Chocolate, a ubiquitous product in today’s global market, has a multifaceted history spanning thousands of years. To fully appreciate its current role in the world economy and in confectionery innovation, it’s essential to understand its journey.
The team at Giving Candy has conducted research to put together this infographic about the history of chocolate. As research progresses and more insights come to light, they are committed to updating this timeline to offer the most comprehensive view.
1500 BCE – Olmec Era
The rich and tantalizing history of chocolate stretches back over three millennia, and it has been an integral part of human culture for centuries. The story of chocolate begins in the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, with the Olmecs being among the first to cultivate cacao trees around 1500 BCE. The cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods” in Greek, produced the beans from which chocolate is made.
The Olmecs, a people living in what is now Mexico, created a beverage from cacao by grinding the beans and mixing them with water, chili peppers, and other spices. This concoction, known as “chocolatl,” was not the sweet treat we associate with chocolate today; instead, it was a bitter and spicy beverage often reserved for special occasions and rituals.
250 CE – Mayan Peak
The Mayans, who inhabited the same region as the Olmecs, elevated chocolate to new heights. Around 250 CE, they refined the process of making cacao-based beverages. The Mayans sweetened their cacao drinks with honey and flavored them with vanilla and allspice. They even grew their own cacao trees and used cacao beans as a form of currency.
Chocolate was a central part of Mayan culture, consumed by both the elite and the common people. It was often used in marriage ceremonies and religious rituals. The Mayans believed that cacao had divine properties and bestowed strength and vitality upon those who consumed it.
700 CE – Cacao as Currency
The Mayans’ love affair with chocolate did not end with their civilization. The Aztecs, who rose to prominence in the 14th century, adopted many aspects of Mayan culture, including their appreciation for cacao. The Aztecs, however, took it a step further by using cacao beans as a form of currency. They valued cacao so highly that it could be used to pay taxes and even purchase slaves.
The Aztec cacao beverage, known as “xocolātl,” was made by frothing the mixture of ground cacao beans, spices, and water until it reached a rich, foamy consistency. It was often flavored with ingredients like vanilla, annatto, and allspice. Like the Mayans, the Aztecs believed that chocolate had aphrodisiac properties and was a source of vitality.
900 CE – Rise of the Toltecs
The Toltecs, another Mesoamerican civilization that succeeded the Aztecs, continued the tradition of cultivating and consuming cacao. They believed that cacao was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl and continued to use it in rituals and ceremonies.
It wasn’t until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors that chocolate would make its way to Europe and undergo significant transformations in its preparation and consumption.
1519 – Aztecs & Cortés
In 1519, the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. He and his men were introduced to the Aztec emperor Montezuma’s lavish cacao-based beverages. Montezuma would reportedly consume vast quantities of xocolātl daily to increase his stamina and enhance his sexual prowess.
Cortés was fascinated by this exotic elixir and returned to Spain with cacao beans and the knowledge of how to prepare the Aztec cacao beverage. Back in Spain, the bitter cacao drink underwent significant modifications to suit European tastes. Sugar, vanilla, and various spices were added to sweeten and flavor the drink, transforming it into a more palatable beverage.
1657 – England’s Chocolate Scene
Chocolate began spreading across Europe in the 17th century, with England becoming one of its primary destinations. In 1657, the first chocolate house, “The Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll,” opened in London, offering chocolate as a beverage alongside coffee and tobacco. These establishments soon became popular gathering places for socializing and conducting business.
Chocolate houses helped popularize the drinking of chocolate in England’s high society. It was considered a luxury enjoyed by the elite, and it became a symbol of social status.
1720 – French Solid Chocolate
While chocolate was primarily consumed as a beverage in England, the French took a different approach. In 1720, François-Louis Cailler opened the first chocolate-making shop in Switzerland, where he began producing solid chocolate bars.
This innovation marked the beginning of the transition from liquid chocolate to solid forms. The Swiss quickly embraced chocolate-making, perfecting techniques for creating smooth and creamy chocolate bars that would later become famous worldwide.
1779 – First Woman Chocolate Maker
In a significant milestone for the history of chocolate, the first woman chocolate maker, Madame du Barry, emerged in France in 1779. She gained fame for her exquisite chocolate creations and became a supplier to the French royal court.
Madame du Barry’s success shattered gender norms of the time and paved the way for other women to enter the chocolate industry, contributing to its growth and innovation.
1875 – Swiss Milk Chocolate
In 1875, another groundbreaking moment in the history of chocolate occurred with the invention of milk chocolate. Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolatier, collaborated with Henri Nestlé to add milk powder to chocolate, resulting in a smoother, creamier, and sweeter product.
This innovation revolutionized the chocolate industry, making chocolate bars more appealing to a wider audience. Swiss milk chocolate quickly gained worldwide popularity, and Swiss chocolate manufacturers, including Nestlé and Lindt, became industry leaders.
1900 – Hershey’s Mass Production
The American chocolate industry witnessed a transformation in the early 20th century thanks to Milton S. Hershey. In 1900, Hershey introduced the world to the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar. What set Hershey’s apart was not just the taste but also the mass production techniques he employed.
Hershey’s revolutionary manufacturing processes made chocolate more affordable and accessible to the general public. The iconic Hershey’s Kisses also made their debut in 1907, becoming one of the most recognizable chocolate brands worldwide.
1940-1945 – WWII & Chocolate
World War II had a profound impact on the history of chocolate. Chocolate bars were included in soldiers’ rations, providing them with a quick source of energy and comfort during difficult times. Chocolate also played a role in wartime propaganda, with companies like Hershey’s and Cadbury producing chocolate bars wrapped in patriotic packaging.
Chocolate manufacturers had to adapt to wartime rationing, which led to the creation of smaller chocolate bars and new recipes using alternative ingredients. Despite the challenges of wartime, the popularity of chocolate remained high, and it continued to be a cherished treat for many.
2000 – Ethical Chocolate Rise
In recent years, a new chapter in the history of chocolate has emerged, marked by a growing emphasis on ethical and sustainable production. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the social and environmental impact of chocolate production, leading to a demand for fair trade and ethically sourced chocolate.
Organizations like Fair Trade USA and the Rainforest Alliance have worked to certify chocolate products that meet specific ethical and sustainability standards. These certifications ensure that cacao farmers are paid fair wages and that environmentally responsible practices are followed.
Additionally, there has been a rise in bean-to-bar chocolate makers who prioritize transparency in sourcing their cacao beans and are dedicated to preserving the unique flavors of specific cacao varieties.
In conclusion, the history of chocolate is a tale of transformation and adaptation. From its humble beginnings as a bitter Mesoamerican beverage to its current status as a global indulgence, chocolate has continually evolved to meet the changing tastes and preferences of cultures around the world. Whether enjoyed as a traditional cacao drink, a creamy milk chocolate bar, or an ethically sourced bean-to-bar creation, chocolate remains a beloved treat that has captured the hearts and taste buds of people throughout history and into the present day.