The History of Chocolate at the New-York Historical Society

Bella Landauer collected “ephemera” meaning stuff people usually throw away. This 1998 M&Ms wrapper is part of her collection, housed at N-YHS. M&Ms are made by Mars and were introduced during WWII.

On President’s DayMars American Heritage Chocolate will take over two floors of the New-York Historical Society  to talk about the history of chocolate! They’ll be conducting demonstrations of 18th century chocolate-making and workshops about modern chocolate making, and visitors get to taste chocolate of the past and present. You might reasonably wonder: is there a difference? There certainly is!

For about 2,000 years, people only drank chocolate. Chocolate originated in South America and Europeans began drinking it in the seventeenth century, taking this habit with them to North American colonies.  For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, chocolate drinking was the purview of the rich, and special dishes were invented with which people drank chocolate. Thomas Jefferson was so taken with chocolate after he first purchased it in 1775, he became convinced that its “health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America.” Check out this chocolate pot owned by Samuel Shaw, the first American consul at Canton. It was used to stir and serve drinking chocolate.

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Chocolate pot, 1788, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1972.11a

Just like we have tea cups or coffee mugs, people long ago had chocolate cups for drinking chocolate. They don’t look too different from a regular cup, though sometimes they come with special lids. This cup is one of a set in our collection. The “C” on the cup is likely someone’s first initial (it probably doesn’t stand for chocolate).

chocolate cup
Jean Nepomucene and Hermann Nast, Chocolate cup, 1805, New-York Historical Society, 1954.9y

You still might be wondering what the difference is between the chocolate drink that Thomas Jefferson loved and the hot cocoa that you  love.  You won’t truly know until you taste the difference here on Monday, but let us give you an idea here. Cocoa powder as you know it was first developed by a Dutch chemist in 1828. He figured out how to pulverize cacao beans by removing much of their fat content, grinding them up, and mixing them with alkalized salts to make them taste less bitter. The chocolate drink from the eighteenth century was not made from cocoa powder, and no fat was removed from it.

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This food wrapper is also part of Bella Landauer collection. Just like the M&M wrapper seems like no big deal to us today, this wrapper seemed like no big deal 100 years ago. But today we’re glad Bella saved it! Bensdorp Royal Dutch Cocoa packet, ca. 1900-130, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 2002.1.2023

Hopefully this blog post has made you hungry- for modern chocolate and to know what 18th century drinking chocolate was really like! To see for yourself, drop by the New-York Historical Society between 12:00 pm and 4:00 pm on Monday, February 17th. The demonstrations and workshops are free with museum admission. Don’t forget to ask someone when chocolate bars were invented!


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