Threads March 2022 Chocolate

Jack Orchard

The Threads series aims to explore the rich topical connections that can be made across the items in the collection of c. 80,000 letters and to illustrate the range of diverse perspectives that can be found on topics of all kinds. The series will be curated by Andrew Kahn and Jack Orchard as Academic Editor and Content Editors of Electronic Enlightenment and will aim to commission and promptly post pieces by guest contributors and users of the site. If you are interested in submitting a blog of this kind and talking through an idea, please get in touch with and

I thought I would kick off this new series at Electronic Enlightenment by talking about something light and sweet, so light and sweet in fact that it was often recommended as an alternative to wine for people suffering from issues with digestion. Here is the first Oxford English Dictionary definition for chocolate:

1. A hot drink made by mixing prepared chocolate (sense A. 2a) or cocoa with water or milk (and sometimes other ingredients); = hot chocolate n. at hot adj. and n.1 Compounds 3. Also occasionally: a similar drink served cold.

The drink was originally made from a paste of ground roasted cocoa beans (the drink made by the Aztecs also contained seeds from the silk-cotton tree) and was typically very thick. It is now usually made from melted chocolate, cocoa powder, or a sweetened cocoa powder product. It was very popular and fashionable across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

With only one exception, all of the mentions of chocolate mentioned in EE refer to either the drink, or the compound used to make it – a quick survey of some of the 107 letters which refer to chocolate reveal the different nuances and subtleties behind the consumption of chocolate from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

The most distinctive aspect of chocolate in the eighteenth-century was its role as a substitute or alternative for coffee as a social lubricant, as seen in this letter from Voltaire to Jean-Robert Tronchin in 1759, discussing the necessities for hosting an entire theatrical troupe and spectators, which included 50 pounds of chocolate:

Que faire? Se réjouir doucement chez soy. Il nous faudra une cinquantaine de livres de bon chocolat à deux vanilles pour les acteurs et actrices, violonistes, décorateurs et décoratrices, spectateurs et spectatrices. Mais où trouver ce bon chocolat?

Voltaire [François Marie Arouet] to Jean Robert Tronchin, Monday, 24 September 1759

Chocolate as both a domestic product and a luxury is also attested by Voltaire’s correspondence, as here, when his advice to Tronchin on how to prepare for the arrival of Bernard Louis-Chauvelin, ambassador to Genoa and Turin, highlighted chocolate as necessary for good hospitality:

Mr l'ambassadeur de Chauvelin et made vont à nos Délices vers le vingt, ils passent par Lyon, ils vous verront. Mr de Chauvelin ira probablement chez vous. Si saucières et chocolat pouvaient arriver avant L'ambassadeur vous mettriez à l'aise votre fermier des Délices qui fera de son mieux pr les recevoir.

Voltaire [François Marie Arouet] to Jean Robert Tronchin, Wednesday, 3 October 1759

In this letter from the artist Elizabeth Coltman to the publisher Robert Dodsley, we again see the association of preparing chocolate with providing for guests – here in the case of her playful guilt-tripping of Dodsley over his failure to visit her:

After returning thanks to my good Fd. Mr. Dodsley for his two very obliging little, little Letters, I cannot help telling him how griev'd I am to find him only a Man of Words — the Chocolate ready, the Balm Tea prepar'd, my Cap (if not better) put on much tighter than usual; all this done two mornings together, yet no Mr. Dodsley appeared — Oh, but he was truely mortify'd that he cou'd not! yes my good speech making Fd so I do suppose; and am most cruelly concern'd for you. For my part as I put not my trust in Man, nor the Children of Eve Man, knowing them all to be deceitful upon the wieghts, yea lighter than Vanity itself, — I set down in a musty Philosophical mood enough, and moraliz'd over the Chocolate that you shou'd have partook of — the result of wch. was, that all is vanity — for a Philosopher must not talk of vexation of spirits, you know.

