Boston and the Chocolate Factory:
Baker’s Chocolate Reminisced
by Irene Costello
One could argue easily that chocolate is more American than apple pie. If so, then certainly colonial Boston set the stage in North America for our love affair with this exotic food. It began in 1765 with a chance meeting between John Hannon, an Irish immigrant, and James Baker, a Dorchester physician and storeowner.
Trained in London in the art of chocolate making, Hannon complained that there were no chocolate factories in the New World. Well aware of the health benefits and medicinal use of chocolate, Dr. Baker saw an opportunity and collaborated with Hannon to set up chocolate production in one of the mills along the Neponset River. They couldn't have known that their partnership would create a legacy lasting more than 340 years.
FROM THE NEW WORLD TO THE OLD AND BACK
Baker's Chocolate became America's oldest chocolate company, but the story of chocolate goes back even further. Legends describe how the ancient Aztecs and their predecessors the Mayans in Mesoamerica learned the mysteries of the cacao tree from their god Quetzalcoatl who taught them to harvest cacao pods, and ferment, dry and roast the beans. The next steps were to separate the roasted beans from their shells and then to grind the oily cocoa nibs on a flat stone mortar. Grinding produces friction that melts the cocoa butter and turns the nibs into a thickened paste. Other ingredients may be added to flavor the liquid before shaping and allowing to it dry into a solid cake.
To make their beverage, the Aztecs broke off chunks of chocolate, added water and whipped it into a frothy drink they called xocalatl, meaning warm or bitter liquid. Sipping the light and airy froth elicited an exquisite sense of well-being. The Aztecs so revered their concoction that they used the cacao beans as currency and reserved the beverage for the elite class.
Enter Christopher Columbus, followed soon after by Hernando Cortez, who in his conquest of the Aztecs in the 16th century discovered their precious xocolatl. He returned to Spain and presented the cacao beans to King Charles V. The Spanish court found the drink too bitter for their tastes. They added sugar, which made it more palatable and produced the same exquisite effects that Cortez experienced in Mexico. The Spanish bestowed all sorts of health and medicinal properties on this mysterious New World beverage, which quickly became a luxury item for the elite and a closely guarded secret in Spain for at least a 100 years. Their secret was so well kept that, back on the high seas, when other Europeans overtook Spanish ships they would throw the sacks of cacao beans overboard in disgust-having no idea the value of what they had captured.
Before the 17th century Europeans drank ale, hard cider or wine for breakfast, until three other exciting nonalcoholic beverages emerged: tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Together with tea from the Orient and coffee from Africa, the three beverages changed European tastes and customs forever. They shared stimulating qualities that gave them curative powers for all sorts of ailments including headaches, depression, irregularity and even smallpox. They also became highly fashionable-each with its own set of expensive accessories from silver pots, serving trays and spoons to porcelain cups and saucers. Only the wealthiest households could afford these new luxuries in the 17th century. Chocolate's secrets eventually leaked out when, through a succession of royal marriages, it was taken to France as part of a dowry. Louis XIV's royal chefs rushed to create their own versions of this tantalizing new beverage. From France it quickly spread to the rest of Europe. In England chocolate houses became popular places for politicians, businessmen and intellectuals to socialize over pots of chocolate. These establishments (along with coffee houses) were the forerunners of cafés and bars.
Europe raced to gain a steady supply of cacao to keep pace with the seemingly endless demand for chocolate. Soon France, England and the Dutch caught up with Spain with their own cacao and sugar plantations in the New World. As its popularity grew production methods improved, making the beverage more affordable to a growing middle class. The basic process stayed consistent, but the nuances of roasting, flavoring and refining varied greatly and family-run businesses carefully guarded their secret recipes.
OUR FOUNDING FATHERS ADORED CHOCOLATE
In North America English colonists loved chocolate too, and in the early 18th century it was an established beverage throughout the 13 colonies. Direct trade routes from theWest Indies and the absence of tariffs made cacao more affordable in the colonies than in Europe. Unencumbered by monopolies, guilds or patents, chocolate making in the colonies had relatively low barriers to entry.
For sure, attempts were made to manufacture chocolate. The Brown family of Providence, Rhode Island, had a chocolate mill, and other port cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore undoubtedly tried similar ventures. Yet by 1765 chocolate making in the colonies was still done in small batches for home consumption and sold within a few miles to nearby merchants and apothecaries. That's where we rejoin John Hannon and Dr. Baker on the eve of the American Revolution.
