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Buc'hoz and Cacao Economics

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz, a doctor of medicine and natural science by training, had every reason to write a book about chocolate in 1787. Though employed notably as the physician to king Stanislaw I of Poland, who was also the Duke of Lorraine, and then physician of Monsieur, the brother of Louis XVI and of the Count of Artois, he had a polymath’s interest in the nature of his region and beyond. Early on, he wrote on the flowers, medicinal plants, and even fossils from the region of Lorraine (Moody et al., 441). Rare among his peers was his interest in local “cosmetic flowers” or plants women could use as perfume, rouge, and even stain remover. With a view to disseminating useful botanical knowledge to people beyond the academies, he addressed his work on the plant kingdom to “Country gentlemen, Vicars, Family Men, and Farmers”* and published a weekly pamphlet called Nature Considered with news, books, and recipes (medical and culinary) on a range of topics from hygiene and gardening to animal husbandry.

By the middle of his career, he had expanded the reach of his writing to include plants from all over the world. He had interest in both the plants’ physical properties and what he called their “economic” properties, by which he meant their domestic applications (as part of home economics). From the perspective of his contemporaries he was best known as a botanist who compiled what his predecessors had done before him—not a particularly illustrious pursuit during a century that craved new knowledge. Be that as it may, from our vantage point, he was a remarkably ambitious compiler, publishing dozens of studies whose titles spread over 15 pages of the French National Library’s 1904 catalogue of printed books. By compiling his compilations during the 1770s, he eventually produced an 18-volume behemoth that he humbly called the World History of the Plant Kingdom, or New Physical and Economic Dictionary of all the Plants That Grow on the Surface of the Earth (Histoire universelle du règne végétal, ou nouveau dictionnaire physique et économique de toutes les plantes qui croissent sur la surface du globe, Paris, 1775-78).

His Essays of the uses and effects, positive and negative, of tobacco, coffee, cacao, and tea promises nothing particularly original in its title. In the introduction, in fact, he notes that it too is but the collection of essays, one for each plant, originally published in the General and Economic History of Plants. That History was itself published as part of the General and Economic History of the Three Kingdoms of Nature (Histoire générale et économique des trois règnes de la nature, Paris: Debure, 1779 ); that is, minerals, plants, and animals. Buc’hoz’s Essays locate cacao in what was by then a commonplace grouping with tobacco, coffee, and tea.

The section on cacao is comparatively long at 40 pages in the original edition and more detailed in its physical description of the plant—one of Buc’hoz’s particular interests—than those that come before it. As part of the household interest of the plant, he includes 16 recipes (124-131). This is the rare treatise—he cites a precedent in Quélus, 1720—that makes reference to the plant, cacao, rather than the product from it, chocolate, in its title, which follows the study’s botanical orientation to nature. His is also the first French treatise to use the tree’s modern sobriquet, Theobroma cacao, or “cacao food of the gods.” It says something of the image of cacao inherited by Buc’hoz’s generation that when Carl Linnaeus developed binominal nomenclature for a taxonomy of living organisms in the 1750s, he bestowed a divine title on that plant.

Part of the description of the cacao tree includes a lengthy discussion, taken from the writings of one Mademoiselle de Mérian, of hairy caterpillars, some black with red stripes and others yellow-green, that feed on them in the tropics (95) and a list of other “enemy” insects that will destroy its foliage (113). There are pages of discussion of its anatomy followed by a list of French authors of the century who detail how to grow the cacao tree in various habitats and soils (100-112) and how to transport a young plant to Europe (114). A single paragraph is devoted to “Les Américains” (pre-conquest Mesoamericans) who prepared chocolate to “such a dark color and wild flavor” that Spanish soldiers could not get used to it (116). He relates the story of how Maria Theresa of Spain, wife of Louis XIV, introduced cacao to France from her homeland (117). In other words, there is little in this treatise to suggest that cacao was not always a staple of European home economics.

