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Beverages of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries – Part 3 – Cocoa/Chocolate – “The Food of the Gods”

”With regard to drink, his liking was for the strongest, as it was not the flavour, but the effect, he sought for, and professed to desire; and when I first knew him, he used to pour capillaire into his port wine. For the last twelve years, however, he left off all fermented liquors. To make himself some amends, indeed, he took his chocolate liberally, pouring in large quantities of cream, or even melted butter;”

– Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson During the Last Twenty Years of his Life

In Part One of this series on beverages of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, we talked about, based on the amount consumed, Tea as the most popular beverage in the world. In Part 2, we discussed the second most popular non-alcoholic beverage, Coffee. Today, in Part 3 of this series we will wrap up our discussion of popular 18th and early 19th century non-alcoholic beverages by considering Cocoa/Chocolate.

What is Cocoa?

The word cocoa comes from the Spanish word cacao, which is derived from the Nahuatl word cacahuatl. The Nahuatl word, in turn, ultimately derives from the reconstructed Proto-Mixe–Zoquean word kakawa.

Botanical Drawing of Cocoa Tree and Fruit
Botanical Drawing of Cocoa Tree and Fruit

Cocoa/Chocolate is made from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, an evergreen tree in the family Malvaceae or Mallows, a family that includes okra, cotton, hollyhock, and hibiscus. The fruit, called a cacao pod, is ovoid, 6–12 in. long and 3–4 in wide, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 1 lb. when ripe. The pod holds 20 to 60 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded in a white pulp. Its seeds, cocoa beans, are used to make chocolate liquor, cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and chocolate.

The seeds are ground into cocoa paste. This paste is then melted down and further separated into cocoa butter, a pale-yellow edible fat, and cocoa solids, the dark, bitter product that contains most of cocoa’s significant phytochemicals, including caffeine and theobromine. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (40–50%) as cocoa butter.

Chocolate is a food made from roasted and ground cacao seed kernels. The seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste and must be fermented to develop the flavor. After fermentation, the seeds are dried, cleaned, and roasted. The shell is removed to produce cocoa nibs, which are then ground to cocoa mass, unadulterated chocolate in rough form.

The History of Cocoa

The cacao tree is native to the Amazon rainforest. It also grows in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, in Colombia and Venezuela. Wild cacao still grows there. Its range may have been larger in the past; evidence of its wild range may be obscured by cultivation of the tree in these areas since long before the Spanish arrived.

Seeds and Pulp of the Cocoa Fruit
Seeds and Pulp of the Cocoa Fruit

Evidence suggests it may have been first domesticated by the Mayo-Chinchipe people in Ecuador as long as 5,300 years ago, in equatorial South America, before being introduced in Central America by the Olmecs roughly 1,500 years later. This is supported by chemical analysis of residue extracted from pottery excavated at an archaeological site at Puerto Escondido, in Honduras, which indicate that cocoa products were first consumed there sometime between 1500 and 1400 BC. Evidence also indicates that, long before the flavor of the cacao seed (or bean) became popular, the sweet pulp of the chocolate fruit was used in making a fermented (5.34% alcohol) beverage that first drew attention to the plant in the Americas. Cocoa was an important commodity in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

By the 15th century, the Aztecs had gained control of a large part of Mesoamerica and had adopted cocoa into their culture. They associated chocolate with Quetzalcoatl, who, according to one legend, was cast away by the other gods for sharing chocolate with humans and identified its extrication from the pod with the removal of the human heart in sacrifice. In contrast to the Maya, who liked their chocolate warm, the Aztecs drank it cold, seasoning it with a broad variety of additives, including, chili pepper, allspice, vanilla, and honey.

Mayan Plate Showing Grinding Cocoa on a Metate
Mayan Plate Showing Grinding Cocoa on a Metate

The Aztecs were unable to grow cocoa themselves, as their home in the Mexican highlands was unsuitable for it, so chocolate was a luxury imported into the empire. Those who lived in areas ruled by the Aztecs had to offer cocoa seeds in payment of the tax they deemed "tribute". The cocoa bean was a common currency throughout Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest. For example, the Aztecs used a system in which one turkey cost 100 cocoa beans and one fresh avocado was worth three beans.

