was a bit of a luxury, a comforting food that they all enjoyed, but did not carry the exorbitant price tag that is often associated with craft and high-cacao chocolate today. The presentation of the chocolates in a Whitman’s Sampler is more elegant than the typical candy bars available as impulse-buys near the checkouts of convenience stores and supermarkets, but the price is still affordable for the average American family. Since 1907, Whitman’s Samplers have been available in convenience stores, and the product has consistently been one of the best-selling chocolate boxes in the country since 1915.[16]


Whitman’s Sampler[17]

My interviewee was accepted to an elite college and began her freshman year eager to meet her roommates and classmates. One week early in the year, she thought it would be fun to buy a Whitman’s Sampler to share with her new friends – to recreate the fun memories of her childhood. The friends, who were from wealthier families, laughed at her when she showed up with the chocolates – they could only assume that she had purchased the cheap chocolate as a joke. Their families did not buy convenience store chocolate. My interviewee recalled trying to play along, playing off the friend’s jokes that the chocolate tasted waxy and gross, or that the fillings were terrible. But the damage was lasting – the pain of the memory was easily apparent when I interviewed her well over 30 years after the experience.

Though her friends’ rejection of her most enjoyed childhood candy was painful, it wasn’t to be the only bad experience my interviewee recalled that associated social class with chocolate. A few years later in college, her roommate, who came from a very wealthy family, invited my interviewee to dinner with her family. The restaurant was so fancy that the menus did not list prices, and the family ordered multiple courses for each person. It was a shocking and intimidating environment, but my interviewee said a brief moment of calm came when, after the intro and main courses were finished, waiters brought plates with fancy chocolates to each diner. Finally confronted by a food she recognized and knew she enjoyed, my interviewee recalled having the thought of eating the chocolate at once, but quickly decided to follow the lead of her roommate. The roommate went to pick up the piece of chocolate, but caught a sharp glance from her mother, who said “remember, a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” – a phrase which shocked my interviewee and chilled any thought she had of enjoying the chocolate before her. 30 years later, my interviewee still remembered how alien that comment sounded – her own parents would never comment on the nutritional value or aesthetic consequences of eating chocolate, especially a small piece like this dessert. To their family, chocolate was a delicious luxury that, when purchased, should be enjoyed guilt-free, and the nutritional value was of little consequence.

One lens through which to understand my interviewee’s experience is the perspective provided in the documentary Fed Up.[18] In this documentary, many middle-class and working-class families struggle with losing weight and find themselves making little progress, despite working out and trying to limit fatty foods in their diets. Their progress is limited because they do not recognize how damaging the high sugar content of their foods can be. Sugar is seen as the enemy of health, and is blamed for the obesity epidemic in the United States. The lower-income families that suffer from sugary diets are not educated about the potential harms about sugar – which could contribute to attitudes towards sugar, candy, and chocolate similar to the perspective that my interviewee’s family held. These health concerns are often quite severe – as Robert Albritton writes, “The addictive quality of sugar can be compared to that of cigarettes… but the so called ‘obesity pandemic’ with its frequent sugar fix may end up damaging more lives than the rapid spread of smoking cigarettes amongst the youth of developing and post-communist societies.”[19]

Yet this explanation does not fit with the experience conveyed by my interviewee. It was not that my interviewee’s family did not care about health, but rather that they saw chocolate as something different – as a way of coming closer together and having some enjoyment even in difficult times. Health was of concern during normal meals, but the consumption of chocolate during the weekends was a time to enjoy delicious food and spend uninterrupted time with family – health did not factor into the equation. The chocolate was special because it accompanied joyous social gatherings, not because it was a rare or lavish product. As such, no one at these family gatherings would discourage other members of the family from having another piece of chocolate – my interviewee perceived that type of behavior as restrictive and judgmental, rather than loving and accepting.

Ultimately, the interactions that my interviewee had with peers in college showed different interpretations of chocolate, largely based on different social positions. The richer students could not have imagined their families joining together over cheap chocolates, both because of their perceived taste and health effects. The richer students also did not value chocolate as much as my interviewee did – to them chocolate was easily acquired and was unhealthy. Chocolate consumption was economically easier for these students, yet they considered the vast majority of American chocolate to be inferior and not worth consuming. This divide was the main reason my interviewee associated chocolate with such positive memories in her childhood, yet such negative memories when confronted with class differences between herself and her friends in college.

Though chocolate is a widely-enjoyed food, one that Americans consume frequently, my interviewee’s lasting memories relating to chocolate showed me that there were notable class differences among Americans in the experience of consuming chocolate. Though it can be easy to focus on how chocolate has never in history been more available to a general population than it is in Europe and the U.S. today, it is worth analyzing how the experiences of consumers differ based on their socioeconomic backgrounds. If there is one lesson that can be taken from my interviewee’s experience, it is that among American consumers, social class and personal wealth have great effects on how chocolate is perceived, and even this widely available dessert can bear subtle signals of class status.


Multimedia Sources

Daniels, Jeff. “US Chocolatiers Looking for New Sweet Spot.” CNBC. April 7, 2016. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/07/us-chocolatiers-looking-for-new-sweet-spot.html

Khan, Lina. “Why So Little Candy Variety? Blame the Chocolate Oligopoly.” Time. November 1, 2013. http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/01/why-so-little-candy-variety-blame-the-chocolate-oligopoly/

Satioquia-Tan, Janine. “Americans Eat How Much Chocolate?” CNBC. July 23, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/23/americans-eat-how-much-chocolate.html

“The History of Whitman’s Candies.” http://www.russellstover.com/whitmans-history

Academic Sources

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” 2012. 342-254.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Fed Up. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. 2014. Atlas Films. Film.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” 2016. 37-60.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: The New Press, 2006.

