Tag Archives: England

The Rise of Sugar in England

In the contemporary western world sugar is a staple in the average diet. In every meal most people will consume sugar in some way or another. It can be consumed through a refreshing can of Coca-Cola during a meal or through that delicious piece of chocolate cake for dessert. The thought of not consuming sugar in ones diet seems impossible by today’s standard. However, there was a point in time where people almost never consumed sugar in their diet. Sidney Mintz provides a brief history of the rise in popularity of sugar, more specifically sucrose, when she writes

In 1000 A.D., few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon afterward they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity- albeit a costly and rare one- in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one fifth of the calories in the English diet. (Mintz 5-6)

This increase in consumption over such a relatively short time period produces a number of questions. The idea that sugar could go from not being known to a main provider of calories in the English diet in a few hundred years is astonishing. This post looks to explore the various factors that lead to this growth and will analyze the English diet prior to sugar’s introduction as well as the rise of chocolate in England that contributed to the increase in sugar consumption.

The rapid rise in sugar consumption can be seen in the graph above

To understand the rise of chocolate in England one must first understand the diet the English population was consuming before introduced to sugar. It was at this time that “most people in England and elsewhere were struggling to stabilize their diets around adequate quantities of starch (in the form of wheat or grains)”(Mintz 13). Today this type of diet is known as “one starch ‘centricity’”(Mintz 14) and still today is what leads to a number of world hunger problems. With this in mind one is able to see how the introduction of sugar to the English population could have an effect not just because of the taste but the nutritional element as well. This is not to say that the taste, the sweetness of the sugar did not play a large part in the increase of consumption as well since sugar both “satisfies the human appetite for sweetness and contributes calories to our diet”(Galloway 437). Having the ability to satisfy our cravings for sweetness is a big deal seeing that many researchers believe that “there is a built in human likeness for sweet taste”(Mintz 14). In addition to this research “many scholars have promoted the thesis that mammalian responsiveness to sweetness arose because for millions of years a sweet taste served to indicate edibility to the tasting organism”(Mintz 15). Therefore, the rise of sugar in England during this time does not appear to be a random occurrence. One is able to see that sugar was a very dynamic resource to the English population at this time. However the caloric value and sweet taste many not be solely responsible for sugars growth.

The social aspect of chocolate displayed above

In addition to the qualities mentioned above, sugar consumption grew so rapidly as a result of new types of foods and drinks that were mixed well with it. Making its way around Europe was this new beverage that was gaining in popularity. This beverage was called the ‘chocolate drink’. “In France, chocolate was strictly for the aristocracy, while in England it was available to all those who had the money to pay for it, and it was on offer to all who patronized coffee-shops. Chocolate was becoming democratized”(Coe 166). The greater access that the English had to chocolate the greater their consumption compared to those in other countries. English consumption of chocolate would increase further when Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press in 1828. With this invention “the age-old, thick and foamy drink was dethroned by easily prepared, more easily digestible cocoa. Van Houten’s invention…made possible the large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses, in both powdered and solid form”(Coe 235). This lead to a product more similar to what we know today a chocolate. It is in this form that cocoa was mixed with sugar along with other ingredients to make milk chocolate. It was also at this time that those in England began to mix sugar with other beverages, like coffee, and foods to add a sweeter taste. The combination of all these factors leads to the growth of sugar consumption in England.

Van Houten’s new form of chocolate

Sugar became popular in England at a time when so much change was occurring throughout the nation. As more and more people in England were exposed to the resource its popularity grew at an increasing rate. It was able to do this as a result of the caloric value it provided in addition to the natural sweetness it could provide to the human taste bud. With the help of the introduction of chocolate as well as other food and drinks, sugar was able to continue its expansion into other food groups until it became a staple of the English diet.

Works Cited

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

Galloway, J. H. “Sugar.” The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, pp. 437–449.

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

All images taken from WordPress image media library

One Thousand Years of Sugar: The Transition from Medicine and Elite Consumption, to Everyday Life in Great Britain

Most of the Burden of Producing Sugar for the British Empire fell upon the shoulders of Slaves in British colonies like Barbados and other Islands in the West Indies

In today’s world, sugar is one of the most widely found consumables across the globe. From soda, to candy, baked goods, and everything in between, sugar’s presence in 21st century life is undeniable. But it hasn’t always been this way – less than a millennium ago, sugar was an item reserved for the very wealthiest of society. Viewing the historical change in sugar through the lens of the British Empire is an apt way through which to understand sugar’s rise to quotidien usage, both on the European continent, and across the world. Over time, sugar went from being utilized in British medicine and serving a luxury good for only the elites of the country, to firmly entrenching itself as a staple of mainstream British society. This change, which can in large part be attributed to the increased production of sugar across the British colonies, especially in the West Indies, represented a shift in the way sugar was perceived across the country and continent. Previously seen as an example of the chasm present between socioeconomic classes within the British Empire, sugar’s broad appeal and its versatile usages, from decorative material to spice, medecine, preservative, and finally sweetener, were predominantly responsible for its rise to prominence.

A Diagram Demonstrating the Spread of Sugarcane Cultivation, Originating in the Ganges River Valley

Sugar has been grown since as early as 500 B.C., where it was harvested in the Ganges River Valley of modern-day India. However, it took over 1,500 years for the substance to appear with regularity in Europe – the first example of which was seen entering through the port of Venice (Rivard, 422-423). When sugar first appeared on the European continent, its function was markedly different from what it has become in the 21st century. The arrival of sugar to the continent in the early 12th century was characterized primarily by its usage as an expensive, exotic spice, reserved for usage by only the most wealthy members of society (Mintz, 79-80).

A Portrayal of Sugar’s Initial Restrictions in the British Empire – Exclusively for the most Elite Members of Society

In the centuries that followed, sugar’s impact in the British Empire remained relatively minute, with the exception of its role in health and wellness. Sugar was frequently used as a cure for ailments, building off of many Islamic and Byzantine doctors’ proclivity for using the substance for medicinal purposes. Sugar’s place in the medical community of Europe and Britain specifically became so significant from the 13th century onward, that the expression “like an apothecary without sugar” became a commonplace phrase to describe a state of desperation (Mintz, 101). While the utilization of sugar as a remedy was not without its controversy, the English’s adaptation of the substance as a potential remedy to cure illness helped bring sugar into a more prominent role within the British Empire. Although its widespread consumption from a gastronomical perspective would not occur for several centuries, sugar’s importance within the medical and elite communities of the Empire helped set the stage for its emergence into everyday English life.


While its initial presence in the British Empire was restricted to only the most affluent elites of the period, the 1400s and 1500s saw a significant uptick in the harvesting of sugar, especially in the colonies of Great Britain (Rivard, 423). Although its status in the 1500s and 1600s remained that of an “object of a sustained vogue in Northern europe”, its consumption in England increased 5-fold in the ensuing century  (Godoy). A series of political events, like the Dutch Revolt and the loss of the Spanish Armada to the British also played a part in this shift. Coupled with the rampant popularity of sugar amongst those it was available to, the resulting effect was a significant uptick in the shipments of sugar from Barbados and the other British colonies of the West Indies (Rivard, 423). These shipments allowed British consumer culture to As this rise in sugar consumption continued, the British government steadily reduced the tax on the product through the 18th and 19th centuries, until it was completely eliminated in 1874. As a result, the per capita consumption of sugar rose from four pounds per year in 1700, to a jaw-dropping 90 pounds per year by 1900 (Rivard, 423). This over 20-times increase was a reflection of both the populous’ love of the substance, and the quickly growing sugar industry’s willingness to meet the demands, often by ethically questionable means.

