Chocolate is a product that can be found in pretty much every cupboard. It is one of our favourite sweet treats, but few of us probably think twice about the history of chocolate when we’re having a craving. This unassuming product has been consumed for over 3,000 years, and the sweet chocolate bars that we know today have only been around for a tiny fraction of that time. For almost its entire history, chocolate was consumed as a drink filled with spices and other goodies, and has been the choice of Kings and peasants alike. So, let’s explore the history of chocolate!

Chocolate is made from beans of the cacao tree which is native to Central and South America. Possibly the earliest evidence of humans consuming cacao comes from the Ancient Olmecs, a civilization who occupied parts of modern-day Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC. Pots from the earliest point of their existence have traces of theobromine, a stimulant which is found in chocolate and tea. It is thought that the Olmecs used cacao for a ceremonial drink, although it is unclear whether they used cacao beans or just pulped the pod, and thus whether it can really be considered a chocolate drink. Some more recent archaeological evidence suggests the earliest chocolate drinking was even earlier than this, and could even be more than 5,000 years old.

The Olmec’s successors were their neighbours the Maya who really popularised the use of cacao. Their written history shows how important chocolate was to their society, with chocolate drinks being drunk at big celebrations and also as a way to finalise important transactions – a bit like going to a fancy restaurant or for a few drinks in today’s society. The Maya ground dried cacao beans and mixed it with water to create a chocolate drink which was thick and frothy. To add a bit more flavour, they would mix in chili peppers or honey. Whilst chocolate drinks were used at important events, it was by no means a treat limited to the elite and almost every level of society would drink it – many households would have drunk chocolate at every meal.

An image of an Aztec woman generating foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another, c1553.

Around 1300, a new civilization flourished in Mexico called the Aztecs. They too took up the tradition of drinking chocolate, although it was much more revered in their society. Cacao was thought to have been given by the gods and the beans were considered more valuable than gold. Chocolate became the reserve of the elite, although the lower classes would indulge in drinking chocolate at special occasions such as weddings. Chocolate was given to victorious warriors when they returned from battle, and it was also used in religious rituals. Cacao beans were even used as currency due to their value. One of the biggest lovers of chocolate in Aztec society was Montezuma II, ruler of the Aztec Empire between 1502 and 1520. As leader, Montezuma had as much access to chocolate as he desired, and he supposedly drank gallons of it every day to give him energy – and also as an aphrodisiac.

The Aztec language is believed to have given us our modern-day word for chocolate, either as a twisting of their word for their chocolate drink, “xocaltl” or taken from their word “choqui” which meant warmth. It was also probably through the Aztecs that chocolate first reached Europe. Although it is not clear when chocolate first crossed the ocean, it is universally agreed that it first entered Europe through the Spanish who were busy ‘exploring’ and conquering the Americas in the early 1500s. There are three different stories about how the Spanish first came into contact with chocolate: the first says that Christopher Columbus came across it in 1502; the second credits Hernan Cortes with being given the drink at Montezuma’s court; and the third claims that a group of friars presented some chocolate to Philip II of Spain in 1544.

A Lady Pouring Chocolate or A Dutch Girl at Breakfast by Jean-Étienne Liotard c1774. 

Regardless of how it first got to Spain, by the late 16th century it had become incredibly popular at Spanish court, and by 1585 the Spanish were actively importing chocolate. It didn’t take too long for other European powers to become interested in chocolate drinks, both through their contact with the Spanish and their own forays into the New World. It became so popular that plantations were created to farm the cacao, which eventually were worked by thousands of slaves as European settlements in America grew.

