Chocolate, the bittersweet delicious treat that most everyone in the western world grew up eating, has taken on various different roles in society throughout its surprisingly significant lifespan. From 1900 BC to our modern day existence, chocolate has been everything from a form of sustenance, to a currency, to a ritualistic decoration, and now a sugary treat that we give to children and loved ones. Of particular interest and significance, though, is the period from 1600-1800, when European consumption preferences caused chocolate to go from an exotic snack to a full fledged industrialized foodstuff that powered economies and increased the slave trade. That period marks a permanent change in the history of chocolate, one best described as a case study in rising capitalism meeting changing consumer preferences to create an entirely new industry.
The earliest evidence of the existence of chocolate is found in research of the Olmec Civilization (Dakin and Wichmann, 2000:66). The Olmec Civilization flourished in Mesoamerica prior to the Maya or Aztec civilizations arising, and like their predecessors the Olmec used chocolate for both consumption and in ritual (Dakin and Wichmann, 2000:66). For centuries, chocolate, and the cacao from which it is made, was consumed in relatively small portions. No plantations existed for the sole purpose of farming cacao, nor did it ever occur to create one. Sophie and Michael Coe, authors of The True History of Chocolate, detailed how the Aztecs “considered chocolate a far more desirable beverage [than octli their native drink], especially for warriors and nobility” (Coe and Coe, 2013:154). Today we romanticize the Aztec chocolate habits with false pictures and recipes like the one displayed here. The Aztecs, who ruled proudly until 1521 when they were all but wiped out, were one of the civilizations to introduce chocolate to Europeans.
Europeans, specifically the Spanish, encountered chocolate for the first time in 1502 when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ what would become a continental obsession (Coe and Coe, 2013:217). It wasn’t until 1544, though, when “Dominican friars took a delegation of Maya nobles to visit Prince Phillip in Spain” that chocolate truly entered the European consciousness (Coe and Coe, 2013:262). By the early 1600s Spaniards had begun manufacturing chocolate for public consumption. By the mid 1600s, recipes including cinnamon and sugar had popped up (Coe and Coe, 2013:269). By the 1800s chocolate was a full-blown obsession. Chocolate was becoming more and more popular in Europe, and in order to keep up with demand Europeans began doing to chocolate what they did to so many other things during the same time period: industrialized.
In 1828 Coenraad Johannes Van Houten developed a hydraulic press capable of industrializing the labor intensive and inefficient process of separating chocolate liquor into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. He also added salts to the cocoa around the same time period, darkening the colour and changing the flavor of the end product (Coe and Coe, 2013:483-484). This invention marked a change in the production of chocolate that would never go back to the largely small scale, artisanal industry it was before. The inventions, combined with a Pennsylvanian named Joseph Fry’s use of a steam engine to grind cacao beans, allowed chocolate production to become much easier, faster, and more efficient (Coe and Coe, 2013:485-486). Here is a picture of Van Houten’s original hydraulic press used for chocolate.
Another factor that contributed to the boom in chocolate production was the increased demand from working class Europeans. During the 19th century the industrial revolution was in full swing all across Europe. While that meant great progress, both socially and economically, it also brought about many issues including large-scale poverty. With the new ability to mass-manufacture chocolate prices came down dramatically. Chocolate was no longer a food for only the select elite to enjoy. On the meager wages of a factory worker one could enjoy a uniformly produced, sweet chocolate bar. Industrial workers caused a massive boost in popularity of chocolate in the mid-to-late 19th century (Poelmans and Swinnen, 2019:13). Chocolate was fueling the industrial revolution, and the industrial revolution was in turn fueling chocolate in a period of absolutely enormous growth. Between 1870 and 1940 production of chocolate and imports for cacao beans in Europe and North America grew by over 90x (Poelmans and Swinnen, 2019:13). It is truly one of the most stunning and lucrative periods of growth in economic history.
The explosion of chocolate production caused a dip in ‘quality.’ No longer was chocolate a frothy beverage used for energy. Instead, chocolate was barely even cacao anymore, diluted as it was with alkalized salts, sugars, spices, and other ingredients to create a sweet treat suitable for all members of society. Millions of people consumed chocolate annually, but now primarily from larger companies that had cropped up like Hershey’s, Cadbury, and Nestlé and not smaller chocolate makers. By the middle of the 20th century the chocolate revolution was complete. The product was now unrecognizable from where it started in Mesoamerica, and so too was the world.
A modern day Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Today we rarely remember or know much about the original recipes and consumption habits surrounding chocolate. All we know is the sugary, delicious but bastardized version of the snack that surrounds us in every grocery store and local corner deli. This change was caused for both social consumption preferences, as well as underlying economic tailwinds. Today, the chocolate industry is strong as ever and shows no signs of slowing down, continuing to perpetuate the European recipes which have taken over the world.
- Dakin, Karen and Soren Wichmann. 2000. Cacao and Chocolate: An Uto-Aztecan Perspective. Ancient Mesoamerica vol. 11. Cambridge University Press.
- Coe, Sophie and Michael Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson. London, UK.
- Poelmans, Eline and Johan F. M. Swinnen. 2019. A Brief Economic History of Chocolate. LICOS Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance. Mannheim, Ger.
- Fiegl, Amanda. 2008. “A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonianmag. Accessed March 24 10:53PM <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/>
- SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier. Accessed March 24, 11:02PM <https://www.pinterest.com/pin/547117054703050487/>
- Wikimedia Commons. Accessed March 24, 11:48PM <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hershey-bar-open.JPG>