The Neponset River running between Dorchester and Milton proved to be a center for innovation in colonial Boston. Using the river's water power, a network of factories supported essential industries such as grist mills, gunpowder and paper to luxury products such as playing cards, the pianoforte, a bass viol and chocolate. With financial backing from Baker, Hannon leased space from one of the mills, bought equipment and set about making chocolate. He wrapped his bars and labeled them "Hannon's Best" with a money-back guarantee-a bold move, considering the quality of chocolate varied greatly at that time.
Chocolate was a seasonal business with the hot summer months limiting production even in New England, which had a cooler climate than its sister colonies to the south. Chocolate also had a short shelf life. The high fat content or cocoa butter melted easily, and the paper wrapper offered no oxygen barrier, making the product prone to rancidity and to absorbing nearby odors. Likewise, refining methods varied greatly, and less scrupulous producers often adulterated their chocolate. A skilled chocolatier, Hannon set out to create a pure and refined product, one that he could promise "if the product does not prove good, the money will be returned."
Hannon's business prospered, especially as tensions mounted with England. It was considered unpatriotic to drink tea around the time of the Boston Tea Party, making chocolate a popular alternative. Many founding fathers extolled chocolate's virtues. Ben Franklin sold it in his Philadelphia shop. Thomas Jefferson wrote "The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain."When war broke out, GeneralWashington ordered a steady supply of chocolate rations for his soldiers. Light, nutritious and highly caloric, it was the perfect food for an army on the move.
With the war came interruptions to trade and shortages of cacao beans along the eastern seaboard. Boston, however, fared better than the other colonies after the British evacuated and moved the war effort south. At the end of the war several more chocolate factories appeared, and the city emerged as the center for a reliable and high-quality product. By this time John Hannon had mysteriously disappeared, presumably lost at sea on a trade expedition. James Baker took over the company, and so began four generations of family ownership that lasted through the 19th century.
Two executives-Walter Baker and Henry Lillie Pierce-stand out as key figures who led the company to greatness. Both men ran Baker's for nearly 30 years. In 1824Walter Baker took ownership from his father. He continued Hannon's money-back guarantee policy and was known for his uncompromising quality standards. He also introduced products for eating as well as drinking. Following the French Revolution, drinking chocolate waned as it symbolized the life of the idle rich, and chocolate bars for eating increased their appeal. The Baker Chocolate line grew with new items such as Spiced Cocoa Sticks, Homeopathic Cocoa, French and Spanish Chocolate and a sweet chocolate especially favored by children called German's Sweet Chocolate, named after its inventor, Samuel German.
Walter also expanded distribution to a network of sales agents and distributors along the East Coast, but also moved west as he enthusiastically followed the gold rush to California. He embraced technical innovations, and in 1843 Baker's Chocolate was delivered for the first time by train. He aggressively used advertising to market his products in local and then national newspapers. Exhibiting a genius for promotion he conceived a creative packaging idea using decorative tins that were reusable. During his tenure Walter Baker increased the brand's identity and built a network of loyal customers across the young country.
Henry Lillie Pierce ran the company from 1854 until his death in 1895. What Walter Baker did nationally, Pierce elevated to a global scale. He turbocharged the marketing effort, advertising not only in newspapers but magazines and billboards. He adopted the use of trade cards, decorative and brightly colored sales materials, and published a series of recipe books using women cooking instructors and cookbook authors.
Baker Chocolate identified with the American housewife by providing general cooking techniques and time-saving tips. Pierce expanded Walter's idea of decorative tins by introducing other giveaway items such as cups and saucers, serving trays, bookends, spoons, cake stands, chocolate molds and even toy trains. The list was constantly refreshed to keep the customer coming back for more. By the 1890s, Baker's annual marketing budget averaged $180,000-equivalent to $3.7 million today.
One of Pierce's most important contributions began in the 1870s with a trip to Europe, where he was inspired by a painting. La Belle Chocolatier (The Beautiful Chocolate Girl) told a romantic tale of an 18th century Austrian prince who fell in love and married a young waitress from a Viennese chocolate house. Pierce trademarked the image and used it on all Baker's packaging and promotional materials. He then employed women to demonstrate the products dressed as La Belles, literally making the trademark come to life. His avant-garde tactics were so successful that to this day La Belle ranks up there with the Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima trademarks.