With the arrival of the Spanish in the New World, the history of Cocoa/Chocolate becomes more easily tracked. The navigator Christopher Columbus, with the economic backing of the Catholic Monarchs, first reached the shores of the New World on 12 October 1492. This voyage was carried out to expand markets by setting up new trade routes and therefore rival the Portuguese Empire, which was already well established in Asia. Following the success of that first voyage to the New World, others were organized with the intention of exploring and creating new trade routes.

On 15 August 1502, during his fourth voyage, Columbus met an unexpected storm and was forced to temporarily land on the Bay Islands. In their first explorations of the area, Columbus' group came upon a boat of Mayan origin travelling from the Yucatán Peninsula. The Spaniards were surprised by the size of the vessel. Columbus detained the vessel and examined the cargo, which contained cocoa beans that he called almonds in his diary. While remarking that when one was dropped "everyone" bent down to pick it back up, he did not attach importance to these, and after this original inspection he let the boat proceed with its cargo.

Moctezuma II Drinking Chocolate from a Golden Goblet
Moctezuma II Drinking Chocolate from a Golden Goblet

In the later period from 1517 to 1519, the Spanish conquistadors Bernal Díaz del Castillo (who referred to the use of cocoa by Aztecs in his book Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España) and Hernán Cortés both tried the drink and found it to have both bitter and spicy tastes due to the use of achiote. On occasions cornmeal and hallucinogenic mushrooms were also added to the drink. A Spanish soldier who was at Hernan Cortés' side during the conquest of the Aztec Empire tells that when Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, dined, he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet. Flavored with vanilla or other spices, his chocolate was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth. Reports indicated that Moctezuma II may have consumed at least 60 portions each day, and 2,000 more by the nobles of his court. Also, the Aztec use of entheogens (psychoactive substances) included cacao mixed with psilocybin mushrooms, a combination referred to as "cacahua-xochitl", which means "chocolate-flowers".

The tastes of the Spaniards were changing, in part, due to their increasing reliance on native ingredients. As the Spanish settlers began to run out the stocks they brought with them, they had to find substitute foods. The tortillas made with cornmeal or (tamales), heated without the use of fat did not appear to satisfy the tastes of the conquerors used to pork and culinary techniques based on frying in fat, or sauteed with liberal use of olive oil or bacon. Foods popular in Spain at the time such as cheese were unknown to the inhabitants of the New World.

Chocolate didn't suit the foreigners' tastebuds at first –one described it in his writings as "a bitter drink for pigs" – but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular both with the colonists and throughout Spain. Once the Spaniards introduced the cultivation of sugar cane, which became an important crop, from the end of the 16th century onwards, sugar cane began to be added to the cocoa paste, which led to greater acceptance of cocoa among the Spanish settlers. As a result, after the initial aversion to cocoa had disappeared, supplies were sent to Spain.

The second major transformation of chocolate at the hands of the Spanish was in the serving method: the cocoa was heated until it became a liquid. This contrasted with the natives of the New World, who generally drank it cold or at room temperature. The third change was the addition of spices from the Old World like cinnamon, ground black pepper or aniseed.

Cocoa Spreads Through Europe

Chocolate in Spain

In 1520 the caravels began delivering Spanish cacao to Spain and the pirates with a letter of marque from England, perhaps due to ignorance of the new ingredient, burned and discarded the contents of the Spanish ships which they seized. No one knows for certain when cocoa first arrived in Spain, however it was considered a valuable material in the mid-16th century. The value which the product had can be seen in the strength of the Spanish galleons which carried the first cacao seeds to Spanish ports to prevent their theft.

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas
Fray Bartolomé de las Casas

The first documentary evidence of chocolate in Spain comes from a delegation of Dominican friars led by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who travelled to the Iberian Peninsula in 1544 to visit Prince Philip, future Emperor Philip II. During the meeting, gifts of sweetgum, corn, and cocoa are documented. It also refers to a sort of chocolate milkshake that was served, this being the first documented case of the presence of chocolate in Spain. The Dominican friars' familiarity with this type of food may have eased the transmission of cocoa from the monasteries of Mesoamerica to Spain.