[1] Janine Satioquia-Tan, “Americans Eat How Much Chocolate?” CNBC, July 23, 2015, http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/23/americans-eat-how-much-chocolate.html

[2] Lina Khan, “Why So Little Candy Variety? Blame the Chocolate Oligopoly,” Time, November 1, 2013, http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/01/why-so-little-candy-variety-blame-the-chocolate-oligopoly/

[3] Jeff Daniels, “US Chocolatiers Looking for New Sweet Spot,” CNBC, April 7, 2016, http://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/07/us-chocolatiers-looking-for-new-sweet-spot.html

[4] Image from Satioquia-Tan, “Americans Eat How Much Chocolate?”

[5] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 81-82.

[6] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 62-63.

[7] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 62-63.

[8] Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 2016, 41.

[9] Martin and Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 42-43.

[10] Ibid, 49.

[11] Ibid, 49-50.

[12] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 192-196.

[13] Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 47-51.

[14] Martin and Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 49.

[15] Carol Off, Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet (New York: The New Press, 2006), 120-127.

[16] “The History of Whitman’s Candies,” http://www.russellstover.com/whitmans-history

[17] Image from “The History of Whitman’s Candies.”

[18] Fed Up, directed by Stephanie Soechtig (2014; Atlas Films), film.

[19] Robert Albritton, “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry,” 2012, 344.

Sugar, Culture, and Class in Britain

Britain has a sweet tooth, to put it mildly. Modern day consumption is in excess of 140 pounds per year per person, which means that the average Brit eats almost one cup of added sugar per day. However, sugar is very much a product that has been introduced to the British diet over the past few hundred years. In the year 1700, the average person ate less than ten pounds of sugar per year (Martin Lecture “Sugar and Cacao”, 13 Feb 2017). The explosion of sugar consumption started in large part due to Britain’s Caribbean colonies, which produced and continue to produce much of the sugar the world consumes. I will argue that the culture of sugar consumption in Britain has largely been influenced by issues of class: that it started out as a primarily upper class product and spread to the lower classes through their desire to emulate wealth, that debates over abolition and free trade of sugar were largely a reaction by the bourgeois classes, and that even the modern day debates over sugar consumption and health issues are intrinsically linked to socio-economic status.


“Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or- Guard-Day at St. James’s” by James Gillray, 1797

As sugar began to take off in Britain, it was primarily an upper class product, viewed as one of the spoils of empire. Illustrations from the period, such as the above engraving from 1797, portray sweets and confections such as the sugar plums the soldiers are eating as products for those who have profited from Britain’s imperial expansion. The soldiers are caricatures of the troops who would go overseas to establish and maintain British colonies, and in the engraving they are the lucky few enjoying the spoils of their victory. The overweight soldier guarding the door and the bustling street scene outside further establishes the soldiers as removed from, and superior to the masses outside. As sugar became cheaper over the course of the 18th century and grocers began to market it to lower classes, they billed it as an exotic good, often comically mislabelling their products. In an effort to portray the now affordable product as a mark of status and participation in the British empire, descriptions such as “Lisbon sugar” were common (Stobart 178). The increase in sugar consumption over the course of the 18th century reflected sugar’s status as a wealthy product that had recently become affordable, making that mark of status affordable to the masses but not yet having lost its meaning.


Advertisement for a Slavery-Free Sugar Basin, late 18th century

Towards the end of the 18th century and into the Victorian Era, there emerged a largely upper-class-based abolition movement in Britain. Given that slaves were central to the British colonial sugar industry, they quickly set their eyes on it. Some abandoned eating sure entirely, whereas some tried to make sure that they sugar they were eating had not been produced by slaves. Even companies that employed slaves like the East India Company capitalized on this trend, selling Slavery-Free products like the sugar basin in the advertisement above. Abolition became more palatable amongst the upper classes in large part because slavery made products such as sugar that had previously been marks of status affordable to the masses, causing them to lose their meaning. After slavery was gradually abolished in the early 19th century, abolitionists turned their sights to lobbying for a continued tax on non-British (meaning slave-produced) sugar. As Richard Huzzey argues, this “was not a battle to preserve a shred of anti-slavery principle” but competing visions of abolitionism trying to make themselves heard (Huzzey 361). As sugar consumption rose and it lost its value as a status symbol, the upper classes were swift to turn on it.

Fast forwarding to the modern day, British sugar consumption is higher than ever, and there is a growing movement by the government and health sectors to get people to eat less due to its unhealthy effects. Articles such as “Sugar tax: what does it mean, which drinks will be affected, and will it work?” in the Telegraph demonstrate the current culture around sugar consumption. Soda and other sugary drinks are viewed as the biggest culprits, and there is a growing awareness of the amount of added sugar in other processed food. However, the foods attacked for containing the most sugar are typically the cheapest and the ones most likely to be disproportionally consumed by those of lower socio-economic status. A recent study even showed that the parents most likely to have receive counseling as to lower their children’s sugar intake are disproportionally poor (Park et al.).  While the health risks of sugar are real, many modern efforts to combat them do not confront the fact that many of the foods most responsible are also the most affordable.

Works Cited

Gillray, James. “Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or- Guard-Day at St. James’s.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001695092/. Accessed 9 Mar 2017.

Huzzey, Richard. “Free trade, free labour, and slave sugar in Victorian Britain.” The Historical Journal 53.02 (2010): 359-379.

Image. http://www.mylearning.org/learning/global-citizens-make-an-impact/sugar%20notice.jpg. Accessed 9 Mar 2017.

Martin, Carla D, lecture “Sugar and Cacao,” Harvard College, Cambridge, MA. 13 Feb 2017.

Park, Sohyun, Bettylou Sherry, Heidi M. Blanck; Characteristics of parents receiving counseling from child’s doctor to limit child’s sugar drink consumption. J Public Health (Oxf) 2012; 34 (2): 228-235. doi: 10.1093/pubmed/fdr071

Stobart, Jon. Sugar and Spice: Grocers and Groceries in Provincial England, 1650-1830. Oxford University Press, 2013.

