Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Chocolate as America

August 10, 2011 by Rodney Snyder


Editor's Note: The National Constitution Center's popular $5 after 5 program on Thursday will include American Hertiage Chocolate Demonstrations featuring 18th century chocolate-making techniques.

American history has never tasted so good. That's because chocolate has been an important part of American cultures and historical events from antiquity to the present.  And enjoying it today allows us to share a common connection with our ancestors. 

Flickr photo by Kirti Poddar

Although chocolate is often associated with European culture, the roots of chocolate are firmly planted in the Americas.  Europeans first saw cocoa during the fourth voyage of Columbus to the New World in 1502 and did not drink chocolate until 1519 when Hernando Cortés visited the Aztec royal court of Montezuma. 

The oldest reference to chocolate in North America is from a Spanish ship which arrived in St. Augustine, Florida, with crates of chocolate in 1641. By 1670, European chocolate was being sold in public houses in Boston. By 1682, cocoa was being exported from Jamaica to Boston to supply the first chocolate makers in the American colonies.  Drinking chocolate was affordable to all classes of people in North America and was available in most coffee houses.

In 1739, Benjamin Franklin was selling bibles, books, pencils, ink, writing paper, and "very good chocolate" in his Philadelphia print shop. Because chocolate could be transported in solid blocks without spoilage, it was used as a ration by the military. In 1755, Franklin was able to secure six pounds of chocolate for each officer at the onset of the French and Indian War. 

George and Martha Washington enjoyed chocolate when they lived at Mount Vernon.  The oldest record of chocolate being ordered by the Washingtons was for 20 pounds from England in 1758.  Subsequent orders of chocolate ranged in quantity from one pound to as much as 50 pounds, which was purchased three months before George's death in 1799.

From drink to confection

Chocolate was only a drink until the mid-19th century because of its coarse and gritty texture, important for an eating chocolate but not noticeable when made into a drink.  In 1879, the chocolate conche was invented that produced a chocolate that melted on the tongue and possessed a very appealing chocolate aroma. This was the beginning of chocolate as we know it today, and began the transformation of chocolate from a drink to a confection. By the 1920's, eating chocolate had surpassed drinking chocolate in popularity.

Hot chocolate today is more accurately described as hot cocoa.  It is a beverage made with cocoa powder (cocoa without the cocoa butter), milk powder, sugar and water.  Hot chocolate in colonial America was prepared with real chocolate and produced a much more intense chocolate flavor and aroma. It also had a thicker mouth feel, similar to the difference between skim milk and full-fat milk.

Chocolate has evolved over its history from a drink to a confection, but regardless of its form, it has been enjoyed for thousands of years.  By the time Europeans discovered chocolate, it had been engrained in American culture for over 3000 years.  Advertisers in the 1970’s coined the jingle “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet” to reflect things that were regarded as “typically American.”  In reality, the only apple trees native to the Americas are crab apple trees, making chocolate more American than apple pie!

Rodney Snyder is the Chocolate History Research Director for MARS Chocolate Inc.

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