Other authors refer to the Benedictine monks as the first importers of chocolate in 1532. The first deliveries were brought by the Maria del Mar galley through the port of Cadiz and were delivered to the Convent of the Third Franciscans of Seville. A quote from the Benedictines of the time was: "Do not drink the cocoa, anyone but friar, sir or brave soldier." In 1585, an embassy of Japan, visiting the Emperor Philip II in Alicante, was impressed by the offer of chocolate made by the nearby convent of the Poor Clares of Veronica. From the beginning, Spanish priests were the chocolate experts who spread their recipes among congregations.

During this century, two factors led to the spread of cocoa. The marriage of Spanish noblewomen to French royalty and the Jesuits providing chocolate recipes in various countries, such as Italy. Demand for cocoa significantly increased in the mid-16th century and the product flowed into Spanish seaports from where it spread to the rest of Europe.

Spanish Chocolate Party
Spanish Chocolate Party

By the early seventeenth century drinking chocolate was widely accepted in Spain, where it was first adopted by the upper classes. It gradually expanded in two directions: geographic and social. Other foods from The Americas were not as accepted in Spanish society of the time as cocoa. Chocolate was part of several seventeenth century palace rituals offered to visitors, as part of the "entertainment". One of these rituals was that the ladies of the Court offered their female visitors a dose of cocoa along with various sweets (cakes, sweetened bread, muffins, and brioches) and a vase of snow. The chocolate was served to visitors who rested on cushions, surrounded by tapestries and the heat of braziers.

Chocolate in France

In 1609, Jewish merchants expelled from Spain by the Inquisition, moved their workshops to Bayonne (France). Thus, small population of South- West of France had the chance to experience chocolate for the first time. Chocolate was introduced to a larger French audience in 1615 at the marriage of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria in Bayonne. During the reign of Louis XIV, who popularized consumption in the Court, it became, in all its different forms, a habitual feature of Versailles cuisine. The taste for this delicacy spread throughout France so quickly that in 1659, Mr. David Chaillou opened the first chocolate factory in Paris.

Louis XV
Louis XV

However, it was Louis XV a century later who was thought to have been most fond of the drink. The king sometimes even made his hot chocolate himself in the kitchens of his Private Apartments. Louis XV’s mistresses, including Mme Du Barry, were equally fond of this exotic beverage which was particularly appreciated for its aphrodisiac virtues (or vices). In 1732, Mr. Debuisson created the first table to grind cocoa beans, a tool that became essential and made the preparation of chocolate easier. During the same period, the first chocolate-making machines were invented, and several specialist workshops were set up in Paris.

Chocolate in Italy

Chocolate came to Italy in the 1600s when Antonio Carletti discovered chocolate while traveling in Spain. He returned to Italy and began to experiment with making his own chocolate. However, he existence of chocolate was well known to Italians for quite a while before that. Girolamo Benzoni (1518-1570), a historian and Milanese native, described the chocolate drink offered to him by the natives as:

“somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate.”

Paolo Zacchia, a Roman-born physician, authored Of Hypochondriacal Sicknesses in 1644, in which he notes that chocolate can relieve gastric distress and serve as an aid to digestion.

Francesco Redi
Francesco Redi

Francesco Redi, physician to Cosimo III de’ Medici, wrote about and even experimented with chocolate. Redi documented that the Florentines were the first to add perfume aromatics such as amber and musk, as well as citrus flavors such as citron and lemon peel to chocolate. Redi himself was the first to add a floral flavor to chocolate and he created a jasmine infused chocolate that became very popular in Cosimo de’Medici’s court. His recipe, which indeed employed fresh jasmine petals, was not discovered until after his death in 1697. In 1678, the then king of Italy licensed a baker in Turin, Antonio Ari, "to sell a chocolate drink" topped with a layer of cream and espresso”. Recipes for savory dishes with chocolate were published in Italy as far back as 1680 and include lasagna in anchovy, almond and chocolate sauce, papardelle in rabbit and chocolate sauce, fried liver accented with dark chocolate, and polenta topped with chocolate breadcrumbs, almonds and cinnamon.

Chocolate in the Netherlands (Dutch)

As chocolate’s popularity spread across Europe, other nation’s sailors set out to bring home the riches and Spain lost its monopoly over this exotic food. The first official reference to cocoa in Dutch history dates to 1687. Local records show that Dutch traders requested the governments of Holland and West Friesland to drastically increase the import taxes on cocoa from other European countries to discourage foreign competition. By the end of the 17th century, a small-scale cocoa and chocolate industry had developed in Zeeland and the Zaanstreek. All cocoa coming from the then Dutch colony of Surinam was brought in via Zeeland to the rest of the Dutch states. Since it was natives of Zeeland who were involved in the establishment and government of the colony, it was only logical that they would choose their own state to develop the trade and processing of certain products. The cocoa beans were transformed into squares of chocolate paste called Zeelandic Cakes.

