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History of Chocolate: Chocolate in the American Colonies

by Rodney Snyder

In 2009, Mars Incorporated celebrated the publication of Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage. The book was the culmination of ten years of collaborative research with UC Davis which investigated the early history of chocolate in the Americas. Over 200 archives, libraries, museums and private collections were visited by 115 researchers across the world to produce 56 chapters by 46 authors which illustrated that chocolate was surprisingly involved in every aspect of society. Chocolate is American history. It is more than just a food or confection. Chocolate reflects different groups of people, cultures and historical events from antiquity to the present, and allows us to share a common connection through time. Chocolate is inextricably woven throughout the fabric of North American history.

Chocolate in Mesoamerica

Humans have domesticated less than 500 plants throughout history, and none has captured the imagination and love of humans as the cocoa tree, the source of chocolate. The cocoa tree was first domesticated (or had its behavior, life cycle or appearance significantly altered by humans) at least 3500 years ago in the rain forests of Central and South America. Although chocolate is often associated with European culture, the roots of chocolate are firmly planted in the Americas. Since the only apple trees native to the Americas are crab apple trees, chocolate is more American than apple pie!

The presence of cocoa residue in potsherds has been traced back to at least 1500 BCE and the Olmec civilization. Throughout its Mesoamerican history, chocolate was consumed as a food in beverage form. The story of the origin of chocolate was included in religious beliefs and cocoa pods were part of religious ceremonies. Chocolate was reserved for adult males and consumed by priests, high government officials, military officers, distinguished warriors, and occasionally sacrificial victims for ritual purposes. Because the chocolate drink was perceived as intoxicating and stimulating, it was regarded as being unsuitable for women and children. The stimulating properties of the chocolate were probably due to the presence of theobromine, an alkaloid related to caffeine.

Chocolate Recipes and Manufacture

The first European interaction with cocoa occurred during the fourth voyage of Columbus to the New World in 1502. Columbus encountered cocoa beans but did not experience chocolate. In 1519, Hernando Cortés arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) and witnessed how chocolate was consumed in the royal court of Montezuma. The Aztec method of chocolate manufacture was described as:

"The Indians, from whom we borrow it, are not very nice in doing it; they roast the kernels in earthen pots, then free them from their skins, and afterwards crush and grind them between two stones, and so form cakes of it with their hands."

A typical Aztec chocolate recipe included ingredients such chili pepper and vanilla as flavorings and bee honey as a sweetener. A first-hand account of Aztec chocolate-making was written in 1556 by an anonymous European explorer:

"These seeds, which they call cacao, are ground and made into powder and put into certain vessels that have a spout. Then they add water and stir it with a spoon, and after it is well mixed they pour it back and forth from one vessel to another until it is foamy. The foam is gathered and put in a cup, and when they are ready to drink the beverage they beat it with some small spoons made if gold. To drink it one must open the mouth wide, for since it has a froth it is necessary to make room for it to dissolve and go in gradually. This drink is the most wholesome and substantial of any food or beverage in the world, because whoever drinks a cup of this can go through the day without taking anything else even if he is on a journey, and it is better in warm weather than in cold, since it is a cold drink."

Once the Spaniards became aware of chocolate, they modified the Aztec procedure to better suit their tastes. They added vanilla, which was indigenous to Mexico, and also sugar from recently established plantations in the Caribbean. When Cortés returned to Spain in 1528 with cocoa and the recipe for making chocolate, Charles I and the Spanish court readily accepted the cocoa drink. The importation of cocoa to Spain did not commence until after 1570, and chocolate eventually spread to Italy, Austria, and the rest of Europe. By the mid-1600's, the first chocolate houses were opening in England.

As the Europeans became more familiar with chocolate, they removed the chili pepper, added flavors such as anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange peel, and replaced the bee honey with cane sugar. American Heritage Chocolate, produced by the Historical Division of Mars, Incorporated, uses these spices along with anise seed, annatto, and red pepper to replicate an authentic 18th century chocolate recipe.

A method for making a chocolate drink was written in 1769 in The Experienced English Housekeeper:

"Scrape four ounces of chocolate and pour a quart of boiling water upon it; mix it well and sweeten it to your taste; give it a boil and let it stand all night; then mix it again very well; boil it in two minutes, then mix it till it will leave the froth upon the tops of your cups."

By 1850, the chocolate process was relatively standardized as manufacturers followed the same basic steps. Starting with liquor and sugar, the process began with the mélangeur, which consisted of two heavy round mill-stones supported on a granite floor. The sugar and liquor were mixed until it reached the consistency of dough, which was fed into either granite or cast iron roller refiners. The dough transformed into a dry powder which went back to the mélangeur where the powder was again turned into dough. The grinding between the roller refiner and the mélangeur was repeated reached the chocolate was of the desired fineness. The dough was pressed into moulds to remove air bubbles, and the moulds were transferred to a cooling room. The chocolate was later removed from the moulds, wrapped in tinfoil and covered with a paper bearing the name and mark of the manufacturer.

Chocolate in the American Colonies

The first reference to chocolate in North America uncovered to date is from the Spanish ship Nuestra Senora del Rosario del Carmen, which arrived in St. Augustine, Florida with crates of chocolate in 1641. In 1670, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard opened a public house in Boston to sell chocolate, most likely imported from Europe. By 1682, a British report detailed cocoa exports from Jamaica to Boston. By inference, cocoa exports into the colonies can be assumed to be used for local chocolate production, marking the beginning of chocolate production in the American colonies.

