Tag Archives: louis xvi

The Advent of Conspicuous Consumption: Chocolate as Status Symbol in European Bourgeois Society

Before the nineteenth century, chocolate in Europe had only been available to the aristocratic classes and royal courts. In eighteenth-century Europe, during the Age of Enlightenment, the drink associated with the poor classes was alcohol and the drink of the small but growing bourgeois class was coffee: chocolate became stereotypically aristocratic during this period. Coffee was associated with bourgeois work while chocolate was associated with aristocratic leisure activities: coffee “gave to the mind what it took from the body, while chocolate was thought to do the reverse” (Coe 200). Chocolate was enjoyed by all classes in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations we have studied in this class, yet the consumption of chocolate was remarkably exclusive to the highest class in Europe. This is demonstrated by the presence of chocolate in royal family portraits such as 1762 portrait of Maria Theresa and her family, including daughter Marie Antoinette, celebrating Saint Nicholas. A large silver chocolatière and two cups are central to the portrait, seen on the breakfast table.

Fig. 1. 1762 Portrait of Maria Theresa and Family in Vienna

Marie Antoinette brought her love of chocolate from Vienna to the French court when she married Louis XVI. While Marie Antoinette was very abstemious and only consumed a small amount of chocolate at breakfast, her influence made chocolate into a craft within the French noble court (Coe 219). Chocolate has become part of the mythology of decadence that brought upon the deluge of the French aristocracy. The Versailles website features an article on “Hot Chocolate in Versailles,” which recounts how Marie-Antoinette brought her own personal chocolate-maker from Vienna to the court of France: http://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/key-dates/hot-chocolate-versailles. This chocolate-maker was seen as a skilled craftsman, sometimes even combining chocolate with Orange blossoms or sweet almonds.

Chocolate is again revealed to be a status symbol for eighteenth-century European nobility in a 1768 portrait of Princesse de Lamballe and her family drinking chocolate, titled La Tasse de Chocolat. Chocolate is depicted in paintings as the stereotypical drink of the French aristocratic class, establishing the identity of the Lamballe family as refined and noble. However, it is important to note that chocolate in France during this period also became elaborate in its uses besides the way it is portrayed in historic paintings as a beverage. Chocolate biscuits, pastilles, mousse, conserve, marzipan, creams, truffle-like delicacies, chocolate sugared almonds, and chocolate wafers were also innovated during the pre-revolution period in France. These types of chocolate items are still what make up the luxury chocolate industry today, as France has become the capital of luxury products.

Fig. 2. Princesse de Lamballe in 1768 Portrait, La Tasse de Chocolat

The strong association of chocolate in Europe with luxury and aristocracy during the nineteenth century became essential to its importance among the rising bourgeois. Nineteenth-century Europe saw a transformation in attitudes towards consumption, which became a way the bourgeois could establish themselves as part of the leisure class and gain social influence. As revealed in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, chocolate began to be consumed by the bourgeois during this period who sought a higher status, as Charles’ first wife, a bourgeois lady, “had to have her cup of chocolate every morning” (Flaubert 11). You further see it in advertisements on nineteenth-century theater cards targeted towards a bourgeois audience such as those for producer of chocolates, Chocolat Debauve & Gallais.

Fig. 3. Advertisement for Chocolat Debauve & Gallais

This is because the bourgeois had begun to partake in what economist Thorstein Vleben would term ‘conspicuous consumption’ at the end of the nineteenth century in his work, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Vleben articulates how consumption had become a tool to differentiate the leisure class from the working class, and how the working bourgeois male used goods and the leisured status of his wife to elevate himself in society. Since chocolate had already been established as a luxury good of the royal courts, it had great significance and popularity amongst the bourgeois partaking in conspicuous consumption. Debauve & Gallais, the producer of chocolates that created the above advertisement, initially created chocolates for the court of Marie Antoinette alone. Once the manufacturing guilds of the ancient regime became obsolete and the economy was transformed by the second industrial revolution and rising bourgeois, such historic chocolate makers started producing for a broader audience. However, Debauve & Gallais among others still advertise their products as part of an ancient aristocratic tradition. Debauve & Gallais is still famous for its chocolate coins, “first developed for Queen Marie Antoinette in order to ease her distaste for taking medicines” as stated on the website: https://www.debauveandgallais.com/.

Conspicuous consumption gave rise to the association of chocolate with luxury and widespread consumption of chocolate in Europe and the US that we see today. The popularity of chocolate in European bourgeois society was dependent on its association with an aristocratic past, since European bourgeois society sought a higher status. Chocolate is still understood as a treat or extravagance in the modern West, which contrasts the original nutritional or ritualistic uses by the Mayans and Aztecs.

Works Cited

Vleben, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. London: MacMillan & Co, 1899.

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

Flaubert, Gustave, et al. Madame Bovary : Contexts, Critical Reception. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton, 2005.

Fredric Woodbridge Wilson Collection of Theater, Dance Music. French Advertising Trade Cards, 1882 and Undated, 1882.

“Hot Chocolate in Versailles.” Chateau de Versailles. Online. Last accessed May 17, 2020.

“Queen Marie Antoinette Pistole Sampler.” Debauve & Gallais. Online. Last accessed May 17, 2020.

Let Them Eat Chocolate: Similarities Between Elitism and Medicinal Practices of Cacao In Aztec and French Culture

            Cacao, especially in its early history, was considered to have unique healing powers and this ‘food of the gods’ was revered to various extents in various cultures. Cacao’s most ancient roots evidence this reverence in Mesoamerica, but the same themes can be traced through its introduction to Europe, particularly in France. The historical narrative told by the use of chocolate in the royal courts of Louis XIV to Louis XVI of France parallels that of ancient Aztec culture with respect to medicinal uses and elite status.

