Chocolate on St. James

February 7, 2019

Pall Mall, St. James's Square and St. James's Street, c. 1833

 

If the aroma of coffee wafted circa 1650 from St. Michael's Cornhill to Fleet Street, the sites of London's first cafés, it was on the Mall in St. James's that chocolate found its public. Not one but several establishments cropped up in the 1690s to provide London with the cacao beverage and the space to gather and consume it. A few went on to become pillars of the elite proprietary club scene. White’s Chocolate house was established in 1693 at what later became #69 St. James's. Francis White—né Francisco Bianco—earned the moniker “'the Chocolatt Man in St. James Street” for his success. Eventually known simply as White’s and restricted to members only, this most exclusive club stands today at #37-38 St. James's. White’s counts the Prince of Whales and Duke of Cambridge as members and still does not admit women. Ozinda’s Chocolate House, established in 1694 by Dominico Osenda, occupied the prime real estate next door to St. James’s Palace, where the future Queen Anne was born in 1665. The Cocoa-Tree had a long life under that iconic name in the St. James neighborhood but moved about Pall Mall for a century before it cropped up at #64 St. James's in 1799.

 

White's Chocolate House,  c.1708 as imagined by Cadbury in the late 19th century

 

At the turn of the eighteenth century, chocolate houses served as the local gathering-place for Tories plotting to take back the government from the Whig party which held sway after they established Parliamentary power over the monarchy (Glorious Revolution, 1688-89) and before the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714).

 

Among London's politicos, Whig-turned-Tory Jonathan Swift drank in as much as cacophony as cacao and used it to ink his satirical pen. In career bookends A Tale of a Tub (1704) and “The Drapier's Letters” (1724) Swift portrays eighteenth-century chocolate houses not as sites of political intrigue, but as playgrounds of the rich. In Tub, the old man’s three allegorical sons (Peter, Martin, and Jack for Catholicism, Martin Luther, and John Calvin) have their wanton way--which features chocolate--in London:

 

They wrote, and rallied, and rhymed, and sung, and said, and said nothing; they drank, and fought, and slept, and swore, and took snuff; they went to new plays on the first night, haunted the chocolate-houses, beat the watch; they bilked hackney-coachmen, ran in debt with shopkeepers, and lay with their wives; they killed bailiffs, kicked fiddlers down-stairs, ate at Locket’s, loitered at Will’s; they talked of the drawing-room and never came there; dined with lords they never saw; whispered a duchess and spoke never a word; exposed the scrawls of their laundress for billet-doux of quality; came ever just from court and were never seen in it; attended the levee sub dio; got a list of peers by heart in one company, and with great familiarity retailed them in another. (71, emphasis mine)

 

Figured among the debauched English privileges Swift calls out in “Drapier’s Letters,” are exhibitionism and gaming: "excepting the advantage of going now and then to an opera, or sometimes appearing behind a crowd at court, or adding to the ring of coaches in Hyde Park, or losing their money at the chocolate house, or getting news, votes, and minutes about five days before us in Dublin,” there is no reason to live in London (171).

 

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress, Plate 6, Scene in a Gaming House, 1735.

 

The elitism of chocolate was nothing new. Moctezuma served it to Cortés, who served it up as precious booty to the Spanish crown, whose financial and human exploitation of plantations fed a drinking habit that spread through the Castilian and then greater Continental elite. It had been a political pawn from the start. For English writers of the seventeenth century, consuming chocolate had the allure of treason insofar as Protestants needed a solid nationalist reason to defect from coffee and espouse a drink brought to Europe by Inquisition Spain. They found one in the robust economy of the chocolate trade. The stakes in London circa 1700 were higher still as Whigs and Tories turned the nation against itself. Swift’s personal writings log a sustained account of how chocolate took and flourished on St. James, namely as the choice of the faithful Tory against the coffee-drinking Whig.

 

By his own account, he frequented chocolate houses, bought chocolate for sick friends, and served it as a sort of signature treat to visitors. He sometimes catalogued the goings on in and around the St. James's “chocolatehouses” (Letter IX, XXVIII, XXXVI, XLI, & XLIV) and referenced White’s (XXVIII & XXXVI) and Ozinda’s (XLIV) by name. Like Madame de Sévigné, he wrote about chocolate in a journal composed as letters. Swift's address a young woman, Esther Johnson, and another with whom Johnson lived and traveled, Rebecca Dingley. Swift had met and tutored Johnson as a young girl while employed as the secretary to Sir William Temple at his Moor Park estate in Farnham, England. They became close friends. When Swift returned to Ireland in 1702 Johnson and Dingley accompanied him. They remained there while Swift conducted his business in England.

 

When Anglican Queen Anne dismissed many of the Whigs from Parliament in 1710 Swift found himself at the center of political power and began to write about it. Between that time and his return to Dublin to assume the Deanship of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1714 when the Queen died, he sent Johnson and Dingley a 3-year epistolary broadside of London’s political upheaval and his own glories under the Tory Parliament. The collected letters were published posthumously in 1766 under the title, A Journal to Stella* (Swift’s nickname for Esther Johnson).

 

Swift’s own buying, selling, and consumption of chocolate comes up in letters addressed to Dingley, although scholars argue that a letter to one was a letter to both women, particularly as Johnson had weak eyesight at a young age (Letter VI, Oct. 10, 1710). Dingley, her constant companion, would read them to her. Letters cover days' or weeks' worth of activity and fill many pages each. Twenty of them take up the Irishman's dealings with chocolate.

 

Cacaosophy’s next two posts during this amorous month, “The Case of the Unarrived Cure” (2/14) and “Two Cups Too Many” (4/21), will catalogue the Swiftian chocolate odyssey from September 1710 to March 1713.

 

 

*The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift. Eds. Thomas Sheridan, John Nichols, et al. Volume 14-15. London, 1803.

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