Popularization of Chocolate

The introduction of cocoa as a commodity in seventeenth century London quickly gave rise to a “chocolate culture” in Europe. The new luxury item, imported from the New World, provided the fundamental economic underpinnings by which imperialism would eventually grow, especially in Africa.

Summary of Event

As a beverage, chocolate has been drunk for thousands of years. However, Europeans never realized chocolate existed until Christopher Columbus returned from his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502 with the dark brown beans that were promptly set aside in favor of silver and gold. Little did those at the Spanish court realize that these beans were used as native currency or that they were destined to become one of the world’s largest agricultural crops. Their consumption would create enormous wealth for individuals and for governments alike. [kw]Popularization of Chocolate (1656)
[kw]Chocolate, Popularization of (1656)
Trade and commerce;1656: Popularization of Chocolate[1860]
Economics;1656: Popularization of Chocolate[1860]
Agriculture;1656: Popularization of Chocolate[1860]
Europe;1656: Popularization of Chocolate[1860]
England;1656: Popularization of Chocolate[1860]
Chocolate, popularization of

Cacao is the name of the plant that produces cocoa beans, and chocolate, referred to by the early Mexicans as the “food of the gods,” is an end product of the cacao bean. Solid in form, it was diluted with hot water to make a drink known as xocolatl, which was served to the Aztec emperor Montezuma, who was rumored to have drunk fifty cups daily. The drink was consumed as a hot liquid, its harsh bitter taste softened with sugar and vanilla. The Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernán Cortés, who conquered the Aztecs in 1521, saw great possibilities in the cultivation of cocoa: When Cortés returned to Spain in 1528, he loaded his galleons with cocoa beans. Spain kept the source of chocolate a secret for almost a century. In fact, in 1579, when English pirates boarded a Spanish galleon in search of gold and mistook cocoa beans for sheep’s droppings, they burned the ship and its incredibly valuable cargo. Spain;chocolate

Because of Spain’s trade monopoly with the New World, chocolate remained exclusively Spanish until theseventeenth century, when Anne of Austria Anne of Austria married Louis XIII in 1615 and introduced the culture of coffee to the French court. It was met with skepticism, however, and came to be accepted only after medical approval. Coffee;France and The French practice of chocolate drinking reached England by the mid-seventeenth century. In 1650, the practice was introduced at the university town of Oxford, and in 1656, “The Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll,” the first shop to serve chocolate, was opened in London by a Frenchman. In 1659, an advertisement for chocolate—one of the first advertisements for a commercial product in Britain—appeared in an English newspaper. Newspapers;chocolate ads

Chocolate was associated with the rich, as a status drink, for the next two hundred years. A sixteenth century Spanish historian by the name of Oviedo wrote: “None but the rich and noble could afford to drink xocolatl as it was literally drinking money.” Sold in blocks, it could be grated or scraped into a cup or saucepan before adding hot milk or water. Although these solid cakes were sold for home use, in England the chocolate drink was consumed primarily in chocolate houses, which during the seventeenth century grew to be as prominent as coffeehouses. Just as they did in coffee houses, the wealthy met in chocolate houses to smoke tobacco, discuss political events and literature, and conduct business. In 1693, Italian immigrant Frances White White, Frances opened White’s Chocolate House White’s Chocolate House[Whites Chocolate House] , London’s most famous, and possibly most notorious, chocolate house, on St. James Street. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys, Pepys, Samuel in one of his entries, refers to “Mr. Bland’,” where he was in the habit of taking his “morning draft of chocollatte.”

While coffeehouses in England took on a puritanical character, chocolate houses came to be associated with aristocrats, politicians of questionable repute, the literati, and gamblers. Also, since chocolate was associated with Catholic Spain, the British—by this time heavily Anglican and Protestant following the Puritan interregnum of Oliver Cromwell—considered chocolate to be a decadent drink. For a while, chocolate was considered an aphrodisiac and was believed to enhance fertility in women. Therefore—as it had done with coffee, tea, and tobacco before it—Parliament began to regulate the consumption of chocolate by imposing enormous taxes. Nevertheless, the drinking of chocolate grew in popularity, especially among the well-to-do.

European aristocrats were fond of chocolate in the morning, served on small tables in the bedroom and oftentimes in bed. While caffeinated coffee and tea provided an early-morning physiological jolt to middle-class workers, chocolate, which contains less caffeine, ensured the rich a leisurely entrance into an unhurried day. Porcelain pots, called chocolate pots, and special cups were designed specifically for the popular new drink. The aristocratic practice of drinking morning chocolate with one’s friends soon became a popular theme for seventeenth century artists.

After its introduction into England, chocolate mixed with hot milk was often served after dinner as a form of dessert. Eventually, however, the popularity of chocolate as a daily drink in England was usurped by coffee. Interestingly, it seems coffee as a beverage of choice permeated the Protestant countries—England, the Netherlands, and France—whereas chocolate remained popular in Catholic southern Europe, especially in Spain and Italy. Its rich nutritional value ensured chocolate’s continued favor in the Catholic south, since chocolate could “safely” be served as a food substitute to penitents during periods of physically uncomfortable fasts.


The rapid spread of chocolate consumption helped prompt the spread of imperialism throughout Europe during the colonial age. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch broke Spain’s monopoly on cocoa beans when they captured Curaçao and brought cocoa beans from the New World to the Netherlands, where the drink rapidly grew in popularity. The French trade in chocolate spread similarly after France conquered Cuba and Haiti in the later half of the seventeenth century and began growing cocoa in New World plantations. Trade;chocolate

Although initially chocolate was used solely by the rich, the conquest of Jamaica by the British in the middle of the seventeenth century assured direct access to cacao production and enabled the trade to spread and grow in popularity in Great Britain. Cocoa was used as money in this era: One hundred seeds could be used to purchase a slave.

In this era, too, the Quakers, Quakerism;chocolate and a pacifist religious sect, advocated the use of chocolate as an alternative to alcohol among the general British population. Members of Quaker families named Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree held a monopoly on chocolate making in Britain. Migration;Quakers into Pennsylvania They emigrated to colonial America, primarily to Pennsylvania, where the Hershey’s Chocolate Company is still located. Alcohol;chocolate as an alternative to

Eventually, cocoa production changed as Europeans began to colonize Africa. Production decreased in the Caribbean and South America as a new cocoa industry took effect in Africa. In the twenty-first century, African nations are among the world’s leading producers of chocolate. Thus, the European craving for chocolate played a major role in imperial acquisition and colonial expansion.

Further Reading

  • Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996. Written by archaeologists, this book examines botany, archaeology, sociology, and economics to provide a complete and precise history of chocolate.
  • Lopez, Ruth. Chocolate: The Nature of Indulgence. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002. Well-illustrated guide to the Chicago’s Field Museum exhibition on chocolate. Features the historical origins of chocolate, the trade, and conjectures about its future. Discusses chocolate’s role in slavery, war, and medicine.
  • Morton, Marcia, and Frederic Morton. Chocolate: An Illustrated History. New York: Crown, 1986. Traces the history of chocolate from pre-Columbian Mexico to recent times. The book’s myriad illustrations make the story of chocolate come alive.
  • Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants. Translated by David Jacobson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992. Although this book deals with coffee, tea, and alcohol, it contains a highly informative and very readable section on the history of chocolate and its cultural and economic impact.

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Anne of Austria; Samuel Pepys. Chocolate, popularization of