Elizabeth Coltman [née Cartwright] to Robert Dodsley, Thursday, 24 November 1763

One of the virtues of chocolate which made it preferable to coffee or wine was its relative lightness on the stomach, which both made it an acceptable beverage to share in the mornings, as attested by letters like this one from Jonathan Swift to Sir Andrew Fountaine in 1711, with its request to 'get all things ready for Breakfast. have the Coffee Tee and Chocolate cut and dry in so many Pots' and this one from James Boswell to John Wilkes in 1776, in which Boswell entreats Wilkes,'Will you please to let me know what morning I can drink chocolate with you at an hour of luxurious leisure'.

The gentleness of chocolate on the stomach also lead to it being recommended for those with upset stomachs, such as the physician and clandestine Materialist thinker Claude Adrien Helvétius, who complained in a 1759 letter to the merchant and politician Daniel Charles de Trudaine about his health regimen:

Precautioné et preparé encore par des aposhemes, j'ai eu des rapports doucereux le second jour, et de tres mauvais le quatrieme, avec les plus grands maux d'estomacs qu'on puissea, sans avoir cependant ny crachement ni aucun mal de poitrine. On n'a pas eu de peine à me resoudre à quitter le lait pour reprendre le gruau, mais les rapports et le mal d'estomac ont continué, mes douleurs de jambes sont revenues ainsi que les aphtes et une grande foiblesse dans toute l'habitude du corps. Je me suis trouvé dans le dernier epuisement. Au lieu de gruau on m'a donné de la soupe, au lieu de lait, du vin de Bourgogne et de Rotha, du chocolat et quelques cordiaux. Il m'est alors revenu assés de force pour prendre une medecine legere de casse et de manne, la quelle à mon grand etonnement m'a fait les plus grands et les meilleurs effets.

Claude Adrien Helvétius to Daniel Charles de Trudaine Tuesday, 31 July 1759

For Helvétius the connection between mental activity and the body was a fundamental philosophical assumption—but chocolate is not a foodstuff he usually ponders and this letter comes as something of a surprise. The social and physical benefits of chocolate lead not only to the recognition of its status as a luxury, as in the letter about the Genevan ambassador above, but also caused several of the correspondents in EE to take an interest in the composition of their own chocolate beverages, sampling different flavours, preferring different suppliers, and recommending particular varieties. This letter from the physician David Thomas to John Locke in particular reflects just such an interest in how his chocolate was made, passing on preparation instructions from his wife, Honor Thomas, [née Greenhill], occasionally nicknamed 'Parthenice' by Locke, and promising the full recipe:

Parthenice is more then payd by your thankes for her Chocolatte. The receite is profitable to her how ever in the next you shall have it Only now remember the nutts are best dryed in an oven after the bread is drawne. care is to be taken that they be not burnt as most ⟨in⟩d London are. The Cinnamon and Venella are to be added when the nutts are well beaten and ready to be taken up and then beaten enough only to well mix them The Cinnamon first poudered apart then the Venella to be ground with it without drying.

David Thomas to John Locke, Sunday, 5 January 1687

Another letter from Thomas to Locke a year later gives similar instructions on how to mix vanilla into the chocolate, and by the late 1690s Locke is ordering cacao beans in bulk and preparing them himself, as seen in a letter from Locke to Edward Clarke in 1697. By the turn of the century Locke is sampling Spanish chocolate given to him by his cousin Samuel, as attested in this 1698 missive, and in 1704 Rabsy Smithsby, Locke’s landlady in London, explains to him some of the finer points of chocolate grinding:

I will take Care to make up your Chocolate as soon as the weather is a little Coole for I observe it grinds best and finest then, and will marke it as you desire. If att your Leasure you spare me a word or two, you know it will oblige.

