Vices come in many forms. If you were to poll a group of the people around you on their vices, they would likely report alcohol, smoking, social media, or junk food—specifically, chocolate. For centuries, chocolate has been a snack or dessert people describe as irresistible. Thus, when the Dove Chocolate ad above tells consumers their chocolate will “last longer than you can resist,” it contributes to the contemporary narrative of chocolate as an immoral vice (Fahim, A1). But eating chocolate hasn’t always been viewed as a morally bad practice. In its early years of popular use among the ancient Maya and Aztec people of modern-day Mexico, chocolate was associated with elitism and luxury. As a commodity, chocolate required excess of both labor and money to produce, making it an indulgence available only to those who could afford it. Over time, however, as chocolate expanded worldwide via colonialism and industrialism, the mass production of chocolate made the treat more accessible and, subsequently, socially associated with lower classes. This post will explore this change over time through the mid-20th century, though the phenomenon of shifting user ethics and social associations of chocolate continues right up until the present day. Over time, chocolate has transformed from a product symbolizing an elite lifestyle, aspirational for many and inherently moral, to one that represents lower socioeconomic classes and a nefarious immorality.
Origins of Chocolate Elitism in Maya and Aztec Culture
Chocolate was an important food product for the complex ancient Aztec and Maya civilizations, specifically for their societies’ elite classes. “The life, and even the death, of the Maya elite class was luxurious indeed,” write Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate, adding that the tomb of a royal elite included a container “that analysis proved had once held liquid chocolate, and a shell scoop that had been used to ladle out chocolate in powdered form” (Coe, Coe, 47). Chocolate was difficult to manufacture and prepare, and thus was reserved for the elite. Often served in drink form, chocolate even took on sacred or holy connotations in certain civilizations. Represented below is a depiction of Aztec elites exchanging chocolate.
This particular image represents the ceremonious practices that accompanied the Aztec experience with chocolate. Aztec elites wore special attire and participated in ritual activities that often included chocolate. “Our sources unanimously declare that the drinking of chocolate was confined to the Aztec elite,” say Coe and Coe, “to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long-distance merchants, and to the warriors” (Coe, Coe, 95). This made chocolate a food and drink item associated with higher classes and the luxuries that they could afford. “It was an ambrosia from the rich and exotic lands of Anahuac,” and this exoticism and scarcity made the good less accessible and, therefore, confined to those with privilege (Coe, Coe, 95).
Chocolate Expansion Retains Aristocratic Tradition
Amidst the rapid colonization of the Americas that took place largely throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, chocolate transformed from a local product into a worldwide phenomenon. This shift was significant because, as chocolate expanded especially into Europe, it remained a product of the elites but began to carry connotations of immorality. Chocolate was still a luxury good for its price and difficulty to procure; Mintz writes how “chocolate soon followed tea and coffee” as drinks favored by elites in England, France, Spain, and beyond, adding that “it was more expensive than coffee, and gained greater favor with the rich” (Mintz, 111). Especially in the eighteenth century, “coffee houses” gained prominence as social gathering places for British elites. Below are two depictions of coffee house spaces in London, one indicating a more formal atmosphere (left) and the other demonstrating the crazed nature of certain social experiences in this era (right).
Through places like coffee houses, which “had already become one of the greatest English institutions, retaining its social and political importance well into the next century,” drinking chocolate remained an upper-class indulgence (Coe, Coe, 167). Chocolate had lost some of its holy or sacred descriptors in its trip across the Atlantic, however, and slowly began to be further associated with poor ethics. As is clear from the above photo on the right, coffee houses and social clubs were liable to madness. This meant that chocolate became associated with the exploration of vices: alcohol, gaming, fighting, and other activities. Though it may not have been explicit yet at this time, chocolate became a part of life for the wealthy classes across England, Portugal, Italy, and beyond, as it also became part of a culture of bad habits and immorality.
Chocolate For All, Corruption For Many
In the 19th and 20th centuries, companies like Hershey, Mars, and Nestle began mass producing chocolate that was affordable to a wider range of people worldwide. As a product that had already been associated with vice and immorality, chocolate’s shift to an association with lower classes significantly changed its image in society. Chocolate began to find its way into every home in America, as well as globally—and not just through packaged chocolate like those sold by Hershey and Mars. “The use of chocolate in baking increased dramatically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” writes Martin in her anthropological history of brownies, “largely thanks to the efforts of enterprising housekeeping and cooking educators who partnered with industry in the name of ‘domestic science'” (Martin). But widely-accessible chocolate also meant ethical concerns about chocolate’s health benefits and morals. As people began to consider chocolate a guilty pleasure that hindered their health, it was seen as something nefarious—especially for children. Below are two clips from two movies that take place in 20th century Europe: Chocolat and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Both associate candy and chocolate with evil or immorality.
In Chocolat, an entire town is rattled by the confusing ethics of a single woman opening a chocolate shop, and townspeople warn their children against tasting the chocolate. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the villain of the film (who is also one of the most terrifying film villains of all time) uses candy to lure children into captivity. This was connected to the reality of the food industry beginning to prioritize consistency and efficiency in food products, though the connection is not immediately apparent. As food became fast, it was also seen as the opposite of luxury—which indicates slow, deliberate, and special—and thus inherently connected to lower socioeconomic classes. As Hershey “mass produced milk chocolate” through new technologies such as conching and fermenting milk fat, chocolate became a vice seen as immoral and, at times, even evil (Coe, Coe, 249, D’Antonion). If chocolate was once seen as a holy, luxury item, over time one eroded after the other until it was seen as anything but elite.
Conclusion: Shifting Social Associations and Ethics of Chocolate
As chocolate has traveled the world and grown in prominence into a dominant global good, the ways it is understood socially and ethically have simultaneously shifted. From a luxurious, sacred food in the time of the Aztecs to an elitist yet naughty treat in 16th/17th century Europe to a lower-class, unethical indulgence, chocolate has experienced many subtle shifts. Even just in 2010, The Telegraph published an article about a newly-created “healthy” chocolate bar that could be eaten during Lent, demonstrating that even in the present day it is common for chocolate to be seen as sinful and wrong. The ways chocolate’s social associations have changed over time reveal a deeper understanding of the connection between ethics and social class, and show us all that the things our society understands as facts about the food we eat are subject to change—maybe even by the next century.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of Chocolate. 3rd
edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
D’Antonio, Michael D. 2006. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of
Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams.
Fahim, Jamal. “Beyond Cravings: Gender and Class Desires in Chocolate Marketing.” Occidental College, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. March 2019.http://scholar.oxy.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=sociology_student>.
Hough, Andrew. “Chocolate bar that can be eaten during Lent.” The Telegraph. February 20, 2010. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/7273281/Chocolate-bar-that-can-be-eaten-during-Lent.html
Martin, Carla D. 2012. “Brownies: The History of a Classic American Dessert.” http://www.ushistoryscene.com/uncategorized/brownies/
Mintz, Sidney. 1986 . Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern
History. New York: Penguin Books.
Movieclips. “Chocolat (1/12) Movie CLIP – What Do You See? (2000) HD.” Youtube, October 2, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcH_p1vfD1g
Movieclips. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – The Child Catcher Scene (8/12) | Movieclips.” Youtube, October 17, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LehcJeNbFBw
North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. “Chocolate: The Exhibition.” Official Portal for North Dakota State Government. Web. March 2019. https://statemuseum.nd.gov/exhibits/chocolate/overview.