Science history: taking chocolate to the masses


British Quakers and a Dutch chemist made a lot of people happy. Jeff Glorfeld reports. 


Chocolate: a success thanks to science, engineering and entrepreneurship – and our collective sweet tooth.

Marko Crnoglavac / EyeEm, via Getty Images

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson, who in 1801 would become the third president of the United States of America, wrote a letter to John Adams, who in 1797 would become the second US president, in which chocolate was a point of discussion.

Jefferson was complaining about the difficulty of obtaining good, fresh chocolate in the American colonies: “the cacao becomes so easily soon rancid, and the difficulties of getting it fresh have been so great in America that its use has spread but little”.

“[T]he way to increase its consumption would be to permit it to be brought to us immediately from the country of its growth – by getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain,” he wrote.

Joseph Storrs Fry helped entrench the family name in chocolate folklore.

Bristol Museums

Cocoa, the World Cocoa Foundation tells us, developed as a crop in many ancient South American cultures, including the Aztecs and Mayans. “Researchers have found evidence of cocoa-based food dating back several thousand years. The cacao bean was so significant to the local cultures, it was used as a currency in trade, given to warriors as a post-battle reward, and served at royal feasts.”

According to the foundation, “When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World and began the process of invading, colonising, and ultimately destroying the native cultures, they also discovered the value of the local cacao crop.”

While reporting that some historians have estimated that chocolate has been a commodity for about 2000 years, Smithsonian magazine, published by the US-based Smithsonian Institution, the renowned museum and research complex, notes that recent research suggests it may be even older.

Indeed, in 2018 Cosmos reported on research published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution that indicates the cultivation of cacao (Theobroma cacao), the plant from which chocolate is derived, took place in the Santa Ana-La Florida region in south-east Ecuador at least 5450 years ago.

Further, Smithsonian says, “for about 90% of chocolate's long history, it was strictly a beverage, and sugar didn't have anything to do with it”.

The Spanish invaders were introduced to this bitter drink and didn’t find it to their liking. But once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular throughout Spain and spread into Europe.

The next big change to chocolate consumption took place in Britain, thanks to a Quaker family led by Joseph Fry, who was born in Wiltshire in 1728.

The website Quakers in the World reports that Fry trained as a doctor and apothecary and opened a small business in Bristol in 1753, selling goods such as cocoa, which he believed to be a nutritious alternative to drinking alcohol.

Fry built a water-powered mill that could grind the cocoa flakes into a powder and produce a superior drink.

Although Joseph Fry died in 1787, his wife Anna and son Joseph Storrs Fry took over the business and set about making changes, including installing one of James Watt’s revolutionary steam engines at the chocolate mill.

By 1824, JS Fry & Sons was using 40% of the cocoa imported into Britain.

Even so, according to the History.com website, chocolate remained an indulgence for aristocrats until 1828 when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten produced a cocoa press, which could squeeze the fatty oils from roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake that could be ground into a much finer powder.

The cocoa press “ushered in the modern era of chocolate by enabling it to be used as a confectionery ingredient, and the resulting drop in production costs made chocolate affordable to the masses”.

In 1847, the Frys came up with the idea of mixing a paste of cocoa powder, sugar and cocoa fat, which could be moulded into a shape, thus creating the chocolate bar in Britain.

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1789
  2. https://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/blog/history-of-cocoa/
  3. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917
  4. https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/chocolate-domesticated-much-earlier-and-further-south-than-thought
  5. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0697-x
  6. http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/276/The-Fry-Family-Chocolate-Makers
  7. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/watt_james.shtml
  8. https://www.history.com/news/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate
  9. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/houten.php
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