The first chocolate windmill was opened in 1703 and by the early 1800’s, there were about twenty-seven in the whole kingdom. Here, the beans would be lightly roasted, then winnowed and afterwards ground to a paste to which sugar was added. People at home would grate the chocolate and add it to hot water or milk with vanilla powder. Anise or nutmeg were also used to improve the flavor. During the 18th century, Dutch merchants controlled virtually the entire trade in cocoa beans.

 Coenraad Johannes van Houten
Coenraad Johannes van Houten

During the 19th century the Dutch cocoa and chocolate industry in Zeeland went into a slow decline. After the North Holland Canal was built and opened in 1824, Amsterdam was, once again, easily accessible to sea vessels. As a result, international trade started to flourish again. Most of the cocoa trade moved to this area. This would in turn promote the growth of the cocoa processing and chocolate industry in Amsterdam.

In 1815, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, developed a process to give the powder a darker color, to improve the flavor and to allow better solubility in water or milk. He would treat the powder with alkaline salts like calcium and sodium carbonate. This alkalinization process would be known globally as “Dutching” and the resultant product as Dutch Process Cocoa Powder. In 1828, his father, Casparus van Houten Sr. patented a hydraulic cocoa bean press that allowed the separation of the cocoa butter from the cocoa liquor. The cocoa cake that resulted from the process was then further worked to make cocoa powder.

Chocolate in England

Chocolate was introduced to England around 1600, by Spanish merchants who came to trade with Queen Elizabeth I. Chocolate first entered England as a luxury pharmaceutical product. It was thought that consuming chocolate had medicinal benefits and could help cure ailments such as colds, headaches, and fevers.

John Ray
John Ray

The earliest documented evidence of drinking chocolate in England dates from 1657 and is associated with the Quaker botanist and antiquarian John Ray. Ray was a friend of Samuel Pepys, who was an English naval administrator, Member of Parliament, and author. In 1686, Ray published his book The Natural History or Philosophical Collections containing several letters written by himself to his friends at London and Bristol concerning the plants which are most common in England; their virtues etc., with one letter being on "Drinking Chocolate".

Sir Hans Sloane
Sir Hans Sloane

In this letter he describes how to make it from recipes provided by other scientists including Sir Hans Sloane who was president of the Royal Society from 1680 until 1725. Sir Hans Sloane, whose vast collection of objects became the founding collection of the British Museum, is believed to have been the first to combine milk with chocolate – though this is hotly debated. What is certain is that Sloane’s name became synonymous with chocolate in the 18th century, with ‘Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate’ being a badge of honor for any chocolate dealer. Sloane developed an interest in the medicinal properties of chocolate while in Jamaica working as a physician in the 1680s, where he thought it a natural aid to digestion.

The 18th century was hot chocolate's heyday. The chocolate makers were linked with London's coffeehouse culture, where the beverages were a catalyst for culture, politics, and passions. 18th-century hot chocolate was more bitter than our modern variations, but still quite stimulating. Initially made with cocoa liquor (blocks of ground cocoa nibs) and water, it was usually served with an equal mix of water and milk, spiced with ingredients including cinnamon, sugar, vanilla, chili, rosewater, honey, pepper, jasmine or even ambergris.

Mssr. Doret, a French royal confectioner, established a shop on Fleet Street, London in 1730. It quickly became popular among fashionable society and the aristocracy for its high-quality chocolate. In 1763, Cadbury Brothers launched the first manufacturing business in Britain dedicated to cocoa and chocolate production. Around 1778, Doret invented a hydraulic press to grind the beans, thus speeding up, and significantly reducing the cost of producing chocolate.

Cocoa in the Future United States

The earliest European record of chocolate in North America is from St. Augustine, Florida, where the Spanish ship, Nuestra Senora del Rosario del Carmen, was forced to make port. The ship was carrying beans, chocolate and chocolate-making equipment. In 1670, a public house in Boston began selling chocolate produced in Europe and imported to Boston. Apparently, it was a success since in 1682 Boston merchants began importing cocoa beans, marking the advent of chocolate production in the American colonies.