A Graph Depicting the Immense Rise in Sugar Consumption in Great Britain

In order to keep up with the widespread desire for sugar across Great Britain, the Empire turned to slavery to help bridge the gap between supply and demand.  The slave trade, particularly in Jamaica, became an extremely lucrative endeavor, and a viable manner by which the British Empire could fulfill the desire for sugar amongst the British citizenry. A 1770s survey conducted by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a member of the British parliament, revealed that 59 percent of Jamaica’s slave population was tasked with growing sugar, desperately trying to keep up with British demand (Thomas, 33). The number of resources that were dedicated to producing sugar in the islands of the Caribbean and West Indies was truly staggering. By the year 1773, Jamaica alone featured at least 775 sugar plantations across the 150 mile-long island, rendering the colony one of the most valuable components of the entire British Empire (Thomas, 33). This large-scale commitment to the manufacturing of sugar allowed the substance to become more and more prevalent in Great Britain, from drinks, to chocolate, and everything in between. This rise resulted in books like “Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s special confectionery cookbook”, produced in 1760 and outlining the variety of recipes incorporating sugar, finally available to the middle class of Britain (Mintz, 117). Even the poor citizenry of Great Britain had reason to supplement their diets with sugar. The preparation of “hasty pudding”, a type of oatmeal porridge, as well as molasses and tea, were quotidian treats for the working-class of the empire to enjoy sugar as well (Mintz, 118).

Hasty Pudding Was an Example of the Types of Foods that Even the Working Classes of Great Britain would Consume with Sugar

Compared to its initial appearance in the 1300s and 1400s, the prominence of sugar in Great Britain became practically incomparable by the late 1700s. Not only was there a revolution in the demand for the substance, but the British Empire, in response, markedly increased its production across the West Indies and Caribbean. Barbados and Jamaica were particularly responsible for the influx of sugar into Great Britain and Western Europe, often through slave labor or indentured servitude. These ethically questionable means were an inevitable step taken by the British Empire, who saw an opportunity to greatly increase the monetization of the “sugar colonies”, and meet the demand of the middle and working classes of Great Britain in the process. Initially a substance reserved exclusively for medicine, and only the most elite of British society, the ensuing centuries resulted in a country-wide, and continent-wide, obsession with sugar, that led to an increase of over 20-fold in the per capita consumption of Great Britain. The factors of consumer culture, political colonization, and evolving taste preferences, all played significant roles in this transformation. The case of sugar in Great Britain is an apt case through which to study these different conditions, and the effects they had across several centuries.









In Text Citations

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

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.

Rivard, C., Thomas, J., Lanaspa, M., & Johnson, R. (2013). Sack and sugar, and the aetiology of gout in England between 1650 and 1900. Rheumatology,52(3), 421-426.

Thomas, Robert Paul. “The Sugar Colonies of the Old Empire: Profit or Loss for Great Britain?” The Economic History Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 1968, pp. 30–45.


England’s first chocolate influencer

Upon encountering chocolate in the new world, Europeans brought their own distinct opinions to this strange, new delicacy. There were those like the early American explorer, José Juan de Acosta, who emphatically rejected the cacao drink chocolaté and claimed those who consume it do so “foolishly, and without reason; for it is loathesome to such as those who are not acquainted with it, having a skumme or froth that is very unpleasant to taste” (Acosta 271).  Some, like doctor Francisco Hernandez, approached it as a medicinal product and wrote volumes about its physical effects like ““treat poisoning, mitigate intestinal pain and the symptoms of colic” (Hernandez 304). And then there were those like Thomas Gage, who quickly caught on to the local love for cacao and found a similar passion he was eager to share with his home country of England.

Illustration of Thomas Gage’s voyage through New Spain (Avelline 1720)

Gage was a Dominican priest who spent over a decade working and traveling through Spanish America in the 1600’s. During his time overseas, he experienced firsthand how a lifestyle could be utterly transformed by the cacao plant. His encounters with cacao are well documented in the treatise he published entitled The English-American his travail by sea and land: or, A new survey of the West-Indies. While the work details his travels over more than ten years, he places special emphasis, as well an entire chapter, on the cacao beverage known as choccolat. In turn, the work helped assert Gage as an early expert of Mesoamerica in addition to cacao. The focus on chocolate however played a very strategic role. At the time, the consumption of chocolate was under scrutiny in Europe by the church for its association with “cannibalistic” or “un-christian” Mesoamerican cultures (Campos 185). It had been being classified by some as a sacrilegious product and, according to Gage, was even banned by a Guatemalan priest in his perish (Coe 198). His writing can therefore be viewed as the first attempt to promote acceptance of his beloved chocolate potion both culturally and religiously.

Title Page of The English-American his travail by sea and land: or, A new survey of the West-India’s (Gage 1648)

Although Gage documents choccolatte quite objectively in his attempt to assuage the public of their fears, his admiration is apparent in his description of its elemental qualities and physical effects. Additionally, the first time Gage introduces cacao in his work was shortly after his arrival in Vera Cruz where he writes “the Prior of the Cloister of St. Dominicke, who entertained us very lovingly with some sweet Meates, and everyone with a Cup of the Indian drink called Chocolatte whereof I shall speake hereafter” (Gage 24). Introducing the beverage early on in the work demonstrates a clear interest in sharing the product with his audience and is further expunged later in the chapter entitled “Concerning two daily and common Drinkes, or Potions much used in the India’s, called Chocolatte, and Atolle”. This chapter reveals Gage’s careful effort in appealing to potential consumers.

Through his classification of cacao in this section, Gage implies the superior, if not almost godly, qualities of the compound as he states “This Cacao, though as every simple, it containes the quali|ty of the foure Elements” (Gage 111). When Gage speaks of the four elements, he is referring to humoral states of hot, cold, dry and humid. Typically, elements could be classified by two of these traits, however he stipulates that it “is not a simple element” as it is classified as “cold and dry” by Physicians but can also be encountered with “hot and soluble parts”. Furthermore, he explains how this can be used as a powerful solution to combat any ailment and that for “such a quantity of Cacao, the severall dispositions of mens bodies must be their rule”. By referencing both the physical and medicinal elements in this section Gage implies the divine qualities of the cacao plant that transcend Mesoamerican religion and can even be supported by Christianity.

Cacao beverage similar to the “choccolatte”
consumed by Gage (National Geographic 2017)

In addition, he recounts his own use of the beverage and the effects it had on his wellbeing to support his stance that it should be introduced to all men. Gage had grown entirely reliant on the drink as he “used it twelve yeers constantly, drinking one cup in the morning, another yet before dinner between nine or ten of the clock; another within an houre or two after dinner, and another between four and five in the afternoon” (Gage 110). Even more, he states that he had grown so accustomed to the drink that going a day without it left him with a faint stomach. His body’s dependence on the substance he argues was entirely beneficial as he was healthy without “any obstructions, or oppilations, not knowing what either ague, or feaver was”. Gage is clearly not only a firm believer in the powerful effects of cacao but England’s most ardent user too. His role as a priest further suggests it could be readily accepted by a devout man.

Finally, in the section’s conclusion Gage addresses the opinion much of England held towards cacao at this time. He claims that in conversations with Spainards who have had their ship seized by Englishmen, “in anger and wrath we have hurled over board this good commoditie, not regarding the worth and goodnesse of it” (Gage 111). In response to the animosity held towards cacao, Gage references the treatment of the product as a delicacy across the Indias as well as the ways in which nuns enhance it with flavors such as “Cinnamon, Sweet-waters, Amber, or Muske” to cure the ill. The addition of cinnamon into the mix of flavors used to flavor the drink was a strategic mention on Gage’s part. The spice was not indigenous to Mesoamerica and would be more widely accepted by many in England (Martin, Sampeck 420). Suggesting the blend of these two tastes was an appeal to his European friends to acclimate to cacao through hybridization. He also emphatically suggests that the English people could easily reap these benefits by through trade with the Spanish. Lastly, the motivation to convince England to introduce into local markets is cemented as he scarcely references the other drink he popularly encountered in Mesoamerican culture, Atolle, as he claims “of which I will say but a little, because I know it cannot be used here (England)”.

