By Louis E. Grivetti, co-editor of Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (Wiley, 2009).
Between the years 1998-2008 my large research team had the good fortune to be funded by a generous grant from Mars, Incorporated, to investigate the culinary, medicinal, and social history of chocolate (1). Our initial research focused on chocolate-related information from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and the transfer of medical-related uses of chocolate into Western Europe. Between the years 2004-2008 our research shifted to the introduction, distribution, and social uses of chocolate within North America. To this end we paid special attention to cacao/chocolate-related aspects of agronomy, anthropology, archaeology and art history, culinary arts, diet and nutrition, economics, ethnic and gender studies, geography, history, legal and medical issues, and social uses.
Our research team drew extensively on Colonial Era and Federal Era documents available through Early American Newspapers, especially chocolate/cacao-related advertisements, articles, price currents, obituaries, and shipping news documents. As a scholar who formerly spent months using microfilm documents—winding and re-winding reels searching for specific documents on specific dates—I report here that the new technologies available through Readex have made my work and that of my students a hundred times easier. Now, with a click of our computer “mice,” team members can retrieve thousands of documents that previously would have taken weeks to amass.
Presented here are examples that provide a brief “taste” of these chocolate-related documents.
ACCIDENTS AND NEGLIGENCE
Chocolate manufacturing required roasting and preparing cacao beans prior to milling, and fires were commonplace. Boston chocolate-maker Daniel Jacobs lost not only his business but his house:
The building … contained, besides the furniture, provisions, &c. 3,000 lb. of cocoa, and several 100 lb. of chocolate, which were nearly or quite all destroyed. The loss, at a moderate computation, is said to amount to Fire Hundred Pounds, lawful money (Boston Post Boy, March 30th, 1772, page 3).
Lack of adult supervision of children sometimes led to terrible consequences as with this tragic report:
One morning last week a child about 3 years old accidentally overset a large sauce-pan of hot chocolate into its bosom, whereby it was so terribly scalded that it died soon after (Boston Evening Post, December 2nd, 1765, page 3).
Brothers Bossenor and William Foster, mid 18th-century Boston merchants, repeatedly had bad luck as their establishment was burglarized several times:
Whereas some evil-minded person or persons have again broke open the store of the subscribers, on Spear’s Wharf, and last night took from thence a number of articles amongst which was two firkins butter, about 50 or 60 lb. of chocolate mark’d W. Call, and S. Snow, half a barrel of coffee, nine or ten pair lynn shoes, some cocoa and sugar. (The Boston News-Letter and New-England Chronicle, February 9th, 1769, page 2).
Unscrupulous chocolate manufacturers sometimes “extended” their products by adding brick dust, chalk, and other items. Joseph Mann fought against this trend and criticized merchants who defrauded customers:
Joseph Mann … sells Chocolate, which will be warranted free of any Adulteration, likewise New-England Mustard, manufactured by said Mann, who will be glad of the Continuance of his former Customers, and thankfully receive the Favour [sic] of others (Boston Post Boy, March 6th, 1769, page 2).
The 1764 Boston smallpox epidemic struck in January and by February a number of chocolate merchants relocated to the periphery of the city to escape the pox. Rebecca Walker, manager of a general store opposite the Blue-ball near Mill Bridge, relocated to Roxbury where she resided at the home of Nathaniel Felton, Scythe-Maker, and sold:
All sorts of garden seeds imported in the last ship from London … Peas, beans, red and white clover and other grass seeds; hemp seed; Cheshire Cheese; Flour of Mustard; Jordan Almonds; Florence Oyl; split and boiling Peas; Stone and Glass Ware; Chimney Tiles; Kippen’s Snuff; Pipes, Spices, Sugar, Chocolate; English and Scotch GOODS, &c. (Boston Gazette and Country Journal, February 20th, 1764, page 4).
By early summer 1764 brothers John and Thomas Stevenson sought to offset the public’s smallpox fears through creative advertising. They announced that the disease was due to contaminated goods that entered the port of Boston—but if vessels were off-loaded elsewhere and merchandise transported overland, such items would be “free of the Infection of the Small-Pox” (The Boston Evening Post, June 25th, 1764, page 4).
ECONOMICS: COST OF LIVING
An anonymous pastor identified only as “TW” complained of high prices for food and life essentials. He described his living conditions in 1747 and longed for earlier days in 1707 when he purchased items at inexpensive rates: butter (6 pence/pound), cheese (2 pence/pound), dozen eggs (2 pence), beef and mutton (2 ½ pence/pound), pork and veal (3 pence/pound), sugar (6 pence/pound), chocolate (2 shillings & 6 pence = 18 pence/pound), and molasses (1 shilling & 10 pence = 22 pence/gallon). His concerns documented the importance of chocolate as an expensive but essential dietary item (The Boston Evening Post, December 14th, 1747, p. 2).
An anonymous letter written in 1728 also complained of high prices. He stated that at one time his family of eight needed only 12 shillings/week for food but with current high prices he was unable to supply his family essentials, such as butter, cheese, sugar, coffee, tea, and chocolate and that he also could not afford cider, fruits, liquor, tobacco, or wine. He lamented that his economic deprivations made it impossible to be hospitable and to perform acts of charity (New England Weekly Journal, November 25th, 1728, page 2).