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The Case of the Unarrived Cure

Among other woes once the Glorious Revolution ended in a Declaration of Rights that imposed permanent Protestant rule over England and penal law on Ireland, Dubliners had a hard time procuring chocolate. We know this because Jonathan Swift spent many hours of his life in London worrying about a shipment he had sent to Stella in Ireland. Although scholars debate the nature of the relationship, the bond between Swift and Stella lasted a lifetime and may well have been deeper than fraternal love. The story of chocolate in Swift's 1710-11 letters is the story of his devotion to Stella. Cacaosophy's Valentine's Day post is bound up with sending chocolate across great distances for love and the challenges of eighteenth-century shipping.

Swift and Stella – a Modern Post-Mortem, composed by the Human Remains Services Ireland (HRSI). Creepy and on Facebook.

Before the inception of his correspondence with Johnson and Dingley and attested in the first letter of September 1710, Stella suffered from a weakened constitution. Where we enter the scene, Dingley has prescribed and requested of Swift a familiar seventeenth-century antidote: chocolate. On September 29th in a letter begun on the 21st, Swift responds that he has received the commission and will fulfill it.

September 21, 1710, Letter IV, Volume 14

(29th) I wish MD* a merry Michaelmas. I dined with Mr. Addison, and Jervas the painter, at Addison's country place; and then came home, and writ more to my lampoon. I made a Tatler since I came: guess which it is, and whether the bishop of Clogher smokes it. I saw Mr. Sterne** to day: he will do as you order, and I will give him chocolate for Stella's health. He goes not these three weeks. I wish I could send it some other way. (211)

Newly arrived again in London as a Whig but realigning his loyalties with the Tories in power, Swift frequents the home of his close friend, the writer Joseph Addison. He is nurturing his talent for lampoons and whipped up a contribution to Jonathan Steele's The Tatler.** The Bishop of Clogher at the time, St. George Ashe, had been Swift's tutor and remained a mentor and friend. Deliciously for our purposes here, he is rumored to have performed a secret marriage between Swift and Stella in 1716.

Indeed, no amount of hobnobbing and notoriety pushed Stella far from Swift's mind. He shifts directly from his media attention to the "order" to send chocolate for Stella's health. The wording suggests a certain urgency and regret, as though Stella in Dublin could really use the chocolate from London right away.

Herman Moll, The Roads of Great Britain, c.1720

Herman Moll, The Roads of Great Britain, c.1720. Creative Commons.

Alas, in 1710, travel took time; truly, in 21st-century terms, a great deal of time. Even health issues demanding immediate attention hunkered down in wait until missives moved hand-to-hand to announce the issue, the right people traversed land and sea to respond, and the pertinent, often hard-to-find materia medica could be procured. Shuttling anything over 360 miles from London to Dublin, Swift’s letters reveal, called for the forbearance of a saint.

September 30, 1710, Letter V

(Oct. 4th) Pray, dear MD, when I occasionally give you a little commission mixed with my letters, do not forget it, as that to Morgan and Joe, &c. for I write just as I can remember, otherwise I would put them all together. I was to visit Mr. Sterne to day, and gave him your commission about handkerchiefs; that of chocolate I will do myself, and send it him when he goes, and you will pay me when the givers bread, &c. To night I will read a pamphlet, to amuse myself. God preserve your dear healths. (218)

The beginning of October came and two weeks in, chocolate for Stella had yet to be procured, much less reach the hands of a carrier. That would take Swift purchasing it and putting in the hands of Mr. Sterne (Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral before Swift), who also traveled between London and Ireland. Here, as in later letters, Swift notes the other contents that accompanied chocolate on the journey in the parcels he sent. In this case there were handkerchiefs, which could be left to Sterne to acquire, while Swift takes care of the chocolate himself. Later letters reveal possible reasons why he handles the chocolate commission.