Although Europeans initially drank chocolate drinks as the Aztecs, Maya and Olmecs had – as a bitter drink – they soon decided to edit the concoction for their own tastes. They added sweeteners to the drink such as cane sugar, cinnamon and other spices which soon made the drink even more popular. As the 17th century arrived, chocolate houses started to crop up across Europe as a way for people to socialise and consume the fashionable drink. The first chocolate house in London opened in 1657, whilst the first American chocolate house opened in Boston in 1682. However, as chocolate had to be imported from the colonies it was quite expensive, and so was limited to the richer parts of society. Some chocolate houses even charged an entry fee just to enter the premises. Samuel Pepys, renowned London diarist of the mid-17th century, wrote one of the earliest references to chocolate in England. In his diary, he talks about drinking chocolate the day after the coronation of King Charles II in 1661; he used it to settle his stomach after suffering the effects of a hangover from the previous day’s drinking.

The chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court Palace, made c1690.

As chocolate was seen as such a valuable commodity, it was also sometimes traded like it had been in the Aztec Empire. During the American Revolution, chocolate was provided to soldiers as a ration and sometimes they were even paid in chocolate instead of money. Through the 17th and 18th century, the popularity of chocolate amongst the rich in Europe meant that the highest in society started to build dedicated chocolate kitchens in their houses as a status symbol. Hampton Court Palace in London had famed architect Sir Christopher Wren design chocolate kitchens for their premises around 1690. These kitchens survive today, the only surviving chocolate kitchen in the country. The royal family would have chocolate as a morning drink at breakfast, though William III had such a taste for the drink that he would have it all through the day.

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Chocolate continued to be drunk largely by the elite up until the early 1800s. Then, in 1828, a Dutch chemist called Coenraad Johannes van Houten (or possibly his father) changed the world of chocolate making forever. In this year, Houten found a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts so that it turned into powdered chocolate which was far easier to mix with water than the process up to that point. It was relatively easy to do, and this discovery came at a similar time to a second invention of his: the cocoa press. Houten created this machine which was able to cheaply separate cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans and thus make cocoa powder which could be used in a variety of chocolate products. Through these two processes, Houten had found a way to mass produce cheaper chocolate powder and thus made chocolate available to a much wider audience than before.

The new chocolate presses revolutionised the production of chocolate.

With the new cocoa powder came several innovations that transformed chocolate into its more recognisable form today. People started to add milk to powdered cocoa, instead of water, making hot chocolate drinks more similar to those we drink now. Two decades after Houten’s inventions, British chocolatier J S Fry and Sons created the first ever chocolate bar. In 1847, they moulded a paste of sugar, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter into a bar which could be eaten instead of drunk. They continued their innovations, and in 1873 created the first ever chocolate Easter eggs. The company later merged with one of the biggest chocolate-makers today, Cadbury’s. Just a few years after the creation of Fry’s chocolate Easter eggs, Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter added dried milk powder to create milk chocolate, one of the most popular forms of chocolate today. He later teamed up with his friend Henri Nestle to create the Nestle company.

From then onwards, chocolate companies continued to grow and create new products, experimenting with different amounts of cacao and different flavours to create the multitude of products we know today. Chocolate continued to be seen as a luxury during times of hardship. During the First World War, Princess Mary created a Christmas Gift Fund box to send to soldiers on the front line for Christmas 1914. The box contained a pack of tobacco and cigarettes and Christmas cards, but the contents were later edited to respect those of different religious groups and those who did not smoke: nurses at the front in France were instead given a packet of chocolate in their boxes. During the Second World War when rationing was enforced in the United Kingdom, Cadbury Dairy Milk was forced to cease production as manufacturers were banned from using fresh milk. Instead they created a ‘Ration Chocolate’ made with dried milk powder.

A bar of Cadbury’s ration chocolate, created during WWII.

Chocolate has come a long way from its origins nearly 4,000 years ago as a bitter drink used in religious ceremonies. Over the centuries, it has cycled between a drink available to the masses, to a luxury product the reserve of kings and queens. European imperialism brought chocolate to a wider audience and changed it to a sweet drink, and the proliferation of chocolate houses in European cities continued to popularise the product. With the Industrial Revolution came innovations in the production of chocolate, turning it into a solid, edible format and making it affordable to the masses. Chocolate continues to have a special place in our society today, and it will probably continue for many centuries to come.

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