Chocolate was mentioned in a North American newspaper as early as 1705, when cocoa and chocolate were advertised for sale in Boston at the warehouse of Mr. James Leblond on the Long Wharf near the Swing-Bridge in 1705. In 1716, the French suggested planting cocoa trees in the southern Mississippi River region to trade for sugar from Cuba. Unfortunately, the climate in the southern part of North America was not conducive to cocoa growing.

As demand for chocolate increased, manufacturing methods had to be scaled up to increase production capacity. In 1737, a Boston newspaper carried an advertisement for a hand-operated machine for making chocolate. That same year, an inventor in Massachusetts developed an engine to grind cocoa that was inexpensive to run and could produce 100 weight of chocolate in six hours.

By 1773, the demand for chocolate in the colonies resulted in the importation of over 320 tons of cocoa beans. Drinking chocolate was affordable to all classes of people and was available in most coffee houses, where colonists would gather to talk about politics and the news of the day.

Because chocolate could be transported in solid blocks without spoilage, it was used as a ration by the military. In 1755, Benjamin Franklin was able to secured six pounds of chocolate per officer as a special supply for soldiers marching with General Braddock's army at the onset of the French and Indian War. However, the British army was also eating chocolate: it was supplied to the British troops during construction of His Majesty's Fort at Crown Point, New York, in 1768. To ensure a supply of affordable chocolate for the military and to combat war profiteering, the Continental Congress in 1777 imposed price controls during the Revolutionary War for chocolate and cocoa. It was also forbidden to export chocolate from Massachusetts as it was required "for the supply of the army". When the British unexpectedly launched an attack against Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, the defenders abandoned the fort, along with huge quantities of munitions and suppliers which included twelve boxes of chocolate. Captain Moses Greenleaf had chocolate for both breakfast and supper to maintain his energy during his desperate retreat from the British.

From Chocolate Drink to Chocolate Confection

Drinking chocolate was ascribed to have a variety of medical benefits. It was purported to promote weight gain to restore flesh to emaciated patients, especially to those who suffered from tuberculosis. It was used to stimulate the nervous systems of feeble patients, and also to calm patients who were over-stimulated such as soldiers fresh from battle. It could improve digestion, and was used to bind to medicines to make them more palatable to patients.

Chocolate remained exclusively a drink until the mid-19th century when advertisements for solid eating chocolate first appeared. These chocolates were not well received by the public because of their coarse and gritty texture, important for an eating chocolate but not noticeable when made into a drink. In 1879 in Switzerland, Rodolphe Lindt developed a machine that resembled a conch shell to process his chocolate. This chocolate melted on the tongue and possessed a very appealing chocolate aroma. This was the beginning of the modern-day solid eating chocolate and began the transformation of chocolate from a drink to a confection. By the 1920's, eating chocolate had surpassed drinking chocolate in popularity.

The first milk chocolate designed for eating was developed by Daniel Peter in Switzerland in 1876. Peter developed a recipe incorporating condensed milk, cocoa powder, sugar, and cocoa butter. Peter's milk chocolate was an immediate success, and soon other companies developed their own versions of milk chocolate. By the 1930's, milk chocolate had become the most popular chocolate type.

Chocolate References from North America

  • Henri Joutel was an eyewitness historian of the La Salle expedition of 1684, which sought to reach the mouth of the Mississippi River by sea in 1684. He mentioned drinking chocolate in his diary.
  • Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts judge best known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials, wrote about breakfasting on venison and chocolate in 1697.
  • Benjamin Franklin sold locally produced chocolate in his Philadelphia print shop. In 1739, he was selling bibles and other books, pencils, ink, writing paper, and "very good chocolate."
  • John and Abigail Adams were very fond of chocolate. In 1779, John Adams, while in Spain, wrote, "Ladies drink chocolate in the Spanish fashion. Each lady took a cup of hot chocolate and drank it, and then cakes and bread and butter were served; then each lady took another cup of cold water, and here ended the repast." Abigail Adams, writing to John Quincy Adams in 1785, described drinking chocolate for breakfast while in London.
  • In 1785, Thomas Jefferson predicted that chocolate would become the favorite beverage in North America over coffee and tea. This prediction came after the Boston Tea Party and the rejection of tea by the colonists, and prior to the widespread consumption of coffee in North America.
  • George and Martha Washington requested more cocoa shells in 1794 to make "cocoa tea."

Modern-Day Chocolate

When someone drinks hot chocolate today, it is a beverage made with cocoa powder (cocoa without the cocoa butter), milk powder, sugar and water. Although this is a pleasant drink, particularly in the wintertime, this hot chocolate is barely related to the chocolate drink enjoyed in Colonial America. The Colonial American chocolate drink was prepared with liquid or scraped chocolate instead of cocoa powder, and produced a much more intense chocolate flavor and aroma. It also possessed a thicker mouth feel, similar to the difference between skim milk and full-fat milk. This combination of flavor and texture explains why drinking chocolate was enjoyed as a nutritious, great-tasting food for thousands of years.

By the beginning of the 21st century, manufacturers had refined all of the processing techniques first practiced by the Olmecs into highly controlled, mass production processes. After almost four hundred years of innovations in chocolate manufacturing, the captivating aroma and seductive flavor of chocolate is still enticing scientists to discover new advances in both technology and product development.

Today, the health benefits of dark chocolate are well known, and a trip through the grocery store provides evidence that chocolate has infiltrated a diverse selection of edible products. Chocolate has evolved over its history from a drink to a confection, but regardless of its form, it has elicited a multitude of responses from its consumers. Chocolate is a part of our past that will continue far into our future.

Rodney Snyder is Chocolate History Manager for MARS Chocolate Inc. Discover American Heritage Chocolate at