“Sugar Tax: What Does It Mean, Which Drinks Will Be Affected, and Will It Work?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 18 May 2016. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.


Power. The ultimate aphrodisiac. It is intangible, yet felt, immeasurable, but detectible. We yearn for it, crave it, dream of it; it arouses us without hesitation. Each and every day we strive to empower ourselves, whether it be through education, exercise, style or socialization. From how we dress and walk, to what we eat and with whom we talk, all of our actions are rooted in an inherent desire to become more influential. As history has progressed, this universal appetite for power has been reflected in the societal standards of both the past and present. Consequently, we venerate the wealthy, distinguish those of status, and yearn for the sexual. Few possessions in the world display wealth, status, and sexuality more poignantly than chocolate. From its inauguration, chocolate has influenced the social issues that are both etched in our textbooks and echoed from our TV screens. Classism. Sexism. Racism. Capable of being both the “food of the gods” in one era and the “food of the masses” the next, chocolate has both widened and bridged the gap between the wealthy and the poor, the elite and the forgotten, and the pristine and the sexualized. Therefore, chocolate—both as an exotic luxury and a ubiquitous treat—exemplifies American society’s ongoing struggle between equality and empowerment.

Dating back as early as the Mesoamerican period, chocolate has played an integral part in the both construction and preservation of social classes. In fact, our understanding of the Mayan use of cacao is predominantly found etched upon elegant vessels unearthed in the tombs of the elite (Coe & Coe, 2013). Furthermore, some of these excavated vases contain chemical traces of alkaloids found in cacao, suggesting that their contents once were liquid (Coe & Coe, 2013). Thus, from both glyphs and painted scenes on these Mayan vessels, it is evident that chocolate was drunk both by kings and nobles (Presilla, 2009). However, evidence from concurrent excavations suggests that chocolate was used across all classes, particularly during rites of passage. Nevertheless, only the elite used and buried themselves with drinking vessels resistant to decay, symbolizing the dignifying effect of chocolate (Presilla, 2009). In addition, apart from regal furnishing in burial chambers, chocolate was a crucial element of opulent feasts amongst the elite; hosts of these feasts were obliged to present their guests with the finest vases they could afford to consume chocolate (Presilla, 2009). Cacao also was linked with many sacred Mayan traditions, such as fertility rites, marriage rituals, banquets, baptism, and rites of death (Martin, 2016). For example, during marriage negotiations in Mayan society, cacao drinks were essential during royal marriage and cacao seeds were often used as legal currency for marriage dowry (Martin, 2016). Furthermore, in Mayan warfare, cacao—due to the stimulating effects of theobromine—caused warriors to feel energized, stronger, even invincible. Therefore, for the Mayans, chocolate served as a medium of communicating power, distinguishing the common man from the noble through wealth and status in both life and death.

The exchange of cacao between Mesoamerican gods highlights its divinity.

Similarly, the Aztecs also use chocolate to illuminate the power of the elite. Instead of being accessible to all people, chocolate was reserved only for nobility, lords, royalty, and the warrior class (Coe & Coe, 2013). For example, in Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana, the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún describes the significance of cacao as unmistakably an elite food, recounting that it was proverbially called “heart and blood,” to be drunk by those of wealth and status (Martin, 2016). Additionally, cacao served as a cure to the skin eruptions, seizures and fevers, as well as illness that often were attributed to the Aztec gods; a number of botanical remedies included cacao in their recipes. Thus, cacao was viewed as a divine gift, a tangible, measureable embodiment of power. Such a treasured substance was the birthright of the distinguished; if one of the common people drank it without sanction from their superiors, it would cost them their life (Presilla, 2009). Thus, cacao was also referred to as yolloti eztli: the price of blood and heart. The severity of the crime for simply consuming cacao as a commoner exemplifies the conflict between equality and power observed hundreds of years before and after; for equality to exist, the elite must give up their divine gift, an unfathomable option. Consequently, those who dared to bridge the gap between the elite and the forgotten by—in this case—consuming cacao were met with indiscriminate punishment.

Thus, due to its immense value in Aztec society, cacao evolved from prestigious commodity and divine medication to a form of currency. Ranking amongst gold and precious gems, cacao reached the rooftops of imperial storehouses due to its usage in tributary offerings (Presilla, 2009). For instance, Motecuhzoma II (reigned 1502-1520) reportedly banked 40,000 xiquipilli or 960,000,000 cacao beans. Everything from avocados to full-grown turkeys could be priced by cacao (Martin, 2016). In effect, to simply drink cacao exhibited immense wealth and proved to be the ultimate display of power during the 16th century.

This marriage of wealth, divinity, and status through cacao subsequently was embraced by European nations. Arriving in the New World during the zenith of Mesoamerican chocolate culture, the Spanish deeply embraced the history of cacao consumption dating back to the Mayans. As a result, the central aspects of chocolate use in ancient Mesoamerica were preserved and disseminated throughout many of the Latin American colonies and as far as the Philippines (Presilla, 2009). Recognizing the power inherent to cacao, the Spanish conquistador Cortés wrote to the emperor Charles V requesting a grant of land for a Pacific Coast plantation containing two thousand cacao trees (Presilla, 2009). Not only did the farm prove immensely profitable, but it also catalyzed cacao’s entrance into Europe; both chocolate and cacao quickly became pillars of the Spanish economy. Naturally, people in Spain adopted the custom of drinking chocolate. However, just as in Mesoamerica, the relationship of the elite and the consumption of chocolate remained inseparable; arriving as an exotic luxury, chocolate was experienced first by the powerful (Presilla, 2009).

A painting of Spanish aristocrats enjoying chocolate, showcasing its association with the elite.