Although Gage is not commonly referred to as one of the first chocolate pioneers in Europe, his writings had lasting impact on the acceptance of chocolate in England. After publication, Gage was recognized as England’s foremost chocolate expert. Additionally, Gage’s first edition of his treatise was published in 1648 in London and shortly after in 1655 the Spanish colony of Jamaica was captured by the English. One of the key commodities that would be produced from the Jamaican market would in fact be cacao and an increase in accessibility would spread throughout the country. While chocolate certainly would not take off in England as it did in Spain and Portugal at this time, the eventual growth of interest would culminate in the country being home to the world’s first large producers, J.S. Frye & Sons and Cadbury. Gage’s writing was one of the first introductions for many Englanders to cacao while he served as one of its first accepting voices. Even though chocolate would take over a hundred years to reach prominence in England, Gage can be viewed as a key force in battling aversion in the country towards a product that now mainstream markets.


Acosta, José. The Natural and Moral History of the Indies. 1590, 271.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 2007 [1996], pp. 199-216.

Campos, Thomas Valentine. “Thomas Gage and the English Colonial Encounter with Chocolate.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 183–200.

Gage, Thomas, and Arthur Percival Newton. The English-American, a New Survey of the West Indies. G. Routledge & Sons, 1946 [1648], pp. 24, 109-112.

Hernández, Francisco. Historia De Las Plantas De Nueva Espana. Imprenta Universitaria, 1577 [1946], p. 304.

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

“Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.” YouTube, National Geographic, 13 Oct. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3l3TFieqIvk.

Europe Conquers the New World, Chocolate Conquers Europe

To study the history of chocolate in Europe since the 17th century is to study the socioeconomic climate of the time throughout Europe.  The introduction of chocolate to the European continent occurred via the Spanish conquistadors who discovered the cacao beans and the chocolate drink made from these beans when they interacted with the indigenous peoples.  It is believed that in 1544 Europe got their first taste of chocolate prepared in this way when the conquistadors reported back to the Spanish court with a delegation of Kekchi Mayan Indians who bore gifts for their conquerors, including beaten chocolate (Presilla, 24).  From the Spanish court, chocolate made its way into the lives of the elites in Spain, England and France, as well as other European countries, before becoming the staple commodity widely available to all social classes that it has become today.  Although the nations of Spain, England and France were distinct and undergoing different social and political climates during the time of the arrival of chocolate in the Old World, the history of chocolate consumption in these countries does share the commonality that in both chocolate began as a luxury affordable only to those of greater means before it became the widely accessible commodity it is known as today.


Mayan vase from Chama.  Source: The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised by Marcela E. Presilla

The above image is of a Maya vase from Chama, a region of Guatemala in which cacao is harvested, and shows a chieftain like that of the Kekchi Mayans being carried in a hammock, as was the chief of the Kekchi when he first introduced chocolate to Philip II of Spain.

Spain was one of several European countries to be impacted by the arrival of chocolate from the New World.  Although accounts vary as to how it got to Spain, it is known for certain that by the first half of the seventeenth century the same chocolate that the Spanish creole of Mexico were drinking had integrated into the Spanish Court (Coe, 131).  The way that it was consumed, however, was much more regal than it had been in present-day Mexico.  As it was coveted primarily by the Spanish royals, the way in which this chocolate was consumed became more refined over time.  In the mid-17th century the viceroy of Peru, Marques de Mancera invented a device to prevent ladies from spilling their chocolate onto their finery; The mancerina featured a silver saucer with a large ring in the middle into which a small cup would fit snugly and offered a solution for those noble Spaniards who had the luxury of owning valuable clothing worth protecting from chocolate (Coe, 135).  In fact, chocolate was so commonplace to these Spanish elites that around 1680 it was common to serve it and other sweets to officials during the public executions of the Spanish Inquisition (Snodgrass, 207).  Cosimo de’ Medici of Spain, who later became Grand Duke of Tuscany, was also known to consume chocolate liberally during the public and grand events of the Spanish nobility of Baroque Spain, including while watching a bullfight with the Spanish king, and earned himself a reputation as a “chocoholic” resultantly  (Coe, 135). 


The Mancerina. Source: http://www.ascasonline.org/newsGENNA104.html

The origin of chocolate in France is not known with certainty.  But its association with nobility was not very different in France than it was in Spain.  In Louis XIV’s decadent Palace of Versailles chocolate was a staple served at all public events hosted for the French elite.  It wasn’t until the King’s wife died and he married the conservative Madame de Maintenon that the ruler became thrifty and consumption of chocolate in the palace ended (Coe, 156).  Like the Spanish, the French had appropriated special vessels for serving chocolate.  The chocolatiere, a long vessel with a spout, hinged lid and a straight wooden handle, both poured and frothed the chocolate for serving and was surely made of silver if it was to be used by elites (Smithsonian, 2015).  In France, as in other parts of Europe, the drinking of chocolate was at times taboo for women.  When the Infanta Maria Teresa married the King of France in 1660, she brought Spanish women to serve in her court but was forbidden from drinking chocolate with them and took to doing so in private, as the act was not permissible for noble French women (Coe, 154).  However, this taboo did not last long; In 1671 the marquis de Sevigne wrote to her ill daughter that chocolate would make her well again saying:

“But you are not well, you have hardly slept, chocolate will set you up again.  But you do not have a chocolatiere [chocolate-pot]; I have thought of it a thousand times; what will you do?  Alas, my child, you are not wrong when you believe that I worry about you more than you worry about me.” (Coe, 155)

During this time, chocolate had a reputation for being untouchable to those of modest means.  Recently at Hampton Court Palace researchers discovered a chocolate kitchen, a room in which the King’s personal chocolatier procured chocolate delights for the King and his court on a daily basis.  So essential was this indulgence to the King that his chocolatier was known to travel with him to provide him with his sweet supply.  As in France and Spain, the luxuriousness of consuming chocolate was not limited to the food itself but also included the means by which the chocolate was consumed.  Pots for serving the beverage were often made of silver or gold.  In fact, William III is reputed to have used a chocolate pot that was made of gold and weighed 33 oz!  Many were employed in the making of chocolate and the associated paraphernalia and these costs associated with consumption meant that the drink was unattainable for many (Historic Royal Palaces, 2014)

The article linked below was published by the Smithsonian Institute and outlines the rise and fall of chocolate as the food of nobility.  At one point it details the means by which chocolate eventually became accessible to people of all classes in Europe and the United States.  The Industrial Revolution was in large part to thank for driving down the costs associated with chocolate consumption during the 19th century.  For example, it was during this time that Coenraad Van Houton invented the cocoa process, which created cocoa powder, a staple ingredient of many chocolate products consumed today.  While it is easy to see chocolate today as something that is off-limits to no one, to understand the history of chocolate is to understand that in Europe the commodity began as a luxury to be enjoyed by only those of the highest privilege.



Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver (photographer).  (2012). Mancerina.  [digital image].  Retrieved from: http://www.ascasonline.org/newsGENNA104.html

Baker, Mary Louise. (Photographer). (1926).  Rollout watercolor of the Ratinlixul vase from Guatemala.  [digital image].  Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Coe, M. & Coe, S. (2013).  The true history of chocolate.  London, UK: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.

Historic Royal Palaces.  (2014, September 3).  The making of the chocolate kitchen [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QslIjfi_-I

Righthand, J. (2015).  A brief history of the chocolate pot.  Smithsonian Institute.  Retrieved from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/

Presilla, M.E. (2009).  The new taste of chocolate revised: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes.  Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Snodgrass, M.E. (2004).  Encyclopedia of kitchen history.  New York, NY: Fitzroy Dearborn.