Baker's relentless pursuit of quality paid off when the company started receiving honors for its products. Seeing promise in world's fairs and expositions, Pierce boldly used them to enter competitions. In 1867 Baker chocolate and cocoa won silver medals for quality in Paris, France. In 1873 the products received the highest awards at the Vienna Exposition, followed by the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. By 1916 the company had received 57 awards in Europe and the United States.
With success came competition. Likewise the industrial revolution introduced new technologies that continually improved the chocolate business. Other chocolate makers set up shop not just in Boston but other major cities like Chicago. As in Europe, company recipes were closely guarded secrets, and corporate espionage became common practice throughout the industry. Pierce's response was to watch patiently and eventually acquire his closest competitors on the Neponset.
In 1895, with no family heir apparent, Pierce incorporated the company. Upon doing so he said, "The die is cast. Walter Baker & Company [is] now a corporate body. They say corporations have no souls, but they outlive men, and I have done what I think best for the business and for everyone. "Within a year he died of a stroke. The corporation was acquired by a syndicate of investors run by the Forbes family for $4.75 million. They held onto it for another 25 years before selling to Postum Cereal (later General Foods) for $11 million.
While not as innovative in its management practices as in it marketing, Baker Chocolate by all accounts was a good place to work. From 1850 to 1911 the company grew from 11 full-time employees to 872. The Chocolate Village, as it became known, encouraged an employee friendly atmosphere with regular company outings, an internal newsletter called The Chocolate Press, a benevolent fund (the precursor to health insurance) and annual bonuses. The acquisition by General Foods introduced a full spectrum of employee benefits similar to what we know today: sick leave and vacation pay, shortened work weeks, pension and profit-sharing plans and health insurance.
The Baker Chocolate mills closed in 1965 when General Foods consolidated divisions and relocated to Delaware. The brand and the line still exist, but it is now owned by Kraft Foods, which moved operations to Canada. The lower mills buildings remained vacant for several years having recently undergone conversion into condominiums and office space.
Baker Chocolate may have left town, but a new exciting bean-to-bar company has stepped in to fill the void. Founded in 2006,Taza Chocolate in Somerville makes artisan Mexican-style chocolate (See Edible Boston, Winter 2007). Owners Alex Whitmore and Larry Slotnick have created a business built on sustainable business practices. To that end Taza produces 100 percent stone-ground organic chocolate using the best ingredients and compensating growers fairly for their work. For more information visit them at tazachocolate.com.
IMPORTANT CHOCOLATE TERMS
- Cacao-refers to the tree, its fruit or pods and the beans inside the pod.
- Winnowing-the process of separating the shells from the nibs inside.
- Chocolate-results from grinding roasted nibs into a paste. From there it is poured into molds and hardened back into solid form. In its rustic state it has a gritty texture.
- Theobroma-"food of the gods," is the chemical compound in chocolate that along with other flavanols promotes energy and enhances mood. It has long enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac.
- Cocoa-In 1828 Dutch chocolatier Coenraad Van Houten invented a press to squeeze the fat (cocoa butter) out of roasted beans and then pulverize the remaining nibs into a fine powder. The process, known as Dutching, helped reduce prices-making cocoa affordable to an even wider market. It also greatly increased chocolate's culinary use in recipes and desserts.
- Milk chocolate-invented in 1875 by Swiss chocolatiers Henri Nestle and Daniel Peter by adding sweetened condensed milk to chocolate to create a sweet, creamy confection that melts on the tongue. It was a runaway success, and chocolate makers everywhere raced to create their own version.
- White chocolate-also created by Nestle, is a confection of sweetened cocoa butter and other flavorings. It doesn't contain cocoa solids and is therefore not technically considered chocolate.
BOSTON LEADS THE WAY
In addition to the first chocolate factory Boston has a rich history of chocolate firsts:
- Boston Cream Pie-The official dessert of Massachusetts was created by Monsieur Sanzian, a French chef from the Parker House, in 1855.
- Brownies-The first recipe appeared in the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook written by Fanny Merritt Farmer, in 1896.
- White Chocolate-Frederick Hebert of Hebert Candies in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, introduced it to America after he sampled the cocoa butter confection on a trip to Switzerland, in 1935. Courtesy of Ted Galo, Head Conductor, Chocolate Tour, Old Town Trolley www.trolleytours.com
Irene Costello is co-owner of Effie’s Homemade and Ruby Chard Cooking Classes. After 20 years in the corporate world, Irene broke out to develop her passion for cooking. She holds a master’s degree in gastronomy and a certificate in culinary arts from Boston University. You can reach her at email@example.com.