While each section of this four-part treatise identifies its plant with great specificity, Buh’coz’s analytical method and vocabulary for describing them echoes throughout the chapters. Like Philippe Dufour before him, Buc’hoz has an interest in noting what this particular collection of fauna have in common. In fact, almost completely lost is the seventeenth-century sense of specific preparation methods that had to be to produce the drinks in the manner recommended by the source cultures. Instead, they have been folded into this naturalist’s notebook as crops, which, though farmed around the world, are part of the European almanac.

In 1787, Buc’hoz could readily, and with the full force of the recent American revolution in mind, identify them all as colonial crops with comparable cultivation methods. Tobacco, coffee, chocolate, and tea are similarly:

  1. Challenging to grow and harvest, which explains and crudely justifies the use of sharecroppers and slaves to pick the beans and leaves.

  2. Vulnerable to nature’s fauna in that they fall prey to similar enemy pests.

  3. Medicinally potent and also enjoyed as pleasures, a dual purpose they retain in Europe throughout the nineteenth century.

  4. And versatile in their culinary applications, making them all widely adaptable to the home pharmacy and recipe book.

Buc’hoz’s botanical analysis finds, as his title suggests, effects both positive and negative, for each plant. And he does so in such a way as to uproot them from their histories and locate them within recent European categories and economies. Stripped of their identities and their homelands’ habits, they are plants laid bare. Peeled back to their anatomies and their roots, tobacco, coffee, cacao, and tea—all products of tropical or sub-tropical climates—thus align nicely against the broader scheme of European botanical classification.

His compilation of plant studies finds a convenient social symbol for Buc’huz in the vessel used in 1787 to steep them all, the cafetière, or coffee pot; in the European tradesman skilled in their preparation, known as a cafétier, or coffee-man; and in the now infamous hot spots where they were all consumed over political argument on the eve of the French Revolution, the café.


*On the title page of the Histoire naturelle des végétaux.



Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz:

Nature Considered. La Nature Considérée sous ses différens aspects, ou Lettres sur les Animaux, les Végétaux et les Minéraux. Weekly, then monthly newsletter. Circulated 1771-1781.

Cosmetic Flowers, or Essay on Plants and Flowers Woman can Wear. La Toilette de flore, ou essai sur les plantes et les fleurs qui peuvent servir d'ornement aux dames. Paris: Valade, 1771.

Natural History of the Plant Kingdom. Histoire naturelle des végétaux. Paris: Costard, 1772.

Natural History of the Plant Kingdom, or New Physical and Economic Dictionary of all the plants that grow on the planet. Histoire Universelle du règne végétal ou nouveau dictionnaire physique et économique de toutes les plantes qui croissent sur la surface du globe. Paris: Brunet, 1775-1778.

General and Economic History of Plants [part of the General and Economic History of the Three Kingdoms of Nature]. Histoire générale et économique des trois règnes de la nature. Paris: Didot le fils, 1777.

Studies on the uses and effects, positive and negative, of tobacco, coffee, cacao, and tea. Dissertations sur l'utilité, et les bons et mauvais effets du tabac, du café, du cacao, et du thé. Paris, F. J. Desoer, 1787.

Vernier, François et Jean-Paul Klein. “Buc’hoz, médecin botaniste de Stanislas Roi de Pologne et Duc de Lorraine.” L.A.S.E.R. (Lorraine, Atlas, Suivi, Etudes & Recherches). Association des Botanistes Lorrain, 2010. Web.

Moody, Richard T. J., Cyril A. Walker, and Sandra D Chapman. “Fossil European Sea Turtles: A Historical Perspective.” Morphology and Evolution of Turtles. Eds. Donald B. Brinkman, Patricia A. Holroyd, and James D. Gardner, 439-458. Dordrecht, NL: Springer, 2013.

Catalogue général des livres imprimés de la Bibliothèque Nationale. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1904.

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