From Disdain to Desire: The Rise of Chocolate Through Chocolate Houses

Imagine if only the Wall Streeters, movie stars, or world leaders were able to enjoy chocolate. Imagine that they all had access to special “clubhouses” where they would talk to each other while consuming chocolate. Such a scene seems ridiculous in a world where one can buy a 5-lb Hershey’s chocolate bar for less than $20. Yet the exclusivity of chocolate in the times before its mass production was a reality especially prominent in 17th century England. The wealthy members of society did indeed frequent chocolate houses—a counterpart to coffee houses of the same time—to interact with each other using the social lubricant called chocolate. Although modern society would likely condemn chocolate houses as elitist or discriminatory in nature, chocolate houses played a crucial part in defining chocolate’s social association with pleasure and paving the path for the commercialization of chocolate.

Chocolate initially faced many obstacles in gaining popularity among the British. According to Dr. Matthew Green, “chocolate was an alien, suspect substance drunk associated with popery and idleness (i.e. France and Spain).” (Green) In addition to the underlying British disdain for French and Spanish products, England already possessed a commodity culture revolving around coffee. (Ibid) When chocolate was first introduced to mid-1500s Spain as the drink chocolatl, it entered the Spanish commodity market as the primary non-alcoholic beverage of the time, with little competition. (Off 30) In contrast, 17th century England had coffee houses, which had spread coffee before the arrival of chocolate. (Green) As a result, chocolate in England needed to overcome the customer base of coffee in order to succeed. All of these circumstances pointed to the same conclusion: a demand for chocolate had to be created.

Chocolate houses established a customer base by advertising chocolate as a kind of miracle food. A Spanish doctor named Antonio Ledesma recorded that “[chocolate will] make old women young and fresh, Create new motions of the flesh. And cause them long for you know what, If they but taste of chocolate.” (Ledesma 6) A British scholar named James Wadsworth translated Ledesma’s writing to be used in the quest to make chocolate appealing. In addition, a Member of Parliament named Samuel Pepys shared that chocolate was “used to settle my stomach…my head being in a sad state taking through the last night’s drink.” (Barber 55) Finally, physician Henry Stubbe recorded the use of cacao as an aphrodisiac, and to be used “if one is tired through business and wants speedy refreshment.” (Stubbe 3) While this “evidence” was closer to propaganda than known fact, it succeeded in attracting a considerable audience. Chocolate became known as the item to have, making chocolate houses the places to be.

The rise of chocolate houses inspired some of the earliest associations of chocolate with pleasure, further increasing its desirability. It is important to note that chocolate houses were not the only places to purchase and consume chocolate. Pre-existing coffee houses offered chocolate for purchase as well. Furthermore, a coffee house was just as much a place to get involved with the talk of the town, meet acquaintances, or read the news as a chocolate house. (Coe 168) The primary element that separated the two establishments was the presence of pleasure in chocolate houses. One of the most prominent chocolate houses in late 17th and early 18th century England was White’s, established in 1693. (Grivetti 584) White’s, also known under the name “Mrs. White’s Chocolate House,” and quickly became known as a place for “all accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment”—food, gambling, and theater to name but a few. (Wheatley 492) People maintained a level of social decorum at coffee houses, but at chocolate houses raffish behavior was permitted, even encouraged. (Ibid) The link between chocolate and leisurely activities at chocolate houses such as White’s contributed to the growing enjoyment of chocolate, and can be considered the start of its modern affiliation with words such as “sinful” or “guilty pleasure.”

Top: A chocolate house in 17th century England

Bottom: A coffee house in 17th century England

Note the composed, more serious mood of the coffee house, and the frivolous, less formal mood of the chocolate house. The coffee house patrons are depicted with only slight or no smiles, while the chocolate house patrons are depicted with open smiles and informal postures. The social nature of coffee houses was no excuse to lose one’s manners or become overly relaxed, and discussions would focus on the more academic or political side. In contrast, social interactions in coffee houses lent themselves to gossip and informal conversation.


With chocolate consumption on the rise, there was an increased incentive to make chocolate more available. Chocolate houses had become so popular that their clientele far outmatched that of coffee houses and taverns. (Brenner 99) In response, cacao plantations were established in the West Indies, Jamaica, and even Venezuela. (Off 44) In 1732, a Frenchman named Monsieur Dubuisson invented a table mill designed to grind cacao, making chocolate production easier than before. (Ibid 47) A few decades later, Englishman Joseph Fry had kicked Dubuisson’s invention up a notch by employing a steam engine to grind cacao. (Ru 12) Chocolate was still far from being regularly available to the masses. However, the expansion of cacao groves and such inventions, combined with the development of chocolate-based recipes—designed to use only a little chocolate and a lot of accessible ingredients—marked a turning point where chocolate was no longer limited to the elite.

A 17th Century Hot Chocolate Recipe: Recipes like this one were focused on ingredients such as milk, water, and spices, so as to minimize the amount of chocolate needed to enjoy a chocolate beverage.

It seems odd to picture a time when chocolate was scarce, and even undesirable. But consider other in-demand items that experienced a major shift. Lobsters were once used as prison food, but are now widely consumed as a delicacy. The original iPod paled in comparison to the Sony Walkman, only to become a global brand over the past decade. Similarly, chocolate in England overcame not only prejudice against foreign products, but also the presence of other social foods such as coffee. That chocolate would not have become widespread without the advent of chocolate houses is unlikely. Considering its ubiquity today and the number of other countries that had access to cacao, chocolate would have found its way onto the global stage one way or another. However, by popularizing chocolate and inspiring the expansion of greater chocolate production, chocolate houses played a significant role in expediting the globalization of chocolate.

Works Cited

“17th-century hot chocolate recipe.” National Trust. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

A chocolate house in 17th century England. Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. N.p., 18 July 2006. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

A coffee house in 17th century England. Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. N.p., 6 August 2013. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

Barber, Richard William. Samuel Pepys, esquire: secretary of the Admiralty to King Charles and King James the Second. Berkeley : University of California Press: n.p., 1970. Print.

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The emperors of chocolate: inside the secret world on hershey & mars. New York: Broadway , 2000. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Green, Dr Matthew. “How the decadence and depravity of London’s 18th century elite was fuelled by hot chocolate.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 09 Mar. 2016. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

Grivetti, Louis, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: history, culture, and heritage. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009. Print.

Ledesma, Antonio Colmenero de, and James Wadsworth. A curious treatise of the nature and quality of chocolate. Imprinted at London: By I. Okes, dwelling in Little St. Bartholomewes, 1640. Print.

“London’s Chocolate Houses.” Herb Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Morton, Marcia, and Frederic Morton. Chocolate: An Illustrated History. New York: Crown Publishers, 1986. Print.

Off, Carol. Bitter chocolate: investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007. Print.

Ru, Christelle Le, and Vanessa Jones. Passion chocolat. Christchurch, N.Z.: Christelle Le Ru , 2007. Print.

Stubbe, Henry. The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolata. London: Printed by J.C. for Andrew Crook, 1984. Print.

Wheatley, Henry Benjamin. London past and present: its history, associations, and traditions. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2011. Print.

