Colonial Chocolate

Salem can lay claim to at least one candy title–Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie, established in 1806, claims to be “America’s oldest candy company” and is still manufacturing the gibralters and black jacks that established its reputation. But the other day I came across a trade card in a digital archive which I thought could lead to another title for our fair city:  oldest commercial chocolate manufacturer.  The card (which gets no bigger, sorry) advertises the business of Gideon Foster, Chocolate Manufacturer, and dates from 1780–the same year that the famous Walter Baker & Co., Ltd. chocolate company was founded in Dorchester Lower Mills.  Perhaps Foster beat out Baker by a few months!

Chocolate 1780

Chocolate Bakers factor

Chocolate Baker 1929

Bakers Christmas

Advertising Chocolate, 1780-1829. Baker images courtesy The Dorchester Atheneum.

Alas, I don’t think Salem can claim the chocolate title, for two reasons.  The Baker Company can be dated even earlier than 1780, to when Walter Baker, a Boston physician, established a partnership in 1765 with English chocolatier John Hannon. When Hannon departed for Europe in 1780, never to return, Baker continued to run the company under his sole ownership, and it expanded dramatically through the nineteenth century under his heirs and the twentieth century under the successive ownership of  General and Kraft Foods (leaving Foster’s little company in the dust!)  The other reason is that while Gideon Foster is associating himself with the commercial mecca of Salem,on his trade card, his chocolate mill was actually located in the nearby village of South Danvers, now Peabody; in fact, Foster’s well-preserved Federal house serves as the headquarters of the Peabody Historical Society.

That matter settled, I still have my questions. Why were these two prominent men so focused on the production of chocolate during the Revolutionary War?  Wasn’t chocolate a rather trivial pursuit at this particular time? Foster was General Gideon Foster, hero of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, later at Bunker Hill and the siege of Boston, but back in Peabody making chocolate by 1780:  was chocolate manufacture a matter of national necessity?  Probably not, but it was definitely a substantive commodity in the eighteenth century, viewed as nutritional, medicinal, and sustaining–almost like food. But it was also a beverage (we are generally talking about drinking chocolate at this time; candy bars come later) that some thought had the potential to replace the almighty tea. Thomas Jefferson certainly thought so; in a 1785 letter to John Adams he predicted that “Chocolate. … 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 and coffee in America…”

Here in Salem, and in the present, my favorite source for chocolate is the decades-old Harbor Sweets, where I started my Christmas shopping today (with less than two weeks to go–classes complete, papers and final exams to grade!)  Even if you don’t have chocolate on your list, this is a great place to go for its Santa’s workshop ambiance, as well as the free samples.

Chocolate Harbor Sweets


3 responses to “Colonial Chocolate

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