Tag Archives: great britain

The Industrial Revolution: The Transformation of Chocolate from a Rare Delight to a Global Commodity

Industrialization greatly improved the quantity, quality, and variety of food of the working urban populations of the Western World. This development was due to reasons which were two-fold: first, historical developments such as colonialism and overseas trade were structures which inspired this process, and second, specific technologies such as preserving, mechanization, retailing, transport, and the growth of the commercial catering business allowed for the distribution and access of chocolate to flourish. Technologies which were developed from the Industrial Revolution greatly changed the worldwide consumption of chocolate, greatly increasing the quantity and ease of its production and distribution and subsequently increasing the ease and diversity of consumers’ access to chocolate products.

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the early 19th century, and stemmed from factors such as a smaller population and thus a need for a more efficient workforce. Prior to industrialization, the majority of people in Europe subsisted on peasant farming and leasing land from the elite (Dimitri et al. 2). In the latter half of the second millennium A.D., voyages of discovery around the globe sparked colonialism in foreign lands soon thereafter. There were various philosophies in justification of colonialism; one was that of social evolutionism and intervention philosophies, or the idea that natives were incapable of governing themselves and in need of outside intervention. According to research published by M. Shahid Alam of Northeastern University, industrialization of countries across the world was unequal; some countries underwent industrialization centuries prior to others (Alam 5). The reason for this was partially due to the fact that some countries colonized other countries for their own imperial or industrial benefit, so the colonized countries themselves could not go undergo industrialization at that time. Great Britain, Spain (and subsequently Portugal), and France were a few imperial superpowers which underwent industrialization first and each dominated many colonies.

Image Source: Dimitri C, Effland A, Conklin N. “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy.” USDA ERS. 2006.

Because of the far-reaching, global geography of these mother countries’ colonies, the colonial economy depended on international trade. For example, the British empire depended on the American colonies’ production of goods, as did the colonies on the goods of the British Empire. Merchants sent out ships to trade with North America and the West Indies; in 1686 alone, over 1 million euros of goods were shipped to London (“Trade and Commerce”). While wool textiles from England’s manufacturers that spurred from the Industrial Revolution were shipped to the Americas, the colonies shipped goods such as sugar, tobacco, and other tropical groceries from its plantations back across the pond. Due to Europe’s incredibly high demand for some of these American goods, the slave trade developed to meet Industrialization’s hefty needs for cheap labor (“Trade and Commerce”).

Image Source: “Colonial Trade Routes and Goods.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/photo/colonial-trade/.

A few hundred years later, significant agricultural technologies spurred from industrialization. By the early 1900s, most American farms were diversified, meaning that various animals and crops were produced on the same cropland in complementary ways. However, specialization was a method which developed in farms at around this same time, used to increase efficiency by narrowing the range of tasks and roles involved in production. This way, specialized farmers could focus all their knowledge, skills, and equipment on one or two enterprises. Furthermore, mechanization allowed for the tremendous gains in efficiency with getting rid of the need for human labor with routine jobs such as sowing seeds, harvesting crops, milking cows, and feeding and slaughtering animals. Within the 20th century only, the percentage of the U.S. workforce involved in agriculture declined from 41 percent to 2 percent (Dimitri et al. 2). This greatly increased the efficiency of the production of ingredients which go into chocolate such as milk, cacao, sugar, salt, and vanilla from their respective farms.

In addition to farming technologies such as specialization, methods such as preserving, mechanization, retailing (and wholesaling), transport, and the growth of the commercial catering business improved the quality of the chocolate product itself and lessened the amount of time many large chocolate companies produced these chocolates drastically (Goody 74).

The mechanism of preserving was spearheaded by Nicolas Appert, who developed a process called canning (“bottling” in English) in response to conditions in France during the Napoleonic Wars, when the preservation of meat was important for feeding on-the-road soldiers (Goody 75). Glass containers were also developed around the same time to preserve wine and medicine. Methods such as artificial freezing as well as salt — which became such a popular form of preservation that a “salt tax” was eventually implemented — also developed to preserve foods. Pickling inside vinegar, as well as sugar, which was used to preserve fruits and jams, were also methods which advanced. This, in turn, also caused the imports of sugar to rapidly increase during the 18th century (Goody 75). With preservation mechanisms highly developed compared to before, chocolate products could finally be distributed from manufacturers and remain on shelves for quite some time — it did not necessarily need to be fresh to be sold and readily available to consumers.