Requiring special pains, paraphernalia, and acutely roasted beans, chocolate consumption amongst the Spaniards was an elite privilege. However, as the production of cacao grew extensively amongst every rank of colonial society, chocolate closed the gap the elite and common man. Eventually, by the 18th century, chocolate drinking became routine from the top to the bottom of society (Presilla, 2009).

However, this ubiquitous consumption of chocolate that is observed today did not occur naturally. Rather, the growth in cacao production was largely the result of the African slavery and forced labor. From 1500-1900, between 10 and 15 million enslaved Africans were transported to the cacao growing regions of the New World in order to substantially increase cacao production (Martin, 2016). However, although the repercussions of African slavery included racism, racial characteristics did not factor into the decision of Europeans to use African slaves (Martin, 2016). Rather, due to geographical proximity to European nations seeking cheap labor, Africans and their descendants were condemned to enforced labor. Working painstakingly in 18-hour shifts, African slaves were forced to not only cultivate cacao, but also cotton, tobacco, rice and sugar (Martin, 2016). The labor that produced these commodity crops funded the development of capitalism in European society, poignantly illustrating the dichotomy between equality and power; unwilling to relinquish their newfound accumulation of wealth, the Europeans preserved slavery for centuries. As the widespread consumption of commodity goods, such as chocolate, bridged the gap between the lower-middle class and the elite, slavery readily became standardized (Martin, 2016). Subsequently, as chocolate lost its luxury status, European classism gradually diminished while racism rapidly took its place. Once European consumers tasted the power that had been locked behind the doors of being born into an elite family, abandoning slavery was a laughable proposition. Therefore, as Eric Williams, author of Slavery & Capitalism, states, no country thought of abolishing the slave trade until its economic value declined considerably (Martin, 2016). Ultimately, as Mintz (1986) elaborates, the power of chocolate led to it “being supplied to so many, in such stunningly large quantities, and at so terrible a cost in life and suffering.”

The greatest cost that slavery deferred to society was racism. Following slavery’s abolishment in the 19th century and the rise of big chocolate production on a global scale in the 20th century, the chocolate industry perpetuated the inequality across race and class observed a century before. Most notably, in order to display the power of both the company and their white consumers, many chocolate companies during the mid-20th century created ads that reinforced the 2nd class status of African Americans (Robertson, 2010). For example, in 1947, York-based chocolate company introduced a marketing character named “Honeybunch.” A caricature of Africans, Honeybunch’s broken dialect is drawn from stereotypes of black speech, turning her into a minstrel character.

Honeybunch reinforced the idea of supremacy and power of the English.

This cartoon, as shown to the left, is juxtaposed with real images of a white mother and her children who speak perfect English. Thus, the use of imperfect language by a black character is intended to amuse the white audience; the advertisement reinforces the idea of the supremacy and power of the English language, and more broadly of whiteness (Robertson, 2010). Conversely, Honeybunch’s depiction emphasizes ignorance and the lack of power in blackness. Nevertheless, following the progressive steps towards equality during the Civil Rights Movement, chocolate advertisers began to adjust the tone of their racist beliefs, specifically through sexuality (Robertson, 2010). As Oscar Wilde states, “everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Hence, drawing upon the exotic origins of cacao, and thus of Africans, chocolate companies pushed forward the idea that vanilla and chocolate serve as cultural metaphors for both race and sex (Martin, 2016). Accordingly, chocolate is to blackness as vanilla is to whiteness. More specifically, whiteness exemplifies power in the old-sense: regality, purity, and wealth. However, in order to appeal to a more diversified and less discriminatory consumer base, advertisers began to promote sexuality, the most modern form of power. Hence, blackness embodies desire, impurity, and craving.

As a result, sexual depictions of black men and all women have been used both to sell chocolate products and maintain both the inequality of races and disempowerment of women in America. As detailed by Robertson (2010), the stereotypical depictions of black men and women of all races in the advertisements are not novel. Throughout the history of chocolate consumption and production, femininity and blackness have been used to create spectacles of the exotic and erotic for profit.

The sexualization of chocolate both empowers and belittles its audience.

This blatant objectification and simplification of black men and women not only mocks the consumers of chocolate, but also its producers; many African men and women invest their lives in the cacao production process (Kawash, 2016). Thus, the constant juxtaposition of beautiful women and chocolate along with the belittling of black men as exotic, physical specimens illustrates society’s ongoing struggle between equality and empowerment. Since the chocolate industry has forced fed the idea that sex and empowerment are two sides of the same coin, the inherent sexism and racism of these advertisements is largely disregarded. Although there has been public outcry in response to the most extreme versions of these advertisements, such as Honeybunch, those of the modern era profit by constructing a relationship between race and sex that masks racism and sexism through the power of beauty. Therefore, just like the Aztec elites and the proletariat of 19th century Europe, modern American society has chosen the allure of power over the altruism of equality.

Ultimately, chocolate is one of the most powerful commodities in the last millennia. Due to its divinity, luxury, and sheer necessity, chocolate has played a significant role in shaping the socioeconomic atmosphere of multiple continents. Due to its divinity, chocolate immortalized the Mesoamerican elite in death; due to its luxury, chocolate granted immense wealth to Conquistadors; due to its necessity, chocolate closed the gap between the European elite and middle class. At the same, chocolate left in its wake classism that ravaged the Mesoamericans, racism that enslaved over 10 million Africans, and sexism that objectified men and women across the globe. Consequently, due to its ability to empower, chocolate has seduced generations into embracing social norms that perpetuate inequality across race, class and gender.


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Kawash, Samira. “Sex and Candy.” The New York Times. Web. 08 April 2016

Martin, Carla. “AAS 119x Lecture 16: Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements.” Web. 26 April 2016.

Martin, Carla. “AAS 119x Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’.” Web. 26 April 2016.

Martin, Carla. “AAS 119x Lecture 3: Chocolate Expansion.” Web. 26 April 2016.

