Sweet-Toothed Colonials & Their Chocolate

Ahhh Chocolate!  Now is the time of year when we consume even more than usual, often from heart-shaped boxes gifted by an admirer.  Probably one of the most universally loved foods, the average American consumes roughly 11 pounds of the stuff a year!  It is hard to imagine a world without chocolate and this love of the heavenly substance stretches all the way back to our country’s colonial roots.  However, banish the visual of George Washington chomping a chocolate bar while chopping down the cherry tree, chocolate bars are a fairly recent invention of the mid-19th century.  Before the mid-1800s, if you had a craving for the world’s favorite sweet, you drank it!

Chocolate has its origins in South America where archaeological evidence indicates it was being cultivated and consumed over 3,000 years ago.  The Spanish were the first Europeans to try the spicy chili and chocolate beverage of the Aztecs.  They introduced it to Europe in the 1600s where, with the addition of sugar, it became the height of fashion.

Drinking chocolate of the 18th century was different from our ubiquitous modern day cup of cocoa.  It was made with either cacao nibs or blocks of compressed chocolate that were then grated or ground to a paste and dissolved in a warm liquid inside a dedicated ‘chocolate pot’.  The chocolate was added to any combination of water, milk, cream, wine, or even brandy for an extra kick.  This mixture was combined with sugar, though less than we use because it was an expensive import in colonial America.  Other common ingredients included chili pepper, vanilla, nutmeg, or allspice.  This resulted in a rich, sweet, spicy, and bitter drink that the colonists couldn’t get enough of.

Chocolate Ingredients

Popular ingredients in colonial-era chocolate drinks included (clockwise from top) sugar; cocoa beans, chocolate nibs, or chocolate block crushed and melted to form the foundation of the chocolate drink; vanilla; almonds; cinnamon; nutmeg; and chilis.

We know that many early Americans were fans of chocolate, but it wasn’t available to everyone.  In the 1700s, chocolate was still a fairly expensive drink, similar to tea or coffee, making it a beverage of the upper and middle classes.  It was seen as a nutritious and filling health food, commonly had with breakfast.  Chocolate was a well-known staple at the Washington breakfast table, often served alongside tea and hoecakes in honey and butter.[1]

In fact, the Washingtons were such fans of chocolate that in 1757 George Washington ordered 20 pounds of chocolate from British merchant Thomas Knox.  While living at Kenmore Plantation, George’s sister Betty Washington Lewis ordered a gallon of chocolate.

Betty Orders Chocolate

Although the handwriting is difficult to decipher, this receipt shows highlighted in red that Betty Washington Lewis ordered a gallon of chocolate in May 1791.

This love of chocolate is also evident in archaeological artifacts found through excavations at Ferry Farm. Archaeologists recovered fragments of a porcelain chocolate cup.

It may seem strange to us that there were special cups just for drinking chocolate.  However, since it was a luxury good enjoyed by the upper classes it had a specific set of objects associated with its preparation and consumption.  A teapot or teacup could have easily functioned for drinking chocolate but the purpose of this specialized material culture was to show off wealth and sophistication.  For this reason a  well-to-do colonial household would have separate sets of vessels for the making and consumption of tea, coffee, and chocolate.  Using the right one in the right way let your peers know you were a well-educated gentry woman or man.

Chocolate cups and pots were often made of fancy material like silver or porcelain to show off the wealth of the owner and reflect the nature of the luxury ingredient.  The chocolate cup recovered at Ferry Farm was painted red and blue in what is known as an ‘Imari palette’ and gilded to enhance the cup’s extravagance.  Chocolate cups can be identified by their straight sides, unlike the gently sloping sides of a teacup.

Fragments of a porcelain chocolate cup made in the mid-1700s, decorated in the Imari palette design, and recovered during an archaeological excavation at Ferry Farm.

Similarly, 18th century chocolate pots generally are taller and have straighter sides compared to contemporary teapots.They also have a shorter spout with no strainer and often have a straight handle that juts out from the body.

Chocolate Pots 1

Two 18th century chocolate pots in the collection at Historic Kenmore.

The most recognizable feature of a chocolate pot however is a hole in the lid where the chocolate mill, or molinillo, would be inserted and rubbed between the hands to briskly stir the chocolate, creating a delicious froth on the top.

Chocolate Mill

Reproduction chocolate mill.

Kind of makes you want to try eighteenth century chocolate drink, doesn’t it?  The next time you’re enjoying a bite of a candy bar or sipping your instant cocoa, think of the lofty origins of that treat and be grateful to the sweet-toothed colonials who so prized delicious chocolate!

Lauren Jones, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Editor’s Note: Watch for a video exploring the topic of chocolate in colonial America coming soon!

[1] McLeod, Stephen A. Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertainment, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon. 2011: 37, 51.