Aztec Background

The Aztecs, unlike other Mesoamerican cultures at the time regarded cacao to be a substance reserved for the elite. Nobility and merchants were the main consumers of cacao, with warriors being the only commoners with the privilege of consuming it (Coe, 95).  Chocolate was featured at the conclusions of royal banquets (Coe, 95), indicating a perception that it was special enough to be enjoyed separate of all other food and beverage. In the Aztec culture, the medicinal benefits derived from cacao were wide ranging. They included: healing stomach problems, diarrhea, cough, exhaustion, and curing sterility (Hurst, 35). While most Mesoamerican cultures believed in the healing powers of cacao, it is not known exactly why chocolate was an elite food in ancient Aztec culture. It may be the combination of religious significance they placed on cacao and the controlling favoritism towards the food exhibited by Aztec rulers.

Chocolate in 15th-16th Century France

            The story behind the introduction of chocolate to France is unclear to historians, with narratives ranging from introduction through political marriage to it first being introduced as a medicine (Coe, 152). What we do know is that its ultimate rise in popularity among the French elite was due to marriage. Maria Teresa of Spain was married to Louis XIV of France in 1660. At first Maria Teresa kept her chocolate consumption secret, as it was not publically appropriate for women to drink chocolate in public (Coe, 154). In 1684, her physician, Joseph Bachot of Paris, wrote on the healing effects of chocolate and this is when we begin to see more frequent appearance of chocolate in the French court. Louis XIV (though rumored to not be a fan of chocolate) hired his own physician/chocolatier, Nicolas Blegny. After scientific testing, his work with chocolate led him to believe its health benefits included: “therapeutic virtues…good against coughs and stuffy chest, good for bilious colic, diarrhea, and dysentery…especially good against fevers and indigestion…even syphilis” (Albala, 68). As you may notice, this list is strikingly similar to that of the Aztec peoples. Below is an scan from Blegny’s book on the medicinal power of chocolate. It shows the way he would make chocolate paste. The fact that the physician to the King spent the time writing a book on the healing nature of cacao evidences how seriously chocolate was taken as a medicinal product in France at the time.


“Le Bon Usage du Thé, du Caffé et du Chocolat pour la Preservation & pour la Guérison des Maladies (The Proper Use of Tea, Coffee and Chocolate to Preserve Health and Cure Illnesses)”

             The son of Louis XIV, Louis XV, was responsible for solidifying the presence of chocolate at Versailles. He had a deep love for chocolate beverage, to the extent where he frequently made it for himself. The King’s personal recipe for hot chocolate was even published:

            “Place the same quantity of chocolate bars and glasses of water in a coffee maker and boil gently; when you are ready to serve, place one egg yolk for four servings and stir over a gentle heat but do not boil. If prepared the night before, those who drink it every day leave a leaven for the one they make the next day.”
 (“Les Soupers de la Cour ou l’Art de travailler toutes sortes d’aliments pour servir les meilleurs tables suivant les quatre saisons” (Court dinners or the Art of working different foods for the best restaurants based on the four seasons), by Menon, 1755, volume IV, p.331)


The King’s preference made chocolate a staple at the palace, served to guests of Versailles and all members of the court. In the image below, you see Princess de Lamballe, a favorite of the court, enjoying chocolate with her family at Versailles. As you can see, the focus of the painting is the drinking of chocolate. That the family chose to be immortalized in this image drinking chocolate speaks to the status of the beverage at the time.


In French society, cacao was now a food of the elite. Following its rise in popularity, Louis XV and his wife Marie Antoinette maintained its status. By this time chocolate was so popular among the elite that Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles with her own chocolate maker (en.chateauversailles.fr). The King and Queen both consumed hot chocolate for breakfast and during the day if they required it for medicinal reasons. Below is an image of Marie Antoinette’s personal chocolate set, displaying her French-style chocolate pot. The French chocolate pot was an elevation of the Spanish molinillo, a stick used to froth chocolate when twisted quickly between one’s hands. The French chocolate pot internalized this process via a closed pot with a wooden handle that would froth the drink inside (Coe, 157).  Versailles adopting a ‘cleaner’ method to froth chocolate beverage matches the elite narrative of cacao’s early history in France.

marie antoinette's chocolate service

Also, for fun and to show the close association of Marie Antoinette and chocolate in modern times is an article for the “Marie Antoinette Diet”, in which it says “the premise of this diet is that you can (and should) eat like Marie Antoinette, who treated herself to cake and hot chocolate for breakfast”.


Final Thoughts

While it can be argued that cultures such as the Maya and the English had a more communal approach to chocolate, it was a food of the elite in the French and ancient Aztec cultures. Though cacao went through hybridization across these two cultures, particularly in matters of taste, it is interesting to consider the similarities of its elite status and medicinal benefits. The highly strict Aztec aristocracy had the power to restrict chocolate consumption to the upper echelon. On the other hand, the elitism of cacao in French society can probably be contributed to it becoming ‘fashionable’ at Versailles, as well as the cost, due to it being a relatively new, foreign import.

Works Cited

Albala, Ken. The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory. Food &

Foodways: History & Culture of Human Nourishment. Jan-Jun2007, Vol. 15

Issue 1/2, p53-74. 22p.

Coe, Sophie D. The true history of chocolate. (2007)


Wilson, Philip. Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries. 2012

Image 1: http://circulatingnow.nlm.nih.gov/2014/02/14/a-chocolate-        


Image 2: http://www.gogmsite.net/grand-ladies-of-the-reign-o/subalbum-marie-therese-     de-s/1768-la-famille-du-duc-de-p.html

Image 3: http://leahmariebrownhistoricals.blogspot.com/2011/04/chocolate-for-