Art is closely tied to the culture of a society. Studying changes and patterns in symbolism and representations over time can provide clues to shifting norms and cultural expectations in society. By studying the path of chocolate through art history, we can better understand the shifting associations between chocolate and gender.
Chocolate has been intimately tied to gender since its origins in ancient Mesoamerica. As chocolate spread to new cultures and new continents, practices surrounding the production, serving, and consumption of chocolate changed to reflect the sometimes strict, sometimes contradictory gender norms of these new cultures.
Ancient Mesoamerica: women and production
The women above – on the left, from a Mayan vase ca. 750 CE, and on the right, from the Aztec Codex Tudela ca. 1500 CE – are each pouring chocolate from one vessel to another, a key step in the preparation of ancient Mesoamerican chocolate beverages. The images below illustrate the somewhat different relationship of deities to chocolate.
On the left, from the Dresden Codex, the rain god holds a bowl of cacao in his hands, presumably for consumption; on the right, a high-ranking Mayan man seated on a platform is inspecting a pot containing a frothed cacao beverage – again, he appears to be preparing to drink the chocolate. Though we have access today to only a fraction of the images of chocolate created in the first several hundred years of its consumption, the images that we do have draw a compelling distinction between the relationship of men and women to chocolate. Women produced chocolate, and men consumed it. Aztec and Maya texts, as well as the writings of the European colonists who settled in Mesoamerica, indicate that these earliest consumers of chocolate were well aware of its stimulating effect (Coe and Coe). In Aztec society, the consumption of chocolate was expressly limited to nobles, merchants, and warriors – all, for the most part, male (Coe and Coe). The roles of women in Mesoamerican society were far more restricted – women were primarily involved in the domestic sphere – and far less physically active, meaning they lost the privilege of drinking chocolate.
Chocolate houses, European men, and chaos
By the early 17th century, cacao had officially arrived in Europe. It was first drunk only by royalty, but quickly spread – especially in England – to the masses, aided by the class-defying appeal of London’s coffeehouses (Calhoun). William Hogarth’s engraving, below, shows a raucous crowd of men at White’s Chocolate House, many gambling, smoking, or stabbing at the air with swords.
A somewhat tamer scene is depicted below; again, though, men have come together in great numbers to consume chocolate.
Coffee houses and chocolate houses were generally a space from which women were excluded. There is historical disagreement about whether women were forbidden from frequenting these spaces by decree, as Bramah claims, or merely made unwelcome, as Cowan argues; whatever the means of exclusion, the visual record confirms that chocolate houses were a gendered space. Women were only present in chocolate houses as owners or employees. (Calhoun). A deeper cultural gender divide is clear when we consider the conversations that generally took place in coffeehouses and chocolate houses: historians often acknowledge the role of these spaces in disseminating the intellectual ideals of the Age of Enlightenment to the public sphere (Calhoun). The absence of women from this important sphere where culture and politics were discussed, debated, and shaped reveals the lack of autonomy given to women to change their position in society.
Wealthy women, working women
European women may have been excluded from chocolate houses, but they certainly were not excluded from consuming chocolate.
For the first time in our visual journey, female consumption is central. Men certainly continued to consume chocolate, but women appear far more frequently in paintings of domestic consumption. The paintings to the right and below are from the mid-18th century. All the women pictured are upper-class: their clothing and surroundings clearly demonstrate wealth, and the paintings appear to be posed – typical of portraiture in the period, but also an indicator of wealth, as only the elite could afford to commission portraits.
Wealthy men tend only to appear as consumers of chocolate when a woman is at the center of the painting, as in the Penthièvre family portrait above and Longhi’s painting to the left, where men literally surround a woman reclining in a tulle dress.
Women were painted with chocolate to demonstrate their wealth. Chocolate was a less powerful symbol of wealth for men: men had always been allowed to consume chocolate, and so a painting of a man drinking it was unsurprising.
While wealthy women began to be depicted as consumers, servants and lower-class women were still confined to the production and serving of chocolate. The painting below inspired advertising campaigns for both Droste and Baker’s chocolate.
For many middle-class women, the packaging on cocoa powder was the closest interaction they would have with chocolate and art.
Non-elite women did consume chocolate, and were often depicted consuming it, especially by the Impressionists. Renoir painted three portraits, each titled “The Cup of Chocolate,” in rapid succession around the turn of the 20th century.
Globalization and new gender roles
Though women of lower social status were now able to consume chocolate, they were also responsible for preparing it and serving it. The massive shifts in production that came with global industrialization meant that society became strictly stratified, and gender roles were not necessarily consistent across the strata.
In fact, images of men preparing and serving chocolate – traditionally a responsibility reserved for women – begin to appear around this time, especially in advertisements (such as the Fry’s chocolate advertisement above, where a man working at a drugstore is selling chocolate) and shop signs (the chocolatier sign depicts a man stirring a pot of chocolate).