Martin, Carla. “AAS 119x Lecture 6: Slavery, abolition, and forced labor.” Web. 26 April 2016.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, women, and empire: a social and cultural history. New York: Manchester University Press, 2009. 124-125. Print.

Multimedia Sources/Links

Godiva Appeals to Women with “Diva” Campaign. Digital Image. http://media260chocolate.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2014/03/03/godiva-appeals-to-women-with-diva-campaign/. Web. 4 May. 2016

Mayan Gods Exchanging Chocolate. Digital image. University of Oregon. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2016. <http://blogs.uoregon.edu/mesoinstitute/files/2013/11/Chocolate-2-1az3lcd.jpeg&gt;.

Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate.” OAH Magazine of History 18.3 (2004): 14–17.JSTOR. Web. 4 May. 2016. Accessed at: http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/25163677

Rowntree Cocoa: Screenshot from Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.












Godiva Chocolate. It speaks for itself.

Figure 1. This depicts how vast the global advertising industry really is.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary advertising is a form of business marketing used to promote a product. The purpose of advertising is to convince prospective customers that their services are superior to the competition. The issue with modern day advertising is that large corporations will do whatever it takes to turn a profit even at the expense of delivering honest messages about their products. According to Carat – a global media agency – the world spent an estimate of $592 billion dollars on advertising in 2015. What is concerning about the advertising industry is not this rapid growth but the increasing occurrence of manipulative exploitation of race, gender and class in order to turn a profit. Advertisements have become less focused on the products they are trying to sell and more about the consumers they are trying to attract even regardless of the messages the ads may convey. This essay will analyze an existing advertisement from the Godiva chocolate company and propose a counter to their current advertisement.

Figure 2. This Godiva advertisement depicts chocolate as a luxury good and uses sexual appeal to attract the eye of prospective customers. 

Godiva, “You can see it in her eyes”

The Godiva chocolate advertisement displayed above is a perfect depiction of the issues in modern day advertising. Godiva is a chocolate company trying to sell chocolate, however, at first glance it is almost impossible to see that. The focus of the advertisement is on a young, white women gazing into the ad in a very sexual manner with nice clothes and makeup on. The only semblance of chocolate is one small piece placed above her breasts. It is as if the chocolate is a decoration rather than a food. Furthermore, the company name Godiva is written at the bottom of the page, but the ‘GO’ is faded out so that you focus on the ‘DIVA’. Lastly, the slogan of the advertisement is “you can see it in her eyes”, which again places less emphasis on the chocolate product itself and more on the sexuality of the image. As Professor Martin says it is “discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of sex.” (Martin)This sexualization in chocolate advertisements is not a new phenomenon. In the book entitled Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History, author Emma Robertson states that “chocolate marketing followed the cultural trends of the Second World War, in objectifying women as sexual objects to maintain male morale.” (Robertson, 31) Robertson goes on to say that, “the chocolate thus gains in value through association both with a dynamic adventure/romance narrative and with an imagined ideal of feminine beauty.” (Robertson, 32) This infatuation of sexualized advertisements in the chocolate industry is degrading to women but also takes away from the product and everything that goes into producing chocolate.

On that note, this advertisement romanticizes chocolate as a whole. The people who are cultivating cacao beans are making next to nothing and starving but we do not see them on the cover of the advertisement. We see chocolate as a luxurious good, suited for wealthy people in high classes of society. This marketing strategy much like the sexualization of chocolate is also not new. As Robertson mentions in her book, “Cadbury drew explicitly on upper-class stereotypes to distinguish their ‘cup’ brand of cocoa in the early 1930’s. Adverts featured well-dressed, educated and well-travelled consumers pouring themselves a delicate cup of cocoa from an ornamental jug.” (Robertson, 18) Appealing to separate social classes separated Cadbury much like it separates Godiva from its competition but it also appeals to a select portion of the population.

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Figure 3. Our proposed advertisement eliminates issues of sexualization and focuses solely on what is important, the chocolate.

Godiva, “It speaks for itself”

The Godiva advertisement that we created ‘lets the chocolate speak for itself’. A question that professor Martin brought up in class when analyzing advertisements is “who is included in the advertisement and why?” (Martin) Our idea was to remove everyone from the picture entirely so that the focus is purely on the chocolate and nothing else. In a time when ads are intricate and hard to follow, this advertisement is straight to the point and brings your attention directly to the product. The advertisement is merely a piece of chocolate in front of a blank white background. There is no deception or psychological manipulation, it is strictly the product. The other reason we chose this advertisement is that we believe it appeals to a wide array of people. One theme that is apparent in advertisements today is that they focus in on a select audience to sell to. Whether it be high class people, or white people or men it limits who the product appeals to. This advertisement is for everyone, there is no discrimination and no class, race or gender we exclude.


In an ideal world the advertisement for a product would include an unbiased, comprehensive analysis of the product. It would include who produces it, how it is produced and any relevant information a consumer would be interested in. The fact of the matter is that customers may not be looking for that much information at first glance but rather than deceive them through psychological manipulation we believe it is better to keep it simple and ‘let the chocolate speak for itself’.

Works Cited:

  1. Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
  2. Martin, Carla. (2016). Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Class in Chocolate Advertisements. (Powerpoint Slides). Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_kGt6Sj1X5bYUY0UWg0Y1h2TTA&usp=sharing

Chocolate Advertising’s Love Affair with Gender, Class and Sexism

Chocolate advertisements have been targeting  women since cocoa and chocolate became available to the working classes in the nineteenth century. The chocolate companies recognized the role of women as the household’s primary decision makers and purchaser of their family’s nutritional needs. (Robertson, 2009)  The chocolate company’s advertisements have evolved over the years to adapt to the evolution of the roles that women play in society. In 2004 Godiva launched their Diva advertising campaign featuring women in the image of sexy, upper class divas holding a Godiva chocolate.  The tag line read “Every Woman is One Part Diva Much to Dismay of Every Man.”