Coffee vs. Chocolate: A Battle between Classes

The middle of the seventeenth century brought many foreign luxury goods to Europe, as coffee, tea, tobacco and chocolate made its appearance into the European courts. Drinking coffee and chocolate became fashionable, and no member of the nobility wanted to be left behind in the new trend and the display of elegance, grace and high refinement that came with drinking these beverages. Both beverages were at first praised for their therapeutic value and for their ability to cure most any disease or ailment and both beverages came with a range of new fashionably crafted tableware (You p.17). But despite many similarities, chocolate found its way to the masses much later, and for a long time coffee and chocolate became integrated parts of two very different, if not total opposite, ideologies of eighteenth century Europe. As argued by Wolfgang Schivelbush in his work Tastes of Paradise, coffee became the symbolic drink of the northern, protestant, bourgeois order while chocolate was cast as its southern catholic counterpart drank merely by the elites (Schivelbush p. 87). How did this crucial distinction between two seemingly similar beverages arise? One of the most important factors in explaining the dichotomy that existed between coffee and chocolate in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Europe is the differential effect the beverages were believed to have on the body; while coffee’s stimulating effect made it emblematic for the Protestant work ethic in England, chocolate, praised for its nutritional value, was an essential beverage during lent in Catholic Spain, Italy and France.

Image 1: Painted tile from the early eighteenth century in Valencia, Spain. The tile depicts a chocolatada (chocolate party). The saucer held by the servant in blue, is called a mancerina, and was a European invention for drinking chocolate without spilling it.

Chocolate: Catholic beverage or Aphrodisiac                                                                   

Although it’s unclear when exactly chocolate arrived in Spain, the first European port of entry, it can be said with certainty that it became a staple in the Spanish courts and among the elite during the seventeenth century. Due to its nutritional value and nourishing nature, however, the Catholic Spanish nobility began to wonder whether consuming chocolate, although it being a beverage, broke the ecclesiastical fast. The argument went back and forth many times, but it was finally settled by Pope Gregory XIII who said it did not break the fast. Many of his successors were asked the same question, but they all seemed to be in agreement and as such, chocolate became the perfect fasting drink for the nobility of Spain and Italy. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Spain began to lose its trend-setting reputation, and France began to reign supreme as the ultimate role-model for the European aristocracy. Chocolate had made its way up to France by way of the marriage between Anne, the daughter of Phillip III of Spain, and Louis XIII of France, and away from the Spanish court, the beverage began to lose its connotations to lent and became for purely secular enjoyment. Chocolate was a beverage mostly consumed during breakfast and many aristocrats preferred to be served in the bedroom, as portrayed by many artists in the late Baroque age. The nature of the R
ococo art reinforced chocolate’s reputation for being an aphrodisiac, a belief that dated back to the European conquest of Mexico, and as such chocolate became the ultimate symbol of riches and indulgence, and the status beverage of the ancien régime.

Image 2: La Crainte by Noel Le Mire (1769) – A young woman reaching for her morning cup of chocolate. The painting reflects the erotic air chocolate held in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth century

Coffee: A working-class beverage                                                                              

Interestingly, coffee was initially introduced to the European elite in much the same way chocolate was. Nonetheless, coffee made its descend to the masses much quicker and even became symbolic of the Protestant work ethic of the bourgeois order. Schivelbusch argues that this is due to the fact that the aristocracy only enjoyed coffee for the form of it, while the bourgeois actually valued coffee for its mentally stimulating effects. He states:

‘Coffee appealed to court society of the seventeenth and eighteenth not only as a exotic drink, but also as occasions of self-display. The exquisite service and the young blackamoor who served it were basically more important to aristocratic taste than the items consumed. ‘(Schivelbusch p. 20)

In contrast, the bourgeois attributed many qualities to coffee, that to this day have not been scientifically proven. Besides its supposed sobering effects of th
e inebriated, it was also seen as an antierotic drink that reduced sexual energies and as such, was often recommended to those who lived in celibacy to curb their sexual urges. Sobriety and abstinence were ideals that fit perfectly within the protestant ideology, and coffee was made the beverage of the working class. Coffee’s popularity however, wasn’t solely based on pharmacological myths. As modern medicine has pointed out, the caffeine in coffee does truly effect the central nervous system and thus allows for enhanced mental activity. This was a welcome novelty in an age in which the labor had become less physical and more mentally straining. While the medieval man did mostly physically laborious work outside, the seventeenth century middle class spent more of his time stationary and indoors. Another aspect that made coffee the perfect people’s beverage is the fact that coffee was initially only available to the middle class in coffeehouses, making it a beverage that was only to be consumed in public. In England, where coffee arrived slightly earlier than chocolate, these coffeehouses fostered communication and discussion, and soon became the meeting spot for businessmen. Although chocolate was also served to those who could afford it in the coffeehouses in England, coffee had a stronger stimulating effect than chocolate and therefore gave the wallet-conscious middle class clientele a bigger bang for their buck, which is why these houses were called “coffee-houses” and not “chocolate-houses”. The ability for the middle-class to buy chocolate however, marked a key difference between England and France. While drinking chocolate was being advertised in the English newspapers, Louis XIV of France had granted a country-wide royal monopoly for chocolate to David Chaliou, granting him the exclusive privilege to make and sell chocolate throughout the kingdom (Coe p. 166). This monopoly ensured that chocolate in France was strictly for the aristocracy, while in England, land of shopkeepers and businessmen, chocolate was made available to whoever could afford it. The video below shows a reconstruction of one of the most popular coffeehouses in London during the 17th century. Lloyd’s Coffeehouse was opened in 1688 and was frequented by ship captains, ship owners and insurance brokers, and thus people went to Lloyd’s to hear the latest trade news. The coffeehouse was so popular that it evolved into the largest insurance brokerages in the world (start at 0:52).

Coffee vs. Chocolate                                                                                                                              

As the brief mention of the coffeehouses pointed out, both coffee and chocolate were served publicly to the bourgeois order and privately to the elites, albeit that the proportions varied per country. As pointed out by Morris, it would be overly simplistic to cling to a stark division between the consumers of coffee and chocolate (Morris p.207). That being said, it cannot be denied that chocolate and coffee had vastly different centers of influence, that initially stemmed from the beverages’ effects on the body. While chocolate was mostly associated with the Spanish aristocracy, the Catholic church, embodying the erotic spirit of the late baroque age, coffee was associated with quite the opposite. Coffee became the sobering, mind-sharpening, nonerotic beverage of the bourgeois order, that epitomized the protestant work ethic. And although these beverages are now enjoyed by many, regardless of class or religion, one can certainly imagine where these images come from, based on how a cup of coffee or hot chocolate make us feel today.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Morris, Jonathan. “Comment: Chocolate, Coffee and Commodity History.” Food and History 12.1 (2014): 201-09. Web.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of paradise: a social history of spices, stimulants, and intoxicants. New York: Vintage , 1993. Print.

You, Yao-Fen, Mimi Hellman, and Hope Saska. Coffee, tea, and chocolate: consuming the world. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2016. Print.

Multimedia Sources

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xocolatada_-_Madrid.jpg

Image 2: The Clark Museum, Williamstown MA (http://clarkart.edu/Collection/10328)

Video: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gt8WCS3hN8&t=29s)

Jews and Chocolate: From the Inquisition to the Land Flowing With Milk, Honey and Chocolate

Beginning as early as 1500 BCE with the Olmecs, cacao spread throughout the world, becoming a luxury enjoyed by everyone from Mayan Ajaw, to Aztec Tlahtohqueh, from Spanish friars to French courtiers and English noblemen, to the chocolate loving throngs in the supermarkets of the world today. While chocolate was brought to the old world primarily by exploring Catholic Spaniards, many cultures and religions played vital roles in the development of the “food of the gods”. In this post, I will concentrate on the historical involvement of the Jewish people in the cacao trade throughout the centuries, and examine how, as a result of Jewish contributions that continue to this day, the holy land came to flow not only with milk and honey, but chocolate as well.

