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A Brief History of Chocolate

While it's not as popular in some Asian countries as it is in the west, it's rare to come across a person who claims they don't enjoy the taste of chocolate. At one end of the scale you'll find the take-it-or-leave-it types, while at the other end you'll encounter a band of raving chocoholics. And I readily admit to being one of them.

But have you ever wondered where chocolate originally came from? It actually has a rather colorful history, starting over 4,000 years ago in the rainforests of Central America.

The First Chocoholics – The Maya (250-900 A.D.)

According to historians, the first people to harvest the seeds of the cacao (kah-kow) tree and process it into chocolate were the Maya of Central America, who may have learned it from their predecessors, the Olmec. The Maya grew cacao trees in their own backyards and ground the fermented, dried seeds into a paste, from which they made a frothy, bitter chocolate drink flavored with chili peppers, cornmeal, vanilla beans and black pepper.

Apparently the Maya used this drink for medicinal purposes, claiming it gave them strength and alertness. It was a favored drink of the wealthy, priests and kings, and was offered to the gods in religious ceremonies and consumed at betrothals and weddings.

Archaeologists gleaned this information from ancient Mayan glyphs (written symbols), paintings and actual remains from archaeological sites.

The Aztecs Conquer The Maya (1400-1521)

The Aztecs of Central Mexico had invaded much of the neighboring territory, including the Mayan lands in Honduras. And so they were introduced to chocolate.

The Maya used the cacao seeds for trading (like coins) and the Aztecs soon adopted this currency. They demanded that the conquered peoples pay taxes in cacao seeds, but unlike the Maya, they did not make this valuable commodity available to the masses. Instead, only their rulers, wealthy merchants and priests could enjoy the drink, primarily in royal or religious ceremonies.

The Europeans Discover America (And Chocolate)

On his fourth journey to the Americas, Christopher Columbus and his crew seized a local trading vessel off the coast of Honduras and discovered cacao beans among the cargo. While Columbus most likely brought the beans back to Europe, it wasn't until 1521, when the Spanish conquistador Cortez presented them to the Spanish Court as part of the spoils of war, that Europe's love affair with chocolate began.

The Spanish living in Central America grew accustomed to the bitter taste of the chocolate brew, but their European counterparts added spices and sugar to the mix. They also heated the drink. For almost 100 years the drinking of chocolate was confined to Spain, but once it spread to the rest of Europe it became a fad among the wealthy. In France only the royal court could afford chocolate. It wasn't until the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s that chocolate became affordable to the masses.

The Cacao Plantations And Slavery

Because of chocolate's popularity in Europe, many countries, including Spain, England, France and Holland, set up plantations in their colonies for growing cacao trees. From the early 1660 to the late 1880s, paid laborers and enslaved peoples in equatorial countries were used to work the plantations. When the Central American workers became ill with European diseases, slaves from Africa were brought in to take their place.

While slavery was finally abolished in all countries by 1888, brutal labor conditions continued in most of the cacao growing countries. As late as 1910, William Cadbury, the famous British chocolate manufacturer, invited several chocolate companies to join him in refusing to buy cacao from plantations with harsh working conditions.

It was only in the early 20th century that cacao plantations were finally abandoned in favor of corporate run farms. Although the cultivation process is essentially the same, the invention of new machinery made it less labor intensive.

From Chocolate Drink To Chocolate Bar
  1. In the late 1600s, Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal College of Physicians, added milk to the chocolate drink for a lighter, smoother flavor.

  2. In the early 1700's, a Frenchman named Doret invented a hydraulic machine to grind cacao seeds into a paste.

  3. Soon afterward, another Frenchman by the name of Dubuisson created the steam-driven chocolate mill.

  4. In 1828 Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten created the cocoa press, which removed cocoa butter from the seeds, making the paste smoother, creamier and cheaper to produce. This invention made it possible to produce solid chocolate.

  5. In 1815, Van Houten added alkaline salts to powdered chocolate, which helped it to mix better with water and gave it a darker color and milder flavor.

  6. In 1849 English chocolate maker Joseph Storrs Fry produced the world's first eating chocolate.

  7. In 1875, Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, and Henri Nestlé, the Swiss chemist who invented powdered milk, teamed up to introduce condensed milk to chocolate. Their smooth, creamy “milk chocolate” rapidly became a popular favorite.

  8. In 1879, Swiss Chocolatier Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine, which churned the cacao paste into a smooth blend perfect for rich, creamy chocolate bars.

  9. In 1893, Pennsylvania confectioner Milton S. Hershey discovered chocolate processing equipment at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He bought the machinery, built a chocolate factory and town in southern Pennsylvania, and soon became “the Henry Ford of chocolate makers”. Hershey got his start making chocolate-coated caramels.

  10. His competitors, the father-and-son team of Mars, created the malted-milk-filled Milky Way after an inspiring trip to the local drugstore soda fountain.
The Advertisers Jump On The Bandwagon

Once chocolate became affordable for the masses, the advertisers began working on their psyches to create an insatiable demand.

Chocolate was not only promoted as candy bars, but also became popular in cakes, pastries, and ice cream.

The advertisers mounted huge campaigns, aimed primarily at woman and children. People were soon eating chocolate for breakfast (in cereal form), drinking it as hot chocolate or milkshakes, and snacking on bars to supposedly keep up their energy. Not to mention presenting boxed chocolates as gifts to loved ones on special occasions.

Which Brings Us To Today

In the health conscious 21st century, many people are wise to the machinations of advertising agencies and have a more balanced perspective on edible treats, including chocolate. We are aware that health is more attainable if we adopt an attitude of “everything in moderation”.

So you can enjoy your chocolates with a clear conscience if you keep in mind that good health is a result of consistent daily action. Indulging occasionally in your favorite chocolate treat won't make that much difference to your overall physical health, but it will certainly have a positive effect on your mood.

To learn about the health benefits of eating chocolate, click on the Chocolate page.

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