October 10, 1710, Letter VI

(16th) I forgot that I bought six pounds of chocolate for Stella, and a little wooden box; and I have a great piece of Brazil tobacco for Dingley, and a bottle of palsy-water for Stella: all which, with the two handkerchiefs that Mr. Sterne has bought, and you must pay him for, will be put in the box directed to Mrs. Curry's, and sent by Dr. Hawkshaw***, whom I have not seen; but Sterne has undertaken it. The chocolate is a present, madam, for Stella. (233-34)

Though he forgot to mention it for nearly a week into the October 10th letter, finally, in mid-October Swift readied the chocolate shipment. It weighed in at a whopping 6 pounds. Stella would have chocolate enough to make many gallons of the hot beverage. An eighteenth-century drinker bought chocolate as a paste already combined with other ingredients and ready to mix with water and drink. Once the beans were roasted, shelled, crushed, ground with cane sugar and spices like red pepper, and dried as a tablet or cake, it could be stored in a cupboard for weeks. Fresh cacao beans tended to spoil in transit across the vast ocean or, if they survived, could be degraded and produce an inferior drink, something European’s learned the hard way over the seventeenth century (see William Hughes).

American Heritage Chocolate Tablet

Chocolate Tablet. Reproduced today by Mars and sold at Mt. Vernon as

American Heritage Chocolate Tablets

They could be roasted and shipped or prepared directly as a paste, dried, and then transported. Some believed the only way to ensure high quality chocolate was to import tablets made on site near Caribbean cacao plantations. If chocolate houses imported the beans, they also had to import spices and prepare the tablets themselves to sell it as a brew-at-home hot chocolate start. Both methods cost the patron dearly with tablets made affordable by miniaturizing them to 2- to 4-ounce pieces.

Swift dropped a bundle for 6lbs. of Stella’s health booster—though, unlike the hankies, the chocolate was a gift—and a lot for Dingey’s fine tobacco, as Brazilian was hailed as the best of the other major West Indies import. But as a frequenter of chocolate houses, he had ready access to suppliers of both.

Palsy-water, a complex elixir to treat all manner of frailty and, yes, palsies, was likely the least expensive of the expedited cures because one version could be made with exclusively domestic ingredients.

This letter additionally reveals one factor in 18th-century shipping that calls for patience: packages awaited a friend taking the same journey and changed hands along the way. This box began in Swift and Sterne's hands, then arrived at Mrs. Curry's to be sent by--that is, with--Dr. Hawkshaw. A network of four people handled it before it ever began its journey.

October 31, 1710, Letter VIII

(Nov 3rd) I have put MD's commissions in a memorandum paper. I think I have done all before, and remember nothing but this to day about glasses and spectacles and spectacle cases. I have no commission from Stella, but the chocolate and handkerchiefs; and those are bought, and I expect they will be soon sent. I have been with, and sent to, Mr. Sterne, two or three times to know, but he was not within. Odds my life, what am I doing? I must go write and do business. (251)

More than two months into the promise of restorative chocolate, the package “will soon be sent.” Odd my life, what was Mr. Sterne doing? Swift squarely blames him for not putting the package in the mail and notes further that he remains unresponsive to inquiries. In the interim, more commissions have come from Dingley for spectacles and cases, perhaps delaying the process, but everything is in order now for a swift departure.

He adds in Letter X (279) that the box has been handed off by Sterne to Hawkshaw (Nov. 26) and he hopes it arrives before this letter (December 2nd)--it would be posted on the 11th. No word received by mid-month, he inquired after Hawkshaw and the box on December 14th:

I hope Hawkshaw is in Dublin before now, and that you have your things, and like your spectacles: if you do not, you shall have better. I hope Dingley's tobacco did not spoil Stella's chocolate, and that all is safe: pray let me know. (Letter XI, 292)

Having spent the fall and better part of early winter endeavoring to relieve Stella’s fragile condition and without news of the parcel’s arrival, Swift falls prey to a new concern: contamination. Tobacco’s smell permeates everything, as any smoker or friend of a smoker or person-happening-by-a-smoker knows. It only now occurs to Swift that sending those two Mesoamerican delicacies together over the whole of the island of England and across the Irish Sea could well cause the Brazilian treat to ruin the taste of the Caribbean 6lb-tablets.

On December 22nd, in the same letter, comes a reminder that he would appreciate word on whether or not the chocolate spoiled and whether or not Stella has drunk and benefited from it: “And have you had your chocolate?” (299).

