You don’t need us to tell you that chocolate is one of the most popular foods in the world, but how much do you know about chocolate history? Some parts of its past—especially its role in American history—might surprise you!
This Presidents’ Day on Monday, February 18, we’ll be talking all about colonial chocolate history at our program—Cocoa with the Founders. You might reasonably wonder, is there a difference between chocolate then and now? There certainly is! Here are six things you probably never knew about chocolate history.
1. Chocolate was first a drink, not a food.
For about 2,000 years, people didn’t eat chocolate, they drank it! Theobroma cacao, the plant from which we derive cacao beans, is native to the Yucatán Peninsula and was first enjoyed by the Mayans as early as 500–800 CE, though some evidence points to the Olmec consuming it as early as 1200–400 BCE. Chocolate was imbibed as a drink, ritual offering, and ceremonial delicacy. Cacao was even part of ancient Mayan texts about the creation of humankind!
Mayans tended to savor cacao beans ground with a metate y mano—a special type of mortar and pestle—and then mixed with water, cornmeal, and spices. Cacao beans were even a currency for the Maya. Chocolate remains part of Mayan cultures today. For example, as chocolate researcher Gabrielle Vail notes, a community of Mayan descent that lives in the Guatemala Highlands exchanges a chocolate drink during marriage ceremonies, and this same tradition is depicted in readable images, called glyphs, in ancient Mayan codices, such as the Madrid Codex pictured above.
2. Drinking colonial chocolate? Better have special equipment!
Though chocolate was available in the North American colonies and not exorbitantly expensive for much of the 18th century, chocolate after the American Revolution was the purview of the rich. Artisans invented different types of dishware specifically designed for chocolate consumption—both when chocolate was cheap and when it later became costlier after the colonies gained independence.
On the left above, check out a chocolate pot owned by Samuel Shaw, the first American consul at Canton. It was used to stir and serve drinking chocolate. On the right, you’ll see a chocolate cup. (Just like we have tea cups and coffee mugs, people long ago had cups for drinking chocolate!) Very early in the 18th century, these cups had no handles. Later on, a second handle was added, then eventually they came to resemble tea cups with one handle like we use today, though sometimes they came with special lids. This cup above is one of a set in our collection. The “C” on the cup is likely someone’s first initial (…as cool as it would be, it probably doesn’t stand for chocolate).
3. Chocolate’s history is intertwined with slavery.
When the Spanish colonized the Mayan kingdom in the 1500s, they adopted Mayan chocolate consumption and added sugar to it. They also enslaved Mayan peoples on cacao plantations, but later turned to African slave labor after European diseases nearly wiped out the entire Mayan people. Enslaved Africans worked on cultivating, harvesting, fermenting, and preparing cacao for export into the early 20th century all over the cacao-growing world, including northern South America, Mexico and Central America, and the Caribbean islands. Some major ports included the island of Curaçao, the Spanish colony of Venezuela, Cayenne in French Guiana, and St. Pierres on the island of Martinique. Additionally, colonists forced enslaved people to turn cacao beans into chocolate in mills for purchase in North American chocolate shops.
4. New York City was one of the colonial chocolate capitals in the 1700s.
There were seven chocolate makers in New York City between 1702 and 1764 serving a population of fewer than 30,000 residents, according to research conducted by James F. Gay formerly of Colonial Williamsburg. Gay tracked and tallied all colonial American chocolate makers by looking at advertisements in colonial newspapers. New York City had the third most chocolate makers of all the colonies after Boston (24) and Philadelphia (25). Products like chocolate were usually imported from the British, but because of trade routes, piracy, and other factors, it was actually cheaper for colonists to get their hands on raw cacao beans to convert to chocolate than it was for the British.
All New York City chocolate makers were Sephardic Jews. According to Gay, New York City’s connection to chocolate began back when the city was called New Amsterdam, and the Dutch East India Company established trading relationships with New York, the West Indies, and the Spanish Main. A small Sephardic Jewish community had taken root in New Amsterdam between 1654 and 1656 and carved out a niche working in chocolate-making. Most, if not all of these New York chocolate-makers used slave labor to perform the many arduous tasks it takes to turn cacao beans into drinking chocolate.
5. Those early US presidents? They loved their chocolate.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Mothers and Fathers all loved chocolate! Washington placed orders for 20 lbs. of chocolate at a time in the 1750s when he was living at Mount Vernon. In a letter to John Adams on November 27, 1785, Jefferson prophesied:
…by getting [chocolate] good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain where they can get it by a single voyage, & of course while it is sweet.
Benjamin Franklin sold chocolate out of his print shop and, according to his shop book records, sold a record amount in 1737, though the reasons are unknown—unknown to this author, at least.
These gentlemen weren’t the only ones to favor chocolate—First Lady Martha Washington found chocolate drinks made from cacao beans to be too oily, but she liked to drink a tea from the shells, or chaff, of the beans. She would steep the shells in hot water, then season and sweeten it—likely with sugar and possibly other flavors.
6. Colonial chocolate tasted different from chocolate today
When you sample hot chocolate at Cocoa with the Founders on Presidents’ Day, you may not recognize the taste. 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.
But the chocolate drink from the 18th century was not made from cocoa powder, and no fat was removed from it. The chocolate they drank was flavored not only with sugar, but with spices like cinnamon, chili, anise, and vanilla. Perhaps you have had these flavors in chocolate bars or in hot chocolate in another country? Such flavors are still common today in Central America, where many of them originated. If you’ve had Mexican hot chocolate, you might recognize what you’ll taste on Presidents’ Day. Even still, we’ll show you a few more flavors that we are guessing you don’t routinely add to your hot cocoa!
If you want to taste some 18th-century hot chocolate, learn more about how colonists and enslaved peoples turned cacao beans into chocolate, and chat with some Founding Mothers and Fathers, join us on Monday, February 18. See you then!
This event is sponsored by Mars Wrigley Confectionery and AMERICAN HERITAGE® Chocolate .
This blog post was written by Rachel Walman, assistant director of DiMenna Children’s History Museum. Much of the research from this post was found in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage by Louis E. Grivetti.