While some, including famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, believe that Christopher Columbus was actually Jewish (Wiesenthal), and others believe there exists a connection between the Maya and the Israelite ancestor Eber (“The Mayans And The Jewish Midrash”), it seems most likely that Jews discovered cacao along with the rest of the old world sometime after it was introduced to Spain by the various early Spanish explorers of Mesoamerica (many accounts of Jews and chocolate from the time appear to back this up).

In 1478, fourteen years before Columbus set sail for India (which turned out to be the Americas), King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain, the very same people who helped to fund the exploration of the new world, established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, commonly referred to as the Spanish Inquisition. The
inquisition’s aim was to wage war on any non Catholic denominations in order to protect t

Depiction of crypto-Jews conducting a  seder in secret. Public domain.

he Church’s majority. With the Spanish Alhambra declaration in 1492, hundreds of
thousands of Jews were forced to either convert to Christianity or face expulsion from Spain. Those who converted were called Conversos or Marranos, and many of them converted publicly, but continued practicing Judaism, with this latter group being called crypto-Jews (Marcus 51, Pérez and Hochroth).


At the time that Jews were being expelled from Spain, King John II of Portugal, seeing an economic opportunity, offered Jews asylum in return for one ducat (gold or silver coin) and one-fourth of the wealth they carried into the country from Spain (Marcus 53). It’s estimated that 120,000 Jews fled to Portugal to seek asylum despite the economic extortion, however within six months the King had declared that any Jew remaining in Portugal would be enslaved. Despite several recent Jewish expulsion orders from France, some of the Jews were able to get out of Portugal and settle in nearby Bayonne, France, and it is in this city that we get our first whiff of chocolate (“Bayonne | Jewish Virtual Library”).

While chocolate historians are unsure as to how exactly cacao was introduced to France, in “The True History of Chocolate,” Sophie and Michael Coe present three theories: First, it was introduced by the daughter of Spanish royalty, Anne of Austria when she was married to Louis XIII of France. Second, Spanish monks gifted cacao to the French. Third, it was imported as a medicine (Coe and Coe, 150-152). While any of those three theories could be the true portrayal of events, a fourth theory exists. Over the course of the inquisition, chocolate drinks imported from the new world grew in popularity with the Spanish elite (i.e., monarchs, nobles, and well-to-do merchants), and while Jews were never considered members of the elite in most countries at that time, they were often quite well off, and could have possibly afforded cacao drinks themselves, or handled the product in the course of their business trades. Additionally, later on in the inquisition period, various sources mention that those being held for investigation (often times crypto-Jews who later escaped Spain), were given chocolate drinks, so one could assume that many Jews had contact with the substance in Spain (Coe and Coe, 135). While supporting evidence is minimal, some believe that the Jews escaping Spain and Portugal brought cacao with them when they migrated to Bayonne, France. The city became a center for chocolatiers over the course of the 16th century, and although France subsequently expelled the Jews again in the 17th century, to this day the residents of Bayonne honor the Jewish contribution to chocolate in their city (“France Thanks Sephardic Jews For Chocolate, 500 Years Too Late”).

Whether or not the introduction of cacao to France can be attributed to Jewish refugees, the inquisition certainly assisted in the spread of chocolate. In addition to Portugal, Jews fleeing Spain also sought refuge in Holland, until persecution against Jews there began to rise as well. While King Edward I of England had expelled all Jews from the country in 1290, by the mid 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, an English political leader, assisted in the return of Jews to England, most of whom came from Holland (Coe and Coe, 164). Those coming from Holland were used to drinking coffee and tea, and in 1650, a Jewish businesswoman opened up the first coffee-house (many of which later went on to serve cacao drinks as well) in Oxford (Coe and Coe, 164). According to Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican priest who lived in the Portuguese controlled island of Martinique for two years, there existed a Jew by the name of Benjamin Dacosta who was the first person to plant cacao on the island, although he was expelled and deported from the territory a few years later (Coe & Coe, 194).

While Jews continued to appear in reference to chocolate in various contexts throughout the next few centuries, they began appearing more frequently with chocolate in the mid-20th century. After World War II, several stories emerged about how various holocaust survivors had come to view chocolate as a symbol of hope. One holocaust survivor, Eva Kor, said that when Auschwitz was liberated, survivors were given chocolate and hugs by their Soviet army liberators (“Voices Of Auschwitz”).

Credit: Human

Already pre-World War II, but even more so after, Jews from all over the world began emigrating en masse to their new homeland, Israel. It is in these mass emigrations following centuries of oppression and persecution that we find the roots of the modern Israeli chocolate industry — I would argue that Jewish history is the reason Israeli’s are so driven to create and innovate in their own land in all industries, including the chocolate trade. In 1933, a Russian-born Jew by the name of Eliyahu Fromchenko left his home in Latvia and made his way to Ramat Gan, Mandate Palestine (at that time, all inhabitants, including Jews and Arabs alike, were “Palestinians” — the country would later become Israel). Fromchenko founded “Elite,” the company that would dominate the Israeli chocolate and confectionery market in the coming decades with their highly popular para (cow) chocolates, with a heifer adorning each square (“Strauss Elite”).

Public Domain.

While Fromchenko and para chocolate might have popularized chocolate consumption in the New Jersey sized country, chocoinovation didn’t stop there, with dozens of boutique and specialty chocolate shops and factories opening up across the country over the past few decades. Each chocolatier, influenced by his or her respective lineage and culture has brought forth a new spectrum of flavors and combinations. One such chocolate artisan is Ika Cohen, who runs a small chocolate shop in Tel Aviv, where she produces chocolate with a variety of interesting flavors, such as a Za’atar (a savory Middle Eastern spice mix) infused ganache (which won two gold medals at the International Chocolate World Final in Italy). Another company, Baracke, founded in 1983 by a government-sponsored collaboration between Israeli and Arab entrepreneurs, began producing halva (a Middle-Eastern sesame based, sweet and flaky treat) with cacao nibs sprinkled throughout (http://baracke.co.il/חלבה-לכל-המשפחה-שאמיות-חלבה-קקאו/).


Public Domain.

Holy Cacao operates as the only fully bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the country, producing their Ecuadorian and Peruvian sourced cacao bars in Pnei Hever, Israel. Put simply, the Israeli affinity for chocolate has grown tremendously in recent years, with consumers eating up everything from chocolate rugluch (a pastry of sorts) produced throughout the country, to a chocolate craft beer produced by a kibbutz in Southern Israel (http://www.ketura.org.il/ViewArticle.aspx?articleID=189).



Public Domain.

However chocolate production in Israel hasn’t been entirely conflict free in recent years, with the Israeli public boycotting Strauss (now the largest Israeli chocolate manufacturer), in protest against the high price tag their chocolate fetches, and the discrepancies between prices in Israel and abroad for Israeli made chocolates (Winer). With chocolate bars ranging in price from $1.50 to $5, the food that has become just as essential as coffee or tea to some Israelis, is beyond their reach price-wise. While the boycotts did cause Strauss to lower their prices some, chocolate still remains a pricey product in a country with primarily large families, where consumers might have to choose between a chocolate bar or a $1 large loaf of bread.

Additionally, despite various chocolate festivals held in the country (including Chocolate Week, and the 2013 International Chocolate Awards National Competition), and the many offered tours of chocolate factories and workshops across the country, the Israeli public is little aware of the labor and wage issues ingrained in the cacao trade. There is little-to-no public push for increased Fair-trade or Direct Trade cacao sourcing — this in contrast to the US where Fair-trade, Direct Trade and Utz certifications have become commonplace.

The burgeoning Israeli chocolate industry is certainly a boon to worldwide chocolate development, with it’s rich history, delectable palate of new tastes, sensations and products to offer. That said, I would certainly like to see the Jews persecuted history taken into account when sourcing cacao for Israeli made chocolate, so the holy land can flow with milk, honey, and ethically produced cacao.

