Chocolate – it’s a gift from the gods. Or one in particular, at least.

Kukulkan, the plumed serpent, gifted it to the Maya in Central America (see The Chocolate Tree by Linda Lowery for the full story). Whether you choose to believe that or not, cocoa was certainly an important element in Mayan society. The Maya called the drink – made from cocoa beans and chilli peppers – xocoatl, or ‘bitter water’, and poured it from cup to cup in order to create a good froth.

In Mayan times, xocoatl was used for special occasions such as rites of passage and weddings, but it was not exclusive to these events. Cocoa beans were also used as currency. Four beans would get you a pumpkin, and 10 beans a rabbit – I believe that 10 beans was also the amount of payment for a night of pleasure with a lady…

Precious cargo

The Aztecs used the beans to make a drink too, but it was reserved for those of high status. Thus, it was presented to Cortez on his arrival on the continent. However, as the raw beans look a lot like almonds, the Europeans did not immediately realise their worth. In 1502, Columbus wrote “They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen”.

The English were even more unwise. In 1579, English pirates stopped a Spanish galleon returning with goods from the new world but left the cocoa beans behind, thinking they were dried sheep droppings.

There is a surprising amount of primary evidence related to Aztec and Maya chocolate, with contemporary accounts of what the beans looked like and images of Maya and Aztecs with beans and the equipment for using them. Why not ask children to look at such pictures, and try to identify what is happening and what tools are being used? You can find some images on the following websites:

what-when-how – CACAO (Western Colonialism)
Chocolate: Candy or Medicine?
Chocolate: From Bean to Beverage

Amazon also sells raw cocoa beans and cocoa nibs, so you can compare the beans to shelled almonds to see how similar they are. You can also try using the nibs/chilli peppers and water to make xocoatl – though it doesn’t sound very appetising…

Bean and gone

Chocolate came to Europe between the 1580s and 1670s, and it took almost 100 years for it to make its way from Spain to England – hardly surprising, given the rivalry between the two countries at this time. By then, sugar had been added to chocolate to suit European tastes, but there were also other more-exotic combinations made, such as vanilla, citron, cinnamon, jasmine, musk and ambergris.

As you might expect, these were all luxury items used only by the very wealthy,, so when chocolate finally got to England it became the drink of the rich and famous. Chocolate houses were set up as places for men to meet, discuss politics and gamble. The painter Hogarth used chocolate as a metaphor for a decadent and exploitative society – something that can be seen in his paintings of ‘Marriage A-La-Mode: 4 La Toilette’ or ‘The Rake’s Progress’ where the gaming room of a chocolate house is burning down, completely unnoticed by the patrons.

Historians at Hampton Court Palace recently rediscovered the Chocolate Kitchens, which had lay hidden for years. It reopened in February 2014, and is the only royal chocolate kitchen in Britain. Having been originally built for William and Mary around 1689, it mainly served the Georgian kings.


Through videos you can see how drinking chocolate was made for the king using the same sort of tools as the Maya/Aztec used. You can even find some recipes to try yourself with the children here. Maybe not the one with the port, although it is delicious!

Trading standards

The Victorian period brought further changes to the status of chocolate. It became a commercial item, available to the middle classes for the first time. It was also promoted as a health product, with Baron von Liebig, one of the best-known writers on dietetics, saying: “Parents who value the health of their children should give them this cocoa, so as to build up a strong frame and constitution, the best safeguard against illness”.

It was around this time that Cadbury also started to promote cocoa drinking. Look at these adverts  – what do they tell you about how cocoa was seen at this time?

The 1920s and 30s was the golden age of chocolate making. Most of the brands we know now developed at this time, with the Quaker families of Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree leading the way. As Quakers were teetotal, chocolate drinks were promoted as an alternative to alcohol for working men. Manufacturers then developed chocolate bars and mass production, and chocolate became something for everyone.

Watch the below film produced by JS Fry & Sons, and this one made by Rowntree’s and preserved by Yorkshire Film Archive.

How do the production methods shown differ compared with chocolate making today? What jobs did men and women do in the factory? Would it be the same today?

Company men

The history of Bournville is an interesting area to focus on. What would it have been like to work and live there? There is wealth of documentary information available to search for online, including maps, paintings, adverts and photographs.

Take a series of images and a map of Bournville village and investigate the idea of garden towns and why it was important. What could you do in the village? How did the factory owners try to provide additional facilities for their workers? Did George Cadbury live up to his quote, “No man ought to be condemned to live in a place where a rose cannot grow”?

You can find some notes on Bournville on this page at the Cadbury website which details the company’s history, and download this more detailed history of Bournville itself [PDF] from the Bournville Village Trust.

A rich history

If your class have got a sweet tooth for the history of chocolate, here are a few more bite-sized ideas…

• Another area to explore could be the rationing of chocolate and sweets during the war. Why did this happen, and where was the cocoa coming from?

• You could also compare and contrast advertising of brands between then and now. The current debates about tooth decay and obesity have had a profound effect on chocolate advertising – it’s certainly not seen as a health product anymore. You could also carry out scientific investigations around the idea of healthy living.

• Look into Fair Trade and cocoa-producing countries today.

• If you have a local artisan chocolate maker, perhaps you could visit, or invite them to demonstrate chocolate making techniques in your school?

Above all, the important thing is to go beyond just the product and see what chocolate tells us about us and our society.

Karin Doull is Principal Lecturer in primary history and Holocaust education at the University of Roehampton; she is also a member of the Historical Association’s primary committee, and serves on the editorial board of its journal, Primary History