Chocolate in Europe, brought to Spain originally from Mesoamerica in the 1500s, has amassed into a staple of almost everyone’s diet today. However, the history of chocolate consumption and its social constructs have expanded and changed over the centuries since chocolate’s first venture into Europe. Chocolate began as a drink, medicine, and eventually a snack “among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe” (Coe and Coe, 125). However, as time went on, and the price and availability of chocolate began to expand to beyond the upper circles of Europe, the elitism that surrounded chocolate still existed. Even today, when majority of people consume chocolate—often times in similar forms, for example as a bar or hot beverage—there still is a separation between chocolate for commoners and chocolate for the wealthy. How come even though there have been drastic consumption changes over the centuries, in quantity and form, there is still a strong social tension amongst different types of chocolate? By looking at the history of chocolate, it will become clearer that chocolate has always had societal divisions and it is merely impossible to fully break away from those constructs that are inherent to chocolate.
Chocolate for European Elites
In order to understand how consumption in Europe has and has not changed over the centuries, it is important to start at the beginning of chocolate in Europe. Once chocolate was brought over to Europe through Spain during the Renaissance, it was immediately viewed as for elites only— “it was in Baroque palaces and mansions of the wealthy and powerful that it was elaborated and consumed” (Coe and Coe, 125). While Spaniards more or less “stripped [the chocolate beverage] of the spiritual meaning” attached to it by the Aztec and Maya, they did start by consuming the beverage as a drug or medicine for healing (Coe and Coe, 126). This consumption was often matched with mix-ins custom to Spain and Europe, such as “atole and sugar” for a colder drink or “honey and hot water” for a more soothing hot beverage (Coe and Coe, 134).
However, this beverage was still strictly for the elites of Europe even once it started to spread throughout the continent. As time progressed, the royals started to create more recipes of chocolate beverages to be served to special guest, with a princess in 1679 recalling: “There was iced chocolate, another hot, and another with Milk and Eggs; one took it with a biscuit…besides this, they take it with so much pepper and so many spices” (Coe and Coe, 136). With the spread of popularity amongst chocolate beverages, there also were technical advances to enhance the experience. For example, the Spanish royals invented mancerina, a decorative saucer and small plate that helped avoid spills on fancy clothing (Coe and Coe, 134-5).
Sugar Becomes a Chocolate Equalizer
Skipping ahead, with the addition of sugar mass production, chocolate became a consumable good for almost everyone around Europe and the world, breaking down many original societal barriers. During the early 1800s, the British “national consumption [of sugar] was about 300 million pounds per year,” rising to over a billion pounds in 1852 as prices continued to drop (Mintz, 143). The addition of sugar allowed for chocolate to more easily become mass produced, creating more affordability and accessibility throughout Europe. By 1856, “sugar consumption was forty times higher than it had been only 150 years earlier,” allowing for everyone—wealthy and poor alike—to enjoy such treats in different forms (Mintz, 143).
1885 Cadbury advertisement markets towards the “public,” claiming their cocoa is “exhilarating, comforting, and sustaining” as well as “guaranteed absolutely pure.”
Sugar was a major success in creating access to chocolate throughout history, giving way for major chocolate companies such as Lindt and Cadbury to become the “producers of majority of the world’s chocolate” (Martin and Sampeck, 49). For the first time in history, chocolate was being consumed in similar forms at similar price points by both the wealthy and poor because of these large manufactures—arguably stripping away many societal differences inherent to chocolate by creating a consistent form of chocolate everyone could enjoy. However, as the prices decreased, the quality of chocolate also decreased, with many large manufacturers “even cutting out…the substance that gives quality to superior chocolates: cacao butter” (Coe and Coe, 257). As lower quality chocolate created by major companies became a staple of poorer and working-class citizens, the elites often would opt to fly to specific regions of Europe—such as Switzerland or Belgium—to indulge in their high-quality chocolate from chocolatiers (Coe and Coe, 258). Therefore, even though sugar allowed for some narrowing of the social constructs surrounding chocolate, there was still a market for superior forms that are only accessible for a wealthier audience.
Still a Divide with Chocolate Today
Today, chocolate still holds of great importance to many peoples’ lives, with chocolate consumptions estimates for 2018/2019 at 7.7 million tons globally (“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide,” Statista). However, even with the advances in chocolate consumption over the many centuries, there are still similar societal constraints around chocolate. While the different forms of chocolate are often times similar amongst upper and lower classes—ranging from hot beverages or bars to baked goods—the quality and price ranges can heavily vary, instilling a separation and exclusivity in societal groups that existed even in the 1500s when chocolate was introduced to Europe. For example, the range in quality of chocolate products is vast: there exist fair trade chocolate sourced in more humane manners, specific species of cacao pods with better characteristics and richer flavors, granulated texture differences, and even different percentages of cacao in chocolate mixtures. One can go to a deluxe chocolatier shop somewhere in Switzerland or Belgium and purchase extreme, rare examples of certain types of chocolate—frequently at higher prices. However, these levels of chocolate are often inaccessible to others of not a higher social class because they require having more money and the ability to reach the areas where superior-quality chocolate is created—such as expensive regions in Switzerland. For these other social groups, the desire for chocolate could still be just as strong, but the more realistic options are to purchase mass-produced chocolate, such as Hershey’s chocolate bars or M&Ms, that are often associated with quick, convenient snacks that are affordable.
This social distinction around chocolate exists even in Harvard Square today, where one could purchase a quality, single source hot chocolate at L.A. Burdick from specific locations such as Ecuador (with an “earthy finish”) or Madagascar (with “fruity notes”) at a starting price of $5.50 (“Single Source Drinking Chocolate.” L.A. Burdick). On the other hand, one could instead go to CVS in Harvard Square and purchase a 10 pack of Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa Mix for $2.79, averaging $0.28 per serving (“Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix.” CVS). There is clearly an audience for both choices, but the more accessible version is at CVS because it is drastically more affordable and easily accessible at any CVS around the world, while L.A. Burdick is a specialty chocolate shop with a much higher price point and only a few locations. So even though there have been major advances in chocolate and the levels of consumption over the last few centuries—including the expansion of different forms of consumptions and the spread of accessibility beyond the upper-class nobilities—there still persists a divide when it comes to chocolate today.
Based on the history of chocolate, it seems unlikely that societal constructs around chocolate will ever completely disappear because there will always be a market for better quality, more elaborate chocolate consumption as well as affordable, accessible chocolate. However, as the interest in “fine flavor” chocolate continues to grow in more recent decades, then more “small-batch chocolate companies” will begin to come around “with a heavy focus on batch production, flavor, quality, and perceived ethical sourcing of raw ingredients,” creating more access and maybe eventually lower prices of higher quality product for everyone to enjoy (Martin and Sampeck, 54). While the future is uncertain, one steadfast is that chocolate will still be present in most peoples’ lives because of its unifying, joyous, cherished qualities that impact people on a daily basis—no matter one’s social rank.
Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide, 2012/13-2018/19 | Statistic.” Statista, Statista, Nov. 2015, http://www.statista.com/statistics/238849/global-chocolate-consumption/.
Martin, Carla D., and Sampeck, Kathryn E. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2016, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
“Single Source Drinking Chocolate.” L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolate, http://www.burdickchocolate.com/DrinkingChocolate/single-source-drinking-chocolate.aspx.
“Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix.” CVS, http://www.cvs.com/shop/swiss-miss-milk-chocolate-flavor-hot-cocoa-mix-prodid-828715?skuid=828715.
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