Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love, War, and Chocolate

Happy Valentine's Day to my readers! In honor of the day, I wanted to put together a post about the history of chocolate in the Great War. Information on the kinds of chocolate distributed to soldiers in the British Army is not as easy to come by as I assumed, so this will be a work in progress. For now, though, I can offer this image from the Suburban Birmingham Project, a history website featuring various artifacts relevant to Birmingham, England's past. In it, female employees of Cadbury's Chocolate pack boxes with chocolate and books for soldiers.

 Cadbury employees assembling packages for soldiers, ca. 1915-18.
 As Suburban Birmingham's information about this image states,
"As soon as war broke out and troops were deployed overseas, Cadbury Bros began producing ‘chocolate for the troops’. These gifts continued to be distributed throughout the duration of the war and in total 20,000 parcels were sent out to troops on the front, as well as to those who were wounded and recovering at home or in hospital."
Even before the Great War, chocolate was often sent to soldiers. Like the Princess Mary Gift Box distributed at Christmas, 1914, the Boer War's Queen Victoria Chocolate Tin contained a gift of chocolate for British troops engaged in South Africa in 1899-1900. The Canadian Anglo-Boer War Museum's website has some interesting details and images related to this earlier instance of chocolate's role in wartime. The BBC's "History of the World" web resource features a nice image of the tin:

Queen Victoria Chocolate Tin, ca. 1899-1900. BBC

Chocolate was seen as a valuable gift to soldiers for many reasons. Though we bemoan this reality today, the confection supplies a boost of sugar and calories, which could help revive a hungry or fatigued soldier. It is also a source of comfort and/or pleasure, a small pick-me-up for a hospital patient, for instance. 

After the war, Cadbury's purchased what was probably its greatest competitor in the commercial chocolate "wars," Fry's Cocoa. Both companies had been started by prominent Quaker families of Northern England. Slightly older than Cadbury's, having been founded in the eighteenth century, J.S. Fry and Sons, Ltd. was based in Bristol, England. In 1919, the two cocoa titans merged together as the British Chocolate and Cocoa Company.

Another interesting aspect of Cadbury's history is the model village of Bournville, built in Birmingham during the late Victorian period by George and Richard Cadbury. Ground-breaking for its time, the village was intended to support a wholesome lifestyle for factory workers. It included housing, schools, museums, churches, and sporting arenas, offering access to safe and healthful conditions and activities for those who worked in the Cadbury factories. The bulk of construction was completed by the time of the Great War, although the village continued to expand into the twentieth century.

Well, it is time to sign off for the moment. Do enjoy some chocolate or cocoa in honor of the holiday or simply in honor of the history of this confection and its importance to the Ghosts of 1914.

© Fiona Robinson

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