As we’ve discussed at length, the history of chocolate closely mirrors that of capitalism. As industry evolved, so too did chocolate, going from an indigenous Central American cultural symbol all the way to big business in the 1800s. Capitalism spurred technological innovations that laid the framework for chocolate’s transformation. Four developments were key for facilitating the rise of industrial cuisine: preservation, mechanization, retailing and wholesaling, and transport (Goody 2013). As each of these industries and technologies developed, so too could chocolate. By 2016, chocolate had a global market value of $100 Billion, with five companies controlling two-thirds of it. Chocolate today truly is a globalized industry.
While the industry has evolved, so too have perceptions of it. As we discussed in class and through our readings, several men have come to personify chocolate and the myths we associate with it. This is not a phenomenon unique to chocolate. “Whiz kids” like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates personify the “genius” and “innovation” behind the Silicon Valley boom. The reality is far more complex and bleak. Following the 2016 election, more and more Americans came to question the outsized influence Facebook has over American politics. And as he attempts to “save the world,” many wonder whether Bill Gates’s “god complex” will truly save us. These narratives serve a purpose: distraction and obfuscation. Focusing on the PR-friendly narratives projected by these figures can hide a dark underbelly of truth.
There are several men* who have influenced the chocolate industry and their surrounding myths serve a similar purpose of obfuscation. In this blog post, I will look at two men: Milton S. Hersey and Anthony Ward. Both have come to symbolize key aspects of chocolate’s industrial history and both of their mythic narratives obfuscate the dark injustices pervasive throughout chocolate production.
*The fact that it is typically men who hold these mythic roles is worthy of analysis and discussion, but is beyond the scope of this blog post.
The Chocolate Man
Milton S. Hershey did not just start the Hershey Chocolate Company, bringing a unique type of milk chocolate to American customers. The press described him as “The Chocolate Man,” an “oddly selfless capitalist” whose reputation “depended, in part, on the playful sweetness of the product he made” (D’Antonio 2006, 114). In D’Antonio’s history, he’s described as an “experimenter” who pushed his employees (“sixteen hour shifts were typical”) but was well-liked. He makes a special point to tell an anecdote of Hershey criticizing the construction of employee housing around his factory. The uniform design of the houses, he complained, too closely resembled those of slave quarters in the south. “We don’t want that here,” he reportedly said (D’Antonio 2006, 112).
While there are always capitalists who find ways to curry favor with the public, Hershey seems to be an exception given the circumstances of the early 1900s. According to D’Antonio, newspapers and muckrakers frequently sought to protray industrialists as greedy “robber barons.” Yet, Hershey avoided this scrutiny and maintained a reputation as a “good rich man” (D’Antonio 2006, 115).
Hershey’s myth is one of goodness and benevolence, one that stands in stark contrast to the reality of chocolate production.
In July 2010, Anthony Ward bought over $1 billion of cocoa beans through his hedge fund Armajaro. This purchase represented about 7 percent of the global supply, and exceeded total crop estimates in Ecuador and Nigeria (Leissle 2018). In other words, it was a huge deal. Some alleged that Ward’s purchase of such a large market share enabled him to wait for prices to rise and sell at a more favorable price.
Due to his ominous, slightly evil practices, Ward has been called “Chocolate Finger” after the James Bond villain GoldFinger. Still, a 2010 New York Times profile from around the time of the purchase, projected a mythic aura around the businessman. Light on details of how this transaction would affect the thousands of farmers and laborers who produce chocolate (and the millions of consumers as well), the piece focused on Ward himself. It reports:
While Mr. Ward lords over the world of cocoa, he is a bit of a mystery outside of that universe. Former employees, acquaintances and peers say that, in person, he does not fit his villainous nickname, and characterize him as friendly and intelligent.New York Times, July 2010
It proceeds to detail his experience as a rally racer, having once driven from London to Cape Town. And it portrays him as a brave innovator, quoting a rival who said, “Still, the trader seemed in awe of Mr. Ward’s play, adding: “If I had the guts and money, I would do that, too.”
Myths: Obfuscating Injustice
While these myths can be fun to entertain and might even, in the case of “Chocolate Finger,” add a bit of mystery to the chocolate world, they also serve a function: distraction. By focusing on cults of personality and their narratives, we are drawn away from the darker undersides of the chocolate industry. By focusing on Milton Hershey, the “good rich man,” or Anthony Ward, the mysterious rally racer and trader, we might no longer think of how the Cocoa trade is steeped in colonial dynamics (Leissle 2016). While the chocolate industry has evolved along with the global economy, it’s string of inequity has remained constant.
Today, consumers pay “absurdly” low prices for chocolate bars, of which only 6.6% of the retail price goes to farmers (Leissle 2016, 129). While colonialism no longer exists, in practice the dynamics are still very prescient.
By focusing on the super benevolent, like Hershey, or the supervillain, like Ward, we obscure the focus on the true super evils being perpetrated against others in the chocolate industry. While Ward and Hershey get renowned, it’s farmers in the Global South that fuel the produce needed to power the vast global demand for chocolate.
Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 2013).
D’Antonio, Michael D. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa (New York: Polity Press, 2018).
Images and Web Sources
Schwab, Tim. “Bill Gates’s Charity Paradox.” The Nation. March 17, 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/bill-gates-foundation-philanthropy/.
The Chocolate Museum (@ChocMuseumUK). “Cocoa growers are receiving about 6% of the price that consumers in rich countries pay for chocolate. #makechocolatefair #chocfacts.” Twitter, October 4, 2016. https://twitter.com/ChocMuseumUK/status/783273233227325440?s=20.
Unknown. Milton Snavely Hershey (September 13, 1857 – October 13, 1945). 1905 (original image); March 12, 2013 (derivative image). Accessed March 25, 2020. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Milton_S._Hershey_c1905.jpg.
Werdigier, Julia and Julie Creswell “Trader’s Cocoa Binge Wraps Up Chocolate Market.” New York Times. July 25, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/business/global/25chocolate.html.