First let’s define the word Diva. According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary a Diva is a “Prima Donna or a famous and successful woman who is very attractive and fashionable.” It was a clever marketing campaign as it manipulated the brand name Godiva by separating the first two letters, Go and the last four letter Diva as a message , Go Diva to symbolize empowerment for women. The woman in the advertisement is dressed in what appears to be a sleeveless neutral colored night-gown trimmed with a few rows of lace and  a pale blue shawl or blanket is draped over the middle of her back and arm.
Her surroundings are understated however they exude elegance and entitlement.  The sparkling crystal chandelier glitters and your eye barely register the well placed antique pale blue vase that all but blends into the pale blue background. The main feature in the image is a woman whose age is somewhat difficult to determine. However, it is safe to say between 18 and 35 years of age.  She has long brown tousled wavy hair and is glancing over her shoulder straight at the camera with sultry, kohl lined eyes holding a chocolate truffle between her thumb and forefinger.  The lace on her night-gown creates a sense of feminine innocence which is in contrast to aura of post coitus satisfaction in the woman’s look.  The tag line is “Every Woman is One Part Diva Much to Dismay of Every Man.”  The Godiva Diva campaign used this tagline to send the message to women that every woman is a Diva that deserve Godiva chocolates.  No man was needed to purchase Godiva chocolates for them. The ads suggest that when you consume Godiva chocolates, you are an upper class, sexy Diva that will feel the same positive emotions that the woman in the ad exudes. Reinforcing the message “a pleasurable guilty treat to be enjoyed alone.”  (Robertson, 2009) With the Diva ad campaign Godiva continues the marketing trend that “maintains the link between women, chocolate and sex” that has been around since the 1940’s (Robertson, 2009.)

How do we push back against these advertisements that exploit gender, race and class to reach their target markets?  In my revised advertisement for the Godiva Diva campaign the imagery and tag line is modified to send the same message as the original campaign which is that while consuming Godiva chocolates you’ll feel like a Diva.

godiva ad.final

The revised advertisement is void of the blatant sexism and racism by the absence of the image of a tousled haired Caucasian woman. However, to be true to the aim of the original intended audience of  the Godiva Diva campaign I included images that refer to gender and class in the revised advertisement .  The revised tag line reads: Every woman is one part Diva so Dive In! The message to women is the same, you are a Diva and you deserve these chocolates. The main focus of the ad is the sumptuous looking assortment of chocolate truffles. Faded into the background of the image is a diamond encrusted tiara that  generally  evokes an elite class and female gender based perception. The diamond tiara sends a subtle message to the consumer that the truffles are consumed by the elite royalty perhaps a Prima Donna princess or queen. The tag line gives all women permission to enjoy Godiva truffles – Every woman is one part Diva, so Dive In.  You deserve these chocolates as much as anyone.

Chocolate companies need to get on board with advertising chocolate products to women consumers  with less blatant sexism and gender bias and realize that their message can still be heard  that all women are one part Diva and deserve to consume Godiva chocolate.


Works Cited

The Wall Street Journal online. Godiva Appeals to the Diva Within by Cynthia Cho. September 13, 2004. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB109502924679815780. date accessed April 6,2016.

Merriam Webster Online Dictionary – Diva. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diva. date accessed, April 6, 2016.

Robertson, Emma. “Chocolate, women and empire: A Social and Cultural History.” Manchester University Press, New York. 2010.

Google search images. Godiva Diva Ad Campaign feature photo. http://media260chocolate.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2014/03/03/godiva-appeals-to-women-with-diva-campaign/ date accessed, April 4, 2016

Revised Godiva Diva Ad designed by Black Rock Advertising and Publishing, LLC, The South Shore Magazine.

Gilded In Gold: L.A. Burdick, Class, and the Construction of Luxury

L.A. Burdick constructs a luxurious chocolate eating experience through its store design, choice of ingredients and product titles, and emphasis on packaged gifts. Burdick’s attracts and caters to consumers looking for this high-end experience, while it excludes consumers of lower socioeconomic status and culinary literacy that may feel uncomfortable with the store’s atmosphere and be unable to afford its high price tag. Why certain individuals feel at home in a Burdick’s shop while others would rather not spend time there largely can be explained by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capital. He argues that cultural preferences stem from one’s habitus, which is formed beginning in early childhood from “class-specific experiences of socialization in family and peer groups” (Swartz, 102), proposing that “class positions are defined by holdings of social and cultural capital as well as economic assets” (Murdock, 64). I will focus on cultural and economic capital and how they relate to Burdick’s consumers. Cultural capital can be defined as “institutionalized, i.e., widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials) used for social and cultural exclusion” (Lamont and Lareau, 1988) and economic capital refers to how much money one has. Burdick’s targets customers whose habitus reflect high economic and cultural capital, since this kind of early life environment is likely to produce individuals that have the means to purchase expensive chocolate and have an interest in buying products that are high-quality, European in name and style, and ethically sourced.

To better understand how L.A. Burdick markets to consumers and constructs an experience for them, I visited the store at 2 pm on Sunday, April 26, 2015, and made observations as I sipped my dark drinking chocolate for an hour.



Burdick’s (pictured above) is tucked away from the main Harvard Square area, and its subtle brown awning with gold lettering is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. This unassuming entrance aligns with the image that Burdick’s tries to project; it exudes class rather than flash and looks like a hidden gem that only people who are in the know are aware of. There is a queue barrier outside, further suggesting to passersby that this shop is potentially exclusive and important enough to draw crowds. These visual cues help to attract Burdick’s target demographic (individuals high in both cultural and economic capital) and to deter others (individuals who don’t have extra money to spend on expensive chocolate and/or have no interest in buying it) before they even enter the shop.