He was right to worry, but on eighteenth-century time, since no word of the possibly-spoiled chocolate would be forthcoming until 1711's spring thaw.

To begin the year right by tying up loose ends, on January 1, in addition to sending New Year's cheer, Sterne revealed a troublesome setback: Hawkshaw lost the package.

The D—— burst Hawkshaw. He told me he had not the box; and the next day Sterne told me he had sent it a fortnight ago.... See how far I am forced to stand from Stella, because I am afraid she thinks poor Presto has not been careful about her little things; I am sure I bought them immediately according to order, and packed them up with my own hands, and sent them to Sterne, and was six times with him about sending them away. (312)

At least six times. And a few times more, such as February 10th: "I hope before this [letter] comes to you, you will have got your box and chocolate, and Presto will take more care another time." (353)

In an ironic twist worthy of the satirist, “Presto” refers to Swift. Dean Swift, editor of the 1768 edition of the first 40 letters and a family cousin, added it to the manuscripts and it stuck. In this particular sentence, the moniker could not be less appropriate.

Packet Boat, 18thC

Packet Boat, the Eighteenth-Century Postal Service

On an undisclosed date, the package was eventually recovered and sent forward on its now epic journey. In the meantime, spring had sprung along with a bit of frustration:

March 24th, 1711, Letter XIX, Volume 15

(26th) Don't you begin to see the flowers and blossoms of the field? How busy should I now be at Laracor? No news of your box? I hope you have it, and are this minute drinking the chocolate, and that the smell of the Brazil tobacco has not affected it. I would be glad to know whether you like it, because I would send you more by people that are now every day thinking of going to Ireland; therefore pray tell me, and tell me soon: and I will have the strong box. (3)

In other words, he will send the next one with anyone but Mr. Sterne. Amid fantasies of Stella drinking unspoiled chocolate in blooming fields, he inquires after it again on April 5th: "Nor yet, have not you the box; I wish Mrs. Edgworth had the —. But you have it now, I suppose: and is the chocolate good, or has the tobacco spoiled it?" (11).

Swift never does record the news that the box did arrive and Stella did drink her chocolate at some point in the spring or summer. Luckily, when he designs to send more, the description of what he buys illuminates that fact that Stella must have received it unspoiled and sampled the first shipment: she did not like the tablet made with sugar.

October 23rd, 1711, Letter XXXIII

(Nov. 3rd) Then there’s the Miscellany, an apron for Stella, a pound of chocolate without sugar for Stella, a fine snuff-rasp of ivory, given me by Mrs. St. John for Dingley, and a large roll of tobacco, which she must hide or cut shorter out of modesty, and four pair of spectacles for the Lord knows who. There’s the cargo, I hope it will come safe. (177)

More than one year after he first signed on for the job of supplying Stella with chocolate, it appears that exactly one box has reached her and was not entirely to her liking. This time, he would send considerably less of a new recipe.

The protracted enormity of what was at first a simple commission kept Swift's mind on chocolate and on Stella and on Stella getting her chocolate for thirteen months, but then no more news of Stella and chocolate comes through the correspondence. Instead, in the next year (and Cacaosophy post), when Presto does apparently manage regular efficient shipments to Ireland, he talks instead about his own consumption of chocolate, which was as easy to procure in London as the political foibles that he turned with his pen into lampoons.

This Valentine's Day, take it from Swift: deliver the chocolate in person.


*MD, Swift’s abbreviation for both women. My dears…?

**The Tatler (1709-1711), founded by Richard Steele, "tattled" on and judged the behaviors of the politicos, literati, and intelligentsia that frequented coffee- and the recent chocolate houses. Steele's social commentaries took the form of sophisticated moral essays written under the name Isaac Bickerstaff, which Swift had already coined for his early satires. The moral essay tradition, if not that magazine, thrived when Steele and Joseph Addison co-founded a new, more widely circulated magazine, The Spectator (1711-1712). The Whiggish moral climate of both publications and Swift's embrace of the Tories would soon complicate his visits to Addison, but not their long-term friendship.

***Enoch Sterne, Collector of County Wicklow

****Hawkshaw, elusive and dubious loser of important packages

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