Domestic food preparation was an almost entirely female arena in ancient Mesoamerica; surviving Mayan and Aztec art depicts women preparing chocolate and men preparing to consume it. Industrialization led to the increased stratification of European society, and brought new gender roles for the elite and for the working class. Wealthy women were no longer responsible for preparing food: they had servants to cook for them. The woman’s role in domestic management was displaced by the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Meanwhile, the globalization of food and food production meant that more men became responsible for food production somewhere along the supply line: harvesting cacao, grinding and conching and pressing chocolate, and handling the financial side of large chocolate businesses were all primarily male occupations.
Food production, for a large part of human history, took place almost exclusively within the home. Industrialization shifted production outside of the home, and created stratified gender roles. Art provides clues to the changing structure of human societies by giving us a glimpse of the prototypical figures of men and women over time. Continued consideration of how accurate a picture those glimpses paint is crucial – not all members of society are portrayed in art, and not all the images we see are accurate portrayals.
Peck, D. G. (1973) Drawing of a detail from the Princeton Vase. Published in Michael Coe’s The Maya Scribe and His World (1973). Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup.
The Princeton Vase: Artist unknown, of Late Classic Maya origins (A.D. 670-750). Princeton Vase. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum.
Image of Aztec woman pouring chocolate. Artist unknown (16th century). Codex Tudela. Madrid: Museo de América. Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg
Image of Rain God and Opossum God: Artist unknown (ca. 12th century). Dresden Codex Maya Hieroglyphic Text of Almanac: 25-28. Image courtesy of The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1. Source: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-money.
Image of Mayan inspecting chocolate beverage. Artist unknown (15th century). Image source: http://www.lindt.com/noswf/ger/world-of-lindt/lindt-history/swiss-chocolate-pioneers-in-the-19th-century.
William Hogarth (1697-1764). The Rake’s Progress, Plate VI “Gaming House Scene,” engraved by W. Radclyffe. Source: Complete Works, facing p. 98. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. Image source: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/18c/hogarth/rp6.html
Image of 17th-century London Chocolate House. Artist unknown (date unknown). Image source: http://now-here-this.timeout.com/2013/12/10/london-chocolate-festival-take-a-choco-tour-of-london.
Liotard, J. E. (1744). A Lady Pouring Chocolate. London: National Gallery. Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Liotard-Lady_Pouring_Chocolate.jpg.
Charpentier, J. B. (1768). La famille du duc de Penthièvre (“La Tasse de Chocolat”). Versailles: Musée National du Château. Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_famille_du_Duc_de_Penthi%C3%A8vre_dit_la_tasse_de_chocolat.jpg.
Longhi, P. (1774-1780). La cioccolata di mattino. Venice: Ca ‘Rezzonico. Image source: http://www.exibart.com/profilo/eventiV2.asp?idelemento=58655
Liotard, J. E. (1743-44). La Belle Chocolatière. Dresden: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chocolate_Girl#/media/File:Jean-Etienne_Liotard_-_The_Chocolate_Girl_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Musset, J. (ca. 1900). Droste cocoa packaging. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droste.
Baker’s Cocoa (1919). Baker’s Cocoa Advertisement in Overland Monthly, January 1919. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Baker_%26_Company.
Renoir, P. A. (1878). The cup of chocolate. Private collection. Image source: http://www.wikiart.org/en/pierre-auguste-renoir/the-cup-of-chocolate-1878.
Renoir, P. A. (1912). Cup of chocolate (Femme prenant du chocolat). Philadelphia: Barnes Foundation. Image source: http://www.barnesfoundation.org/collections/art-collection/object/7007/cup-of-chocolate-femme-prenant-du-chocolat.
Renoir, P. A. (1914). Cup of chocolate (La tasse de chocolat). Philadelphia: Barnes Foundation. Image source: http://www.barnesfoundation.org/collections/art-collection/object/5068/cup-of-chocolate-la-tasse-de-chocolat.
J.S. Fry & Sons, Ltd. (ca. 1900). Advertisement for Fry’s Chocolates. Image source: http://digital.lib.muohio.edu/cdm/ref/collection/tradecards/id/1559
Borrari, O. (Date unknown). Sign of Milanese Shop. Gallery unknown. Image source: http://www.paintingsoncanvas.net/print-98538-6009700/sign-milanese-shop-other.
Caraud, J. (1872). Sharing the Chocolate [Painting]. Gallery unknown. Image source: https://www.papillonclub.org/History/PhotoGallery-OldMasters-C-Sharing-the-Chocolate.html
Bramah, E. (1972). Tea and Coffee: A Modern View of Three Hundred Years of Tradition. Tiptree, Essex: Hutchinson & Co, Ltd.
Calhoun, B. (2012). “Shaping the Public Sphere: English Coffeehouses and French Salons and the Age of the Enlightenment,” Colgate Academic Review 3: 7. Accessed: http://commons.colgate.edu/car/vol3/iss1/7
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (1996). The true history of chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Colmenero, A. (1652). Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke. First printing, London: J.G. for John Dakins. Wadsworth, J. (translator). Accessed: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21271/21271-h/21271-h.htm
Cowan, B. W. (2001). “What Was Masculine about the Public Sphere? Gender and the Coffeehouse Milieu in Post-Restoration England.” History Workshop Journal 51: 127–157.