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Once inside (pictured above), the chandeliers emit a subtle, yellowish light that creates a warm and inviting atmosphere. The decor consists largely of red oak wood, and the color scheme is a mix of browns, greens, and golds. This evokes an old world charm and creates seamlessness between the colors of the room and the colors of the treats being consumed. The china used is white, which showcases the colors of their deep, dark chocolate. Overall, Burdick’s aesthetic is strikingly similar to that of a London coffee house (which also served chocolate drinks) circa 1700 (pictured below).

They share the same color scheme of earthy neutrals and heavy use of wood. While Burdick’s opts for tables that accommodate small parties, the coffee house of late 17th century London was a crucial part of political and social life, so large tables that enabled conversation were preferred (Coe and Coe, 166-167). Coffee houses may have been open to all who could afford to drink in England, but in 17th century France, chocolate was only for the aristocracy (Coe and Coe, 166). Burdick’s chandeliers are reminiscent of France’s exclusive mentality. Similar to chocolate, which became available to the masses in the 19th century (Coe and Coe, 232), when chandeliers came into existence in the 14th century, they were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them; it wasn’t until electricity was commonly used in the 1890s that chandeliers were accessible to more households (Home and Living). While the intentionality behind Burdick’s signals of wealth is uncertain, its European influence is definite. Larry Burdick says that he was inspired to start the company after a visit to a confiserie in Bern, Switzerland in the 1980s, and his wife, Paula, who designed the company’s look, says that she used “details gleaned from her time in Paris” to create “an ambiance of relaxed elegance” (L.A. Burdick). Larry and Paula Burdick – perhaps unaware of the exact elements of history they were referencing – combine the historic public drinking of chocolate in England and its exclusivity in France through the interior design of their shop. This aesthetic creates a space that appeals to high cultural and economic capital consumers, who want to escape to old world Europe for a little and who feel at home surrounded by symbols of opulence.

Burdick’s caters to mature consumers, and during the time I was there, I only saw two children. The treats that Burdick’s sells, which feature European names (e.g. Gugelhupf), liquors (e.g. limoncello, rum, and kirsch), and somewhat divisive flavors and spices (e.g. ginger, anise, and lavender), are meant for an audience that prides itself in enjoying these exotic flavors rather than recoiling at their mention. Food neophobia is defined as a “reluctance to eat and/or avoidance of novel foods” (Pliner and Hobden, 1992). A study of Australian adolescents showed that rural adolescents (classified as low socioeconomic status and exposed to less cultural diversity) reported greater food neophobia than the urban adolescents, who were more willing to try new foods (Flight et al., 2003). Bourdieu would say that food neophobia is a product of one’s habitus; a working class upbringing trains one to be wary of the unfamiliar, while an upper class lifestyle trains one to be accepting of novel experiences. Burdick’s does not make an effort to Americanize its desserts so that it can appeal to the widest possible audience. Instead, it does the opposite, curating a menu full to the brim with foreign items likely to draw in a consumer base with the familial background, education, and financial means necessary to acquire an appreciation for such delicacies.


A case full of desserts with European names

Based on my in-store observation, Burdick’s customers spend the most money when they’re purchasing chocolate gift boxes for other people. These gift boxes are displayed prominently and are adorned with colorful ribbons. They offer consumers an opportunity to share the Burdick’s experience with others, while simultaneously reflecting positively on their own good taste. Sociologist Diane Barthel says that chocolate is “a part of life that is excessive: extra, surplus, having more to do with losing control than with gaining it, with spending rather than saving, with sex rather than salvation” and that chocolate boxes offer “promise of privilege and transcendence above everyday needs and political agendas” (Barthel, 1989). Burdick’s gift boxes exemplify Barthel’s notions of excess and spending. Their “Bee and Caramel Set,” only offered around Mother’s Day, starts at $54.00, and includes Honey-Bee Bonbons, Bee “Hive” Truffles, and eight types of caramels (e.g. mocha and salted cardamom) (L.A. Burdick). Selling bonbons shaped like honeybees is reminiscent of the molding of sugar paste into animals, buildings, and objects in 15th and 16th century England (Mintz, 89). Because such large quantities of expensive ingredients were required, this practice was originally confined to the king and other elites and spread to non-nobility during the 16th century (Mintz, 89-91). The decorative sugar “embodied in display the host’s wealth, power, and status” (Mintz, 90). Burdick’s uses a similar technique today to connote status and good taste with its bee-shaped chocolates, though this is likely unconscious of sculpted sugar’s historical roots. Their gift sets simultaneously make the recipient feel respected and affirm the status of the gift giver. By giving someone a Burdick’s gift set, consumers send the signal that they are high in economic and cultural capital (whether or not that is actually the case). Receiving a Burdick’s gift set may reinforce one’s class status (upper middle/upper class) and align with the habitus, or it may provide an opportunity to escape from one’s habitus and to get a taste of a different class’ lifestyle.

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 Shelves full of exquisitely wrapped chocolate gift boxes

While the focus of my Burdick’s analysis is on class, its relationship with consumers is much more complex. This idea is at the core of intersectionality, which is defined as “the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations” (McCall, 2005). One area where this intersectionality is clear is Burdick’s gifts. I’ve already established their connection to class, but they also have a major gendered component. While the Mother’s Day Bee and Caramel Set is tied with a bright green ribbon and filled with bite-sized chocolates shaped like cute honeybees with almonds for wings, the suggested Father’s Day gift set is a wood box of chocolate cigars (L.A. Burdick). The Mother’s Day assortment is ultra sweet with its combination of caramel and honey, while the Father’s Day cigars are flavored with rum and downplay any element of sweetness. This difference in emphasis on sweetness reinforces the association between women and sugar, which goes back to England circa 1850-1950, when working class women and children ate relatively more sugar than adult men, who were the laborers and therefore ate more protein (Mintz, 144, 148-149). Smoking cigars is a traditionally masculine activity, done in spaces that either excluded women, like social clubs, (Swiencicki, 1998) or where men were in positions of power over women, like strip clubs (Frank, 2003). Women are often referred to as queen bees when they are smart, ambitious (Horn, 5), or willing to “sting” other women if their power is threatened (Mavin, 2008). When women are referred to as worker bees it implies that they “are supposed to labor behind the scenes, underpaid and content to sacrifice for the good of the whole” (Horn, 5). Taken together, Burdick’s sells chocolate gifts to women that connote powerlessness and docility, while it sells gifts to men that connote power over and exclusion of women and members of lower social classes. The continued acceptance of such antiquated gender stereotypes by both sexes is a curious phenomenon. Perhaps we take comfort in reinforcing these gender roles, even when they contribute to the perpetuation of patriarchy, because they are deeply ingrained in our male and female habitus and uphold the roles of the idealized nuclear family structure.