Additionally, the process of mechanization was the manufacture of many processed and packaged foods, and this process was furthered by Ford’s assembly line and interchangeable parts. Through these technologies, packaged foods and products could be produced much more quickly and efficiently at greater quantities. This greatly increased the production efficiency and quantity with which packaged chocolate could be distributed, allowing for the proliferation of the some of the biggest mass-brands in chocolate production, such as Hershey’s and Nestle (Goody 81).

Video Source: “HOW IT’S MADE: Old Hershey’s Chocolate.” YouTube, 1976, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ophXa_LvUKk.

Furthermore, the process of retailing was marked by the shift from open market to closed shop; this process began as early as Elizabethan times. Back in the Elizabethan era, great efforts were made to ensure that there were no middle men in terms of sales and that there was no resale at higher prices. Eventually, however, grocers overtook the import of foreign goods. Just as imported goods became cheaper with the new developments in transport, so too did manufactured goods and items packaged before sale came to dominate the market (Goody 82-3). This allowed many various chocolate products from manufacturers all across the world to hit the shelves of grocers, readily available to consumers of any city in the United States. These products were generally branded goods, “sold” before sale by national advertising. Advertising itself, additionally, led to the homogenization of chocolate consumption, allowing similar brands of chocolate products to be distributed across the U.S. This even led to the eventual homogenization of American taste preferences for chocolate; because the Hershey’s chocolate bar was so heavily distributed and popularized, eventually, Americans were unaccustomed to anything that did not have Hershey’s uniquely sweet and salty taste (“Here There Will Be…” 108).

The final large component of industrialization which greatly increased chocolate production and distribution was the revolution of transportation. Rail transport provided the masses with cheap and wholesome food; in fact, there were certain periods of time during the Industrial Revolution in which U.S. railways were transporting goods more than people (Goody 82). Last but not least, the growth of the commercial catering business led to the decline of the domestic servant. This decline of the domestic servant also allowed English families to explore quick, sweet recipes incorporating chocolate such as brownies, cookies, and cakes.

Bigger-picture progressions in history such as colonization and international trade connected the world economy and allowed for technologies such as preserving, mechanization, retailing, and new transport to grow and flourish. These methods, in turn, caused global companies such as Hershey’s and Nestle to revolutionize the production and distribution of chocolate into a massive, global business. What was once enjoyed by the few and wealthy was now easily accessible by the masses, homogenizing the tastes of Americans to a few specific chocolate brands. None of this impact on chocolate products’ consumers and producers alike would have been possible without the historical and technological developments of the Industrial Revolution.

Works Cited

Alam, M. Shahid. “Colonialism and Industrialization: Empirical Results.” Review of Radical Political Economics, 1998, pp. 217–240., doi:10.2139/ssrn.2031131.

“Colonial Trade Routes and Goods.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/photo/colonial-trade/.

Dimitri C, Effland A, Conklin N. “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy.” USDA ERS. 2006.

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” Food and Culture: a Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, 2013, pp. 72–88.

“Here There Will Be No Unhappiness.” Hershey Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, by Michael D D’Antonio, Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 106–126.

“HOW IT’S MADE: Old Hershey’s Chocolate.” YouTube, 1976, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ophXa_LvUKk.

JH Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Industrialization of Agriculture.” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, 5 Aug. 2016, foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/industrialization-of-agriculture/index.html.“To the Milky Way and Beyond; Breaking the Mold.” The Emperors of Chocolate: inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, by Brenner Joël Glenn., Broadway Books, 2000, pp. 49–194.

“Trade and Commerce.” Understanding Slavery Initiative, Understanding Slavery, 2011, http://www.understandingslavery.com/index.php-option=com_content&view=article&id=307_trade-and-commerce&catid=125_themes&Itemid=152.html.

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.