Rabsy Smithsby [née Smithsby] to John Locke, Thursday, 28 August 1704

Another correspondent who took an interest in the composition of his chocolate was Gustavus III, king of Sweden, who wrote in 1789 to Greve Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, first gentleman of the chamber, ironically pleading with him to secure some good chocolate, as he was suffering at the hands of Mr Griel, the royal chef:

Enfin, il faut pourtant finir. Si vous voyez le Cte Posse, suppliez-lui de ma part, et à deux genoux encore s'il le faut, de m'envoyer du bon chocolat (qu'il en achète chez les ministres), le mien est fini et on m'empoisonne avec le mauvais chocolat de Griel, qui est détestable, que je ne peux supporter, ce qui fait que je me lève sans déjeuner, ce qui est fâcheux toujours et encore plus à la guerre.

Gustavus III, king of Sweden to Greve Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, Wednesday, 19 August 1789

The letters of the author, poet, and Bluestocking socialite Hester Thrale Piozzi provide us with a thoughtful take on drinking chocolate which combines an interest in its composition and social dimensions, when she writes to her daughter Hester Maria Elphinstone about the various ways that coffee and chocolate are served in different countries, reflections that would ultimately be published in her collection of travel writing, Observations and Reflections made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789):

When one goes to an Evening Conversation in Germany, Chocolate is presented one with Cream to put in the Cup: that Cream kept hot in a Silver Vase, & another Vase with more Chocolate to mix — very comfortable Stuff to me, but the Italians cry Porcheria. I remember a Venetian Lady saying to my Husband who was speaking in Praise of English Elegance: that it was hardly possible that Nation should be very delicate — when She had herself seen a Lord sowce Cream into his Coffee, which says She ‘you must acknowledge to be a very odious Trick’ — Such are the various Manners one meets wth when travelling from one Country to another.

Hester Lynch Piozzi [formerly Mrs Thrale; née Salusbury] to Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith [née Thrale], Saturday, 25 November 1786

The final aspect of chocolate evidenced in the EE collection is the question of its moral associations, with luxury, idleness, gendered sociability, and excess. This takes us straight into the famous luxury debate conducted across Europe by economists and political thinkers on the varlue of free markets and their potential for corruption of morals. In the hands of Jonathan Swift grinding chocolate is part of the vision of mundanity and feminised domestic tyranny which he imagines for William Tisdall, a one-time romantic rival of his, in this letter from 1735:

We hear Tisdall is puss ling the Curates, or mud ling in an ale-house, or muff ling his chops, or rump ling his Band, or mum ling songs, though he be but a mid ling versifyer at best, while his wife in her Mac ling lace is mull ling claret, to make her husband Maud ling, or mill ling chocolate for her breakfast, or rust ling in her silks, or net ling her spouse, or nurse ling and swill ling her grandchildren and a year ling calf, or oyl ling her pimp ling face, or set ling her head dress, or stif ling a f— to a fizz ling, or boy ling sowins for supper, or pew ling for the death of her Kit ling, or over rue ling the poor Doctor.

Jonathan Swift to Reverend Doctor Thomas Sheridan, 20 June 1735

Henry Oldenburg also commented on the question of chocolate’s moral status, albeit ironically, writing to Robert Boyle in 1666 about an essay, likely the De Chocolatis Potu Diatribe (1664) by Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio, he had read arguing whether drinking chocolate broke a religious fast:

In another of those Journals an account is given of the use of Chocolate, together with the decision of a pretty pleasant case of Conscience, vid. whether a draught of that substance, breakes a Fast enjoyned by the Church? Which having been ventilated pro and Con, is at length determind by a Cardinal in the Negative. Surely, Hudibras would Jeer somebody out of England, if he should find such cases and decisions in his monthly Book.

Henry Oldenburg to Robert Boyle, Tuesday, 23 March 1666

Whilst superficially a simple aspect of daily life, not often considered in detail and merely an item on a list, the references to chocolate across EE tell a curious story about social obligations, the way people think about food, and the ever present anxieties around ill health and moral transgression. One of the values of studying correspondence at scale, even the most quotidian and everyday, is that we have the ability to pull out the tiniest details and explore nuances between a wide range of examples, which is the intention of this blog series.

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