Martha Washington, ca. 1757
Martha Washington, ca. 1757

By 1735, Benjamin Franklin was selling chocolate out of his print shop in Philadelphia. In 1758, George Washington placed his first chocolate order, for twenty pounds of chocolate, to serve to guests for breakfast at Mount Vernon. He continued to order chocolate until his death in 1799. He also ordered cocoa shells for his wife, Martha, who made cocoa tea from them.

In 1765, the first commercial chocolate mill was set up in Massachusetts. Tradition has it that Dr. James Baker, a Harvard University graduate, and Dorchester resident, spotted a man sobbing on the bank of the Neponset River in 1765. Playing upon his genuine concern, he made his way down the riverbank, where he struck up a conversation with the man. The man on the riverbank was an Irish immigrant named John Hannon. Besides his impoverishment, he revealed he was a skillful chocolate maker, having learned in England. Wasting no time, Baker agreed to financially support Hannon, so long as they entered a business agreement that saw the Irishman crafting his specialty recipe. And so, America’s first chocolate mill began operation. The Neponset River supplied the waterpower necessary to manufacture chocolate at the factory.

Dr. James Baker, Founder of Baker Chocolate
Dr. James Baker, Founder of Baker Chocolate

From 1765 to 1779, John Hannon handled making the company's chocolate. In 1779, Hannon embarked for the West Indies in search of additional cacao bean sources but mysteriously disappeared enroute to his destination. Only a year following his disappearance, Hannon’s widow sold her deceased husband’s share of the business to Dr. James Baker, and thus, the Baker Chocolate Company was set up in 1780. As the 19th century began, we see Meriwether Lewis writing, in 1806, about drinking chocolate to improve his health during the Corps of Discovery Expedition.

Some Notes for Those Involved in Late-18th and Early-19th Century Living History.

While Chocolate is certainly something that people of that period would have consumed, most chocolate that we have today is not appropriate for the following reasons:

  • Bars of “eating chocolate” were not around. In 1847 British chocolatier J.S. Fry and Sons created the first chocolate bar molded from a paste made of sugar, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. These early eating chocolate bars were made of bittersweet chocolate. John Cadbury created a similar product in 1849, but by today's standards the original bittersweet chocolate bars of Fry or Cadbury would be considered very palatable.

  • Milk Chocolate, most of the chocolate sold today, had not been invented. In 1875, Henry Nestle, a maker of evaporated milk, and Daniel Peter, a chocolate maker, created a more palatable chocolate. Their smooth, creamy “milk chocolate” rapidly became a popular favorite.

At this point in time, arguably the best choice for period chocolate is to use any of the pure cocoa powder products available either at local stores or through Amazon mixed with sugar and food grade cocoa butter.

We hope you enjoyed today's post on Cocoa/Chocolate, its history, and prominence in 18th and early-19th century America. Hopefully, this article will spark interest in learning more about the beverages of the early United States and encourage you to research and try some 18th. Century recipes for the various spiced hot cocoa/chocolate varieties. Please join us again in two weeks when we will examine the life of an important, but little-remembered Virginian of the late-18th and early 19th century - Littleton Waller Tazewell.

Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


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Bilton, S. (N.D.). The History of Chocolate. Retrieved from English Heritage:

Castillo, B. D. (1992). Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España. Mexico City, Mexico: Editores Mexicanos Unidos.

Cook, L. R., & Singh, R. P. (2018, November 01). Cocoa. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Eschner, K. (2017, September 13). A Brief History of Chocolate in the United States. Retrieved from Smithsonian Magazine:

Fiegl, A. (2008, March 01). A Brief History of Chocolate. Smithsonian Magazine.

Florida Agriculture in the Classroom. (2023). Chocolate's History. Gainesville, FL: Florida Agriculture in the Classroom.

A Physician. (1724). The Natural History of Chocolate. London: J. Roberts.

The Field Museum. (2007). Retrieved from All About Chocolate:

Theobald, M. M. (2012, Winter). A Cup of Hot Chocolate, S'good for What Ails Ya. CW Journal, pp. 46-52.

Walter Baker & Company. (1886). Cocoa and Chocolate. Dorchester, MA: Walter Baker & Company.


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