Works Cited:

  • Wiesenthal, Simon. Sails Of Hope; The Secret Mission Of Christopher Columbus. New York: Macmillan, 1973. Print.
  • “The Mayans And The Jewish Midrash”. Realbiblecodes.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • Pérez, Joseph and Lysa Hochroth. History Of A Tragedy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Print.
  • Marcus, Jacob Rader. The Jew In The Medieval World, A Source Book, 315-1791. Cincinnati: The Sinai Press, 1938. Print.
  • “France Thanks Sephardic Jews For Chocolate, 500 Years Too Late”. The Times of Israel. N.p., 2013. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • “Bayonne | Jewish Virtual Library”. Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • Coe, Sophie D and Michael D Coe. The True History Of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
  • “Voices Of Auschwitz”. Edition.cnn.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • “Strauss Elite”. Strauss Group. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • Winer, Stuart. “Boycott Threat Aims To Sweeten Chocolate Prices”. The Times of Israel. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 May 2016.

The True Cost of Happiness: The Human Price of Attainable Luxury

In Eric Weiner’s 2008 book, The Geography of Bliss, he states, “ingredients that we consider essential to the hearty sew of happiness:  money, pleasure, spirituality, family, and chocolate” (2).

His modern, North American viewpoint may be shared by many, however, as we look back to the origins of one of his “essential” happiness ingredients: chocolate – and more specifically, the sugar that is used to sweeten it – we find that a very high human price has been paid to acquire it.


Focusing on England, where sugar was first introduced in small quantities around 1100 AD, but not commonly acknowledged as a costly medicine and/or spice until the 1500s, it became increasingly more available over the following 500 years.  Between 1650 and 1800, consumption rates rose by some 2,500 percent.  Known as a rarity by 1650 and a luxury by 1750, sugar was seen as a necessity by 1850 and quickly became “the first mass-produced exotic” basic product. (Mintz)

In order to fuel this change in demand, England “fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system”  (Martin “Slavery”).  Satisfying the sweet happiness England (and Europe) craved was made possible through the exploitation of Africa and America.  As quoted in Volume 1 of J.H. Bernadine de Saint Pierre’s Voyage to Isle de France, Isle de Bourbon, The Cape of Good Hope…With New Observation on Nature and Mankind by an Officer of the King (1773):

I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world:  America has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.  (Mintz, Frontispiece)

Europe Supported by Africa and America_painted2


Supported by America

The original workforce was supported by the encomienda system.  This was a grant implemented by the Spanish crown which allowed colonists to demand tribute from indigenous inhabitants in exchange for care, protection, and Christian education. (Martin “Slavery”). However, due to illness, maltreatment, and excessive overwork, the indigenous population declined from “25.2 million in 1519 to 16.8 million in 1532 and 0.75 million in 1622” (Goucher, 491). As the native populations of entire villages disappeared, Europeans turned to other available sources of labor to toil on their newly claimed lands.


Supported by Africa

To meet the seemingly insatiable demand for sweetness (up to 20,000 tons of sugar produced for English consumers each year), an estimated labor force of 50,000 African slaves was required (Martin “Slavery”).  However, the slaves who toiled on English plantations comprised only a portion of the approximately 10 to 15 million enslaved Africans who survived forced transport across the Atlantic from 1500-1900 (for every 100 enslaved Africans who reached the New World, another 40 died in Africa or during the Middle Passage) (Martin “Slavery”).

The Transatlantic Slave Trade_1450s-1867

For those who survived the Middle Passage life was, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short.”  Working conditions were “so extreme that the slave population never achieved a significant growth rate and depended entirely on African importation to sustain production” (Martin “Slavery”).

Beyond Forced Support

Through revolts and legal emancipation, slaves were eventually released from bondage and given back their freedom:

1804:  Haiti declared independence and abolished slavery

1807:  The slave trade was closed

1834:  British Slavery Abolition Act abolished slavery throughout most of the British Empire

1848:  Slavery was abolished in all French and Danish colonies

1865:  Slavery was abolished in the United States by the 13th Amendment

1886:  Slavery was abolished in Cuba

1888:  Slavery was abolished in Brazil by Golden Law

(Martin “Slavery”)

However, indigenous populations were never given back their lands, slaves (or their descendants) were rarely repatriated and racism and economic inequality still persist today.

In the pursuit of happiness, it is possible that one cannot have or desire too much chocolate or the sugar that sweetens it, but it is important to know and respect their true cost as it is impossible to reverse history or give back life.


Works Cited

Goucher, Candice, Charles LeGuin, and Linda Walton. Commerce and Change: The Creation of a Global Economy and the Expansion of Europe. In the Balance: Themes in Global History. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 1998.

Europe Supported By Africa & America.  BEAUTIFUL, ALSO, ARE THE SOULS OF MY BLACK SISTERS. https://kathmanduk2.wordpress.com/2007/08/14/europe-supported-by-africa-and-america/.  N.p. N.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular sweet tooths and scandal.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 24 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, abolition, and forced labor.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 20 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

The African-American Migration Experience. In Motion. http://www.inmotionaame.org/. N.p. N.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Bliss.  New York : Twelve, 2008.

Sugar as an essential nutrient during the industrial revolution

The popularity of cane sugar in Britain quickly rose from the 17th through the 20th centuries, after its introduction from the New World, but its uses changed several times throughout this period. In Sweetness and Power, Mintz breaks down sugar use in Britain during this period into 5 categories: medicine, spice, decoration, sweetener, and preservative (Mintz 78). The most popular, or common, of these uses varied over time; for example, in the 17th century, when sugar remained an expensive rarity, it was more commonly used as a medicine, spice, or decoration. By the end of the 19th century, however, sugar’s popularity was firmly rooted in its use as a sweetener. Mintz points out that at this time it had become a “virtual necessity” (Mintz 148), yet fails to effectively incorporate this into his categorization of its uses. How can any one, or a combination, of these uses explain the enormous part that sugar came to play in the diet of the average English person, representing one-fifth of daily caloric intake (Mintz 5-6)? Rather, by the beginning of the 20th century, a sixth use developed for cane sugar, which is able to more thoroughly explain its rise in status from luxury to necessity. After the industrial revolution, sugar came to be used as a nutrient, an absolute requirement for the sustenance of many middle class families, due to its source of cheap energy during a time when the rise of an industrialized economy necessitated such sources for productivity.

There is remarkable alignment of the changes in sugar consumption and the manufacturing economy in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. The industrial revolution, which was the major turnover in manufacturing processes to the large-scale use of machines, took place in England roughly between the mid 1750 and mid 1840 (Landes 3-8). While it is difficult to determine causality between the industrial revolution and the rise of sugar consumption, we should note that this period of time contains the only roughly exponential change in the rate of increase of sugar consumption in British history (Image 1). This reflects a strong correlation between the rate of change of sugar consumption and the rate of mechanization of the British economy, as demonstrated by the change in fuel use during this time (Image 2). This change in sugar consumption was due to a massive transition in sugar consumption demographics, from consumption only by the wealthy in the early 18th century to consumption by all middle class British citizens by the mid 19th century (Mintz 147-148). Just after 1850, the price of sugar dropped dramatically, enabling its purchase in massive quantities by the middle class, and setting the stage for the use of sugar to expand beyond Mintz’s categorizations and into a staple of the diet. Though these changes in sugar consumption may have not been directly caused by industrialization, their co-occurrence allowed sugar to enter into use as a fundamental nutrient of the English diet.

sugar pic

fuel pic
Images 1 and 2 show a comparison of the change in sugar consumption per capita over time and the change in the use of various fuel types over time. The massive increase in coal use in the second image indicates the mechanization of industry during the industrial revolution. Exponential growth in rate of change of sugar consumption reflects exponential growth in the use of coal.


