Chocolate for the Masses

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the cost of sugar and cacao suddenly dropped, making chocolate bars affordable to the masses in a way they hadn’t been before. Between economic shifts, more efficient manufacturing, and new marketing techniques, chocolate really became the product we know today.

Forrest Gump famously said “Life is like a box of chocolates.” That box of chocolates as we know it was invented by Louise Agostini. Her husband, Jean Neuhaus, created the first Belgian pralines. Neuhaus was a pharmacist who coated medicine with chocolate to make it more palatable, but in 1912 he began to experiment with powdered milk and other candy fillings. Within a year, a Swiss chocolatier mechanized the process and sold a box of chocolates, and in 1920 Agostini designed the “ballotin”—the molded plastic inset that her husband, and many other chocolatiers, used to keep chocolates from sliding around in their boxes.

Agostini and Neuhaus’s ballotins were beautiful displays of chocolate, perfect for display and gifting, but they weren’t the only Belgians to try innovative marketing. A company called Leonidas decided to bring chocolates to the masses at a reasonable price and with minimal packaging by selling it from an open counter on the street: a walk-up chocolate bar.

While the Belgians and Swiss made the proverbial box of chocolates, others developed their own machinery for mass production. Industrialization took its toll, though. In 1915, Heinrcih Stollwerck, one of five German brothers to develop early machinery for mass-producing chocolate bars, drowned in his own chocolate when a machine exploded.

Marketing and mechanization weren’t the only realms of innovation for the cacao industry. In 1925, the New York Cocoa Exchange was established for trading of cocoa futures. For people in the cacao industry, the Exchange offered an opportunity to hedge their bets against future price fluctuations. Unfortunately, it also gave speculators an opportunity to play the market, and if speculative trades aren’t sufficiently regulated they can harm both growers and buyers of cacao.

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