History of Chocolate

Aztec image

Born in the Ancient World

Most likely, cacao was first domesticated by the Olmec, in the humid lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast, between about 1800 and 300 BCE.

The first conclusive evidence we have of chocolate consumption dates from the Classic Period of the Ancient Maya of Mexico and Central America (200-900 CE). The Maya made it into a spicy drink that they used in ceremonies and traded to people who couldn’t grow their own.

The Aztec, between the 13th and 16th centuries, were among those who had to trade for cacao. To them, chocolate was a luxury, a drink for warriors and nobility, used in rituals and ceremonies. They also used cacao seeds as money; in fact, the seeds were so valuable that dishonest merchants are believed to have made counterfeits.

Some scholars think the Aztec called their chocolate chocolatl. But others think that was a Spanish invention, based on the Aztec word cacahuatl (“bitter water”) or the Mayan chocol haa (“hot water”).

Chocolate meets European culture

European woman with tray of hot chocolate.In the 16th century, the Spanish, searching for gold in the New World, instead found cacao. Finding the drink bitter, they mixed it with sugar and kept their discovery secret from the rest of Europe for nearly a century.

The first English chocolate house opened in 1657. Before long, the English, Dutch, and French were so enamored of chocolate, they set out to colonize cacao-growing lands of their own. The chocolate trade was thus built on a system of forced labor and slavery of Meso-American and African people.

By 1700, there were nearly 2,000 chocolate houses (like today’s coffee shops) in London alone. They soon evolved into men’s social clubs, hotbeds of gambling and political activity.

In 18th-century Italy, chocolate was the preferred drink of the Cardinals; they even had it brought in while they were electing a new Pope. Chocolate was also rumored to have disguised a poison that killed Pope Clement XIV in 1774.

While the Aztec – and the Europeans, at first – used chocolate only as a drink, in the late 17th and 18th centuries the adventurous Italians pushed it to new culinary heights. They began experimenting with chocolate as a flavoring in everything from soup to polenta; they even dipped liver in chocolate and then fried it.

Early Chocolate Factory

Mass-produced in the industrial world

The technology of processing cacao scarcely changed from the Maya to the late 18th century. Then new inventions made it possible to produce chocolate for the masses:

1776 A Frenchman named Doret invents a hydraulic machine to grind cacao seeds into a paste. Not long afterwards, it is replaced by the steam engine, making it even easier to produce large amounts of chocolate.

1828 A Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten, invents the cocoa press, which extracts cocoa butter from chocolate, leaving the powder we call cocoa. This makes chocolate both more consistent and cheaper to produce.

1847 Fry and Sons Company of Bristol, England, introduces the first solid eating chocolate. The family – who, like several of the early chocolate dynasties, were Quakers – also boycotted cacao from parts of the world where working conditions resembled slavery.

1868 Richard Cadbury introduces the first box of chocolates – and later, the first Valentine’s Day candy box.

1870’s In Switzerland, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé develop the world’s first milk chocolate bar, using Nestlé’s creation, powdered milk. That same year, Rodolphe Lindt invents a machine that churns the paste squeezed from cacao seeds into a smooth blend, giving chocolate a new, mellow texture.

1893 Pennsylvania confectioner Milton S. Hershey discovers chocolate processing equipment at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (where The Field Museum also got its start!). He buys the machinery, builds a chocolate factory and town in the hills of southern Pennsylvania, and soon becomes “the Henry Ford of chocolate makers.”

Chocolates on a conveyor belt

Refined and carried wherever humankind may travel

1926-27 The New York Cocoa Exchange, Inc. is established.

By 1930, there are nearly 40,000 different kinds of chocolate in the U.S.

During World War II, nearly all the chocolate produced in the U.S. is earmarked for the military. After the war, Hershey’s received the Army-Navy E award for civilian contribution to victory. Today, U.S. Army D-rations include three 4-ounce chocolate bars.

1982 Chocolate goes into space on the U.S. space shuttle Columbia.