So why does industrialization align so well with the dramatic changes in sugar consumption we see at this time? Industrialization necessitated cheap sources of quick energy for both the workers and for non-working family members (usually women and children). Carbohydrates were incredibly important for both agricultural and industrial workers, which is reflected in the prominence of bread in their diets, on which working class families spent anywhere from 50-70% of their food budget (Griffin 16 and Feinstein 635). With the sudden increase in the availability of sugar just after the industrialization of the British economy, another source of cheap, even quicker, energy could be introduced to their diets. Further, though workers did consume sugar for energy, especially industrial workers, who consumed twice as much as agricultural workers (Griffin 14), sugar became even more important to the families as a means of cheaply boosting energy of the non-workers. High protein foods, such as meat, were expensive for these families, and so a great majority of products like these were reserved only for the working men of the families (Martin and Griffin 11). Even in situations where the women or children in a family worked, it was often thought that they needed less protein than men, and so this inequality in consumption was maintained. For this reason, sugar became incredibly important to the diets of women and children, taking up roughly 20% of their daily caloric intake, as discussed earlier. This type of consumption is clearly reflected in the advertising of sugary drinks and candy bars at this time, which were heavily targeted at women and children and noted such products’ abilities to prevent exhaustion and give nourishment (Image 3).

sugar pic2
An advertisement for sugar demonstrates its use as a key nutrient supplying energy specifically for children. Other advertisements of the time, while not necessarily just for sugar but rather for candy bars and soft drinks, proclaim their nourishing properties and ability to alleviate exhaustion.

An analysis of the change in sugar consumption and availability during the 18th and 19th centuries, together with an understanding of the dietary needs of workers in an industrialized economy, allows us to more completely understand the rise of sugar consumption—a rise that continues today. In examining these factors and the advertisements that reflect the culture of sugar consumption in this period, we realize that Mintz’s categorizations of sugar’s uses was incomplete. The industrial economy and the need for cheap, quick, energy that it propelled, both at work and in the home, drove sugar to move beyond its earlier uses, and to become considered a necessary nutrient.


Works Cited

Feinstein, Charles H. “Pessimism perpetuated: real wages and the standard of living in Britain during and after the industrial revolution.” The Journal of Economic History 58.03 (1998): 625-658.

Griffin, Emma. “Living Standards in the British Industrial Revolution: Evidence from Workers’ Diets.” Living Standards in the British Industrial Revolution: Evidence from Workers’ Diets. Academia.edu, n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. London: Cambridge U.P., 1969. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 24 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Image: Sugar advertisement. CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 24 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Image: sugar consumption over time. CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 17 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

Rautner, Margaret T. “The Industrial Revolution – Infogram, Charts & Infographics.” Image: fuel use over time. Infogram. Infogram, n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Spicy to Sweet: The Transition of Sugar’s Use and Its Effects on Society

Fields of sugar cane

The introduction of sugar into England dating back to the twelfth century marks the conception of a rapidly expanding market in England. Beginning from its immediate introduction into Europe and continuing on into the present day, sugar has been marked by its  broad spectrum of uses. Sidney Mintz classifies the many applications of sugar into five main categories: medicinal uses, uses as a spice-condiment, uses as a sweetener, decorative uses and preservative uses (Mintz 78). Although these five purposes demonstrate a lot of overlap (for example, sugar used in jams both preserves the fruit and sweetens the substance), the transition between sugar being used a spice to sugar being used a sweetener exhibits an important turning point in its history. This transition, seen between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, marks the beginning of sugar’s central role in modern society and the point at which sugar became widely available to members of lower classes.

From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, sugar was prominently used as a spice to add to foods without making the food necessarily sweet (Mintz 80). It could be added to plates such as pastas, sauces, meats, fish, and soups to increase the flavor content of the dish. The dependency on spices in these centuries is a result of overall monotony of the average Englishman’s diet and the lack of high quality food preparatory practices. Some meats were excessively cured or smoked and others were rotten; sugar would be added to these meats to improve the flavor quality and increase nutrition. Sugar as a spice would often be used to allay off-putting strong spice flavors already apparent in the meal.

In the eighteenth century, sugar consumers began focusing less on using sugar as a spice and more as using sugar as a sweetener for their foods. There is evidence that sugar was initially noticed for its ability to sweeten when it was added to the popular bitter beverages of the time: chocolate, coffee and tea (Mintz 109). Drinkers noticed that sugar complimented and masked the bitterness of these beverages and began adding it into their daily drinks. Aside from the connection with these bitter beverages, sugar became the focal ingredient of both commonplace desserts and festive feasts. It became a show of rank and status at festivities held by the elite classes and a well known luxury for those of the lower classes.

This transition from sugar as a spice-condiment to a sweetener is the beginning of a massive sugar explosion in the global economy and culinary culture. In the twenty-first century, sugar is an essential, constant aspect of everyday life. It is now available to be bought in cheap, bulk quantities, it is present in almost every meal ranging from sweet soups to snack bars to chocolate candies, and it is the focal point (both economically and socially) of many Western holidays such as Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. Sugar is so widely known that it has synonyms on ingredient lists, such as “corn syrup,” “fructose,” “cane sugar,” and “high fructose corn syrup,” to disguise its presence. When compared to the commonplace characteristic of sugar in the twenty-first century it is shocking that sugar was reserved for use by the elite and the nobility prior to the seventeenth century. It was not until this transition into a sweetener that sugar became more widely available to members of the working and poor classes.

Consumers who belonged to the working class adopted and desired the taste for sweetness rapidly. As demand grew, prices declined (albeit marginally and slowly), and sugar became a more widely available commodity. From 1750 to 1850, sugar evolved from a luxury to a massively consumed commodity. As sugar became more widely desired, it became more widely available. Sugar’s market has the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food market (Martin).

“Only the privileged few could enjoy these luxurious even in the sixteenth century in England. Int the subsequent centuries, however, the combination of sugars and fruit became more common, and the cost of jams, jellies, marmalades, and preserved fruits declined.” (Mintz 99)



An overarching result of the transition from a spice to a sweetener and the resultant increase of availability was the emergence of two cultural processes known as “intensification,” and  “extensification.” Mintz explains that intensification refers to the replication and imitation of existing rituals whereas extensification refers to the replacement of old significances with new meanings (Mintz 152). In short, through rapid commercialization and availability, sugar lost its ancient ties to sacredness, human life, and divinity. It gained a new meaning of success and wealth among the European elite which was later replaced by the idea that sugar represented a forced equalization among the social classes- the working class refused to allow the higher classes to dominate the sugar industry and became active consumers in its market. Additionally, sugar’s spike in popularity after its eighteenth century emergence as a sweetener caused a higher need for larger labor forces; manufacturers found this labor in the form of slavery and indentured servitude.

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The transition from a spice used by the elite to flavor dishes into a sweetener desired by members of all English social classes made sugar more popular and, thus, more available. Consumers were interested in the taste of sweetness that sugar could bring to food and beverages and they caused a rapid increase in sugar consumption in England. In turn, this demand caused sugar to adapt a new cultural significance and perpetuated the system of enslaved labor.

Works Cited:

“Australia’s ‘Sugar Slaves’ Remembered.” Radio National. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.
“Increasing Population on Plantations.” Sugar Cane. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

“Lakshmi Sugar Mill, Iquabal Pur, Roorkee.” Lakshmi Sugar Mill RSS. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

“Louisiana Archaeology Ashland Belle Helene Plantation: Introduction.” Louisiana Archaeology Ashland Belle Helene Plantation: Introduction. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food, Cambridge. 17 February 2016. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

—. “Time, Sugar and Sweetness.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp 91-103. Print.

“Normal Eating® Blog.” Normal Eating Blog RSS. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.