Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

On Saturday, June 16, 2012, Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) in Bucks County, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), partnered with the American Heritage Chocolate division of Mars Inc. to present a program entitled “Taste a Revolution in Chocolate.” The chocolate-making demonstration and lecture on the history of chocolate was attended by visitors, food historians, and WCHP staff and volunteers. Members of the Historic Foodways Group of the Delaware Valley participated in a special hands-on class to learn how to process cocoa beans into chocolate.

Rodney Snyder of Mars Chocolate North America presented the chocolate history lecture and slide show. For ten years Mars Inc. associates, history professionals, researchers, and scholars explored the history of chocolate’s sourcing, manufacture, and usage during North America’s colonial and postcolonial periods. Their research has revealed the domestic manufacture and use of chocolate was widespread throughout the colonies where it was consumed as a thick, hot beverage.

Drinking hot chocolate in the morning was considered to be a great restorative in the eighteenth century, although it was also enjoyed in the afternoon and evening. Following the tax imposed on tea in 1767 by the Townsend Acts, drinking chocolate instead of tea became an act of patriotism. Baker’s chocolate was manufactured and sold in Massachusetts by 1765. In Virginia George and Martha Washington enjoyed hot chocolate; between 1758 and 1799, Washington is known to have ordered between one and fifty pounds of chocolate at a time. Inventories at Mount Vernon record a set of chocolate cups and saucers included as part of a gold and white French china service the Washingtons acquired in 1790. John Adams, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson also consumed chocolate.

Pennsylvania’s relationship with chocolate dates to colonial days. Benjamin Franklin sold chocolate at his Philadelphia print shop as early as 1739. In 1757 Benjamin Jackson was selling handmade bars of chocolate at Second and Market Streets in Philadelphia. Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush touted it for medicinal use. In the nineteenth century famous chocolate companies began in the Commonwealth: Whitman, in 1842 in Philadelphia; Wilbur, in 1865 in Philadelphia; and Hershey, in 1894 in Lancaster. Today nearly 80 percent of cocoa beans imported to the United States come through the port of Philadelphia. In Elizabethtown, Lancaster County, the Historical Division of Mars Inc. produces historically accurate American Heritage Chocolate.

Two centuries ago chocolate was not the smooth, creamy, sweet confection that has become so familiar today. The chocolate Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin knew came in the form of small grainy cakes. Chocolate was grated from the cakes and whipped with hot water to produce a thick, smooth, frothy beverage. The origins of this concoction can be traced nearly four thousand years ago to the Olmec culture of Mesoamerica.

The Olmecs consumed a bitter drink made from cacao nibs and often flavored with spices such as allspice, chili powder, and vanilla. The liquid was emulsified and frothed by pouring it at a height from vessel to vessel. The Olmecs harvested the cacao from obroma cacao trees native to equatorial Mesoamerica and South America. They devised the fermenting, drying, roasting, and grinding processes that are still used to turn the bitter cocoa beans into chocolate. Cacao tree pods contain between fifty and sixty seeds covered in sweet white pulp. The seeds were removed from the cacao pods and fermented, which broke down the bitterness and began to develop the chocolate flavor, a process that took from two to eight days. The fermented beans were dried and roasted to fully develop their chocolate flavor. The roasted beans were then cracked to extract the meaty center, or nib, from the broken shells. The shells were discarded and the nibs were finely ground with a stone mano on a heated stone metate to produce a semi-melted, thick chocolate paste which was scraped off the metate, cooled, and formed into solid cakes of various shapes and sizes. Any flavorings were added during the grinding process.

Olmec chocolate knowledge was passed on to the Mayans who called it “the food of the gods.” Chocolate consumption reached North America by 1000 AD when it was being imbibed by the Ancient Pueblo Peoples of Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. Cocoa beans were so highly prized by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico that they used them for currency. Chocolate first crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in Europe with Christopher Columbus but didn’t catch on until the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztecs and returned with the precious commodity to Spain in 1528. Cortes added sugar to sweeten the traditional bitter chocolate drink and the Spanish introduced the use of the molinillo, a special stirring stick, to whip the hot chocolate. A taste for this new beverage spread throughout Europe; chocolate houses – similar to coffee houses – were opened in major European cities during the seventeenth century. Originally only available to the wealthy that used fine, ornate pots and cups for their chocolate, the enjoyment of hot chocolate eventually spread to the middle and lower classes. The English colonists in North America enjoyed chocolate in much the same way as did their European counterparts. North Americans have included chocolate in military rations throughout the centuries. Officers in General Edward Braddock’s army each were issued six pounds of chocolate at the beginning of the French and Indian War. During the Revolutionary War chocolate was included in rations and available from the commissary at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Chocolate was reserved in Massachusetts in 1777 “for the supply of the army” and its export was strictly prohibited. In more recent times sweetened chocolate bars were included in the rations of American soldiers fighting in World War I and World War II.

Following their lecture and slide show on the history of chocolate, representatives of Mars Inc. demonstrated the historic method of making chocolate. They exhibited and explained cacao pods, cocoa beans, nibs, and traditional chocolate-making equipment, and demonstrated the process of grinding nibs with a mano on a heated metate. They also showed samples of flavorings associated with chocolate in Colonial America including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, chili pepper, annatto, allspice, anise, and sugar. The demonstration concluded with an opportunity for participants to sample chocolate in the liquid form that was enjoyed in the eighteenth century. The hot chocolate made with Mars Inc.’s American Heritage Chocolate whipped in hot water was completely different from modern hot chocolate and cocoa; it tasted rich and creamy with just a hint of spices.

Attendees attested that Mars Inc.’s research and reproduction of historically accurate chocolate was a delicious success by purchasing the entire inventory of chocolate blocks, sticks, and grated American Heritage Chocolate in the park’s gift shop. American Heritage Chocolate is also available in Pennsylvania at PHMC’s Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, Lancaster; Sun Inn Preservation Association, Bethlehem; and the Westmoreland County Historical Society, Greensburg.

To provide more opportunities to learn about historic chocolate and eighteenth-century foodways – particularly since PHMC is observing “The Land of Penn and Plenty: Bringing History to the Table” as its annual theme for 2012 – Washington Crossing Historic Park is presenting a Market and Muster Day on Sunday, September 23, in addition to eighteenth-century cooking classes on Sundays, October 7 and November 4, 2012, and on Saturday, June 29, 2013. For more information, telephone (215) 493-4076 or visit the Washington Crossing website.


Joan D. Hauger is site administrator of Washington Crossing Historic Park, Washington Crossing, Bucks County, administered by PHMC as one of more than two dozen historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trials of History.