Keeler Notes: A Box of Chocolates for Breakfast

Approximately 36 million boxes of chocolate are purchased for Valentine's Day each year. In the 18th century, Esther Keeler might have purchased boxes of chocolates, not for Valentine's Day, but for breakfast.

Introduced to Europe by the Spanish through their conquest of Mexico, chocolate was expensive and exclusive to the European upper class. In North America, however, it was readily and widely available, even to the poor — almshouses in New York and Philadelphia regularly gave chocolate to needy residents.

All the chocolate consumed in North America was manufactured domestically. Cacao beans were shipped into four major production centers: Boston, Newport (Rhode Island), New York, and Philadelphia, where they were ground and pressed into bars or tablets and sold to consumers. In the second half of the 18th century, there were at least 70 commercial chocolate makers in these four cities alone.

Esther’s chocolate, were she to prepare it, would be grated and mixed with water, milk, or even wine, then heated and frothed into a wholesome and filling beverage. Prior to the 1840s, chocolate was consumed almost entirely in beverage form, and like coffee and tea, was considered a staple beverage and a breakfast necessity.

Catherine Prescott