 Single origin bars on display

Burdick’s not only caters to the crowd that enjoys fancy desserts for the flavor or prestige, but it also targets socially conscious consumers with its line of single origin chocolate bars (pictured above). These include bars from Chuao, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Grenada, Madagascar, Venezuela, and Ecuador, and they range in price from $9 to $13 each and in cocoa content from 64% to 75% (L.A. Burdick). While the packaging of each bar does not specify the nature of Burdick’s relationship with the cacao farmers at each of these locations, further investigation of their website makes it clear that Burdick’s has partnered with independent cocoa farmers and built a cocoa processing facility on Grenada Island (L.A. Burdick). No such arrangement exists between Burdick’s and the other seven single origin sites and no additional information is available online about their dealings with these locations. Through the Burdick’s website, consumers can “Buy a Cocoa Tree, Support a Farmer” in Grenada by donating to the Cocoa Farming Future Initiative, which is “a non-profit fund which helps preserve fragile ecosystems through clean, sustainable farming techniques, and to raise the farmer’s income” (Cocoa Farming Future Initiative), or they can contribute by purchasing Grenada chocolate products, since 10% of the price is donated to CFFI automatically (L.A. Burdick). Interestingly, a customer inside a Burdick’s store would have no way of knowing that the Grenada bar was special in this way and would be unable to differentiate it from the other single origin bars by anything other than the flavor hints listed and package coloring.


Clickable ad from Burdick’s website to donate to CFFI

Studies have shown that above average socioeconomic status correlates with high social consciousness, while average and lower socioeconomic status correlates with low social consciousness (Anderson and Cunningham, 1972, Webster, 1975). Therefore, Burdick’s engagement with socially conscious chocolate consumption through its line of single origin bars and cocoa processing facility on Grenada Island aligns with the mentality of its upper middle to upper class target consumer, who has both high economic and cultural capital. Burdick’s provides these individuals with an appealing outlet for their social awareness and economic means that allows them to do more than just purchase chocolate – it allows them to contribute to improving the lives of others.

I scoured 123 Yelp reviews from 2014 and 2015 for the Brattle Street L.A. Burdick in an effort to understand how Burdick’s meets consumers’ expectations and to pinpoint what drives good vs. bad experiences. Out of the 123 reviews, 100 were 4-5 stars and 23 were 3 or fewer stars (Yelp), which speaks to the possibility that people who use Yelp regularly are likely to be part of the consumer audience that Burdick’s targets (educated, enough money to dine out). The bar graphs below display the factors that Yelpers listed for forming their positive or negative impressions.


graph 2

Based on these numbers, every single customer who enjoyed their Burdick’s experience commented on how much they liked the flavor and high quality of the chocolate (calling it liquid gold, the best ever, chocolate crack, luxurious, rich, and dreamy), and many of them also felt attracted to the shop because they liked the ambiance (calling it cozy, lovely, fancy, adorable, quaint, and romantic). The 23 reviewers that did not have a good experience seem to have different taste and ambiance preferences and are unwilling to pay Burdick’s high prices for chocolate concoctions that are too “rich,” “heavy,” and “overwhelming” for their tastes. One consumer who rated Burdick’s with only 1 star communicates the deeper issues that may underlie why some consumers love the ambiance and product, while others dislike it:

“There I am; jeans and a hoodie, looking like a hot mess, mixed in with overly dressed middle aged women pushing 2K strollers around.  Eh, I was a bit out of placed… I may visit if I am ever in that area again, I hope not though.  That would involve me getting way too overdressed for 1pm on a Saturday afternoon.”

 -Cristina C.

Class-consciousness is clearly a major factor that contributed to Cristina C.’s negative experience at Burdick’s. While Cristina C. may not have been able to articulate why she felt so out of place beyond the surface reason that she was underdressed, Bourdieu would attribute her discomfort to a disjuncture between her habitus and environment (Reay, 2004). The women that she observed wore clothes and pushed strollers that she recognized as out of her price range, signaling their high economic and cultural capital. This points to class and habitus differences between these women and Cristina C., likely stemming from better educational opportunities and greater exposure to diverse culture by their families. Cristina C. focused her ill feelings toward Burdick’s on the women she saw there, but the atmosphere of the shop, which mimics and invites the women’s combination of status and high culture, also contributes to habitus disjuncture. Cristina C.’s emotional response highlights the mechanism by which Burdick’s constructs its space of luxury; its atmosphere and products align with a specific upper middle class/upper class habitus, cultivating these target clients through feelings of belonging and opportunity for ethical consumption, while they create disjuncture with the working class habitus, eliciting feelings ranging from unease to hostility and alienating these consumers.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Thomas W., Cunningham, William H., 1972. The Socially Conscious Consumer. Journal of Marketing. 36, 23-31.

Barthel, Diane, 1989. Modernism and Marketing: The Chocolate Box Revisited. Theory, Culture & Society. 6, 429-438.

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Photos of L.A. Burdick store taken by the author; graphs generated by the author