Librarians Find 120-Year-Old British Chocolates among Donated Papers

australian poet left victorian-era sweets in box of documents

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Australian poet’s box of documents given to a library had chocolates from 1900, UPI reported. The Victorian-era sweets were in a box of papers donated to the National Library of Australia, last year. Our love of chocolate dates back 4,000 years.

Cacao bean close up
Chocolate was first extracted from cocoa beans 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesoamerica and used by ancient civilizations as a medicine and during rituals. Photo By freedomnaruk / Shutterstock

According to UPI, a box of donated papers from the late Australian poet and journalist A.B. “Banjo” Paterson also contained a tin of chocolates originally commissioned by Queen Victoria about 120 years ago. “The chocolate was still in its straw packaging and silver foil wrapping,” the article said. “The tins were commissioned by Britain’s Queen Victoria and sent to soldiers in South Africa during the Boer War around 1900 as a gift to the troops.

“It is believed Paterson most likely bought the chocolate from one of the soldiers while working as a war correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.”

While most people wouldn’t eat chocolates that old, humanity does have quite a sweet tooth for the fruit of the cacao tree. Traces of cacao beans used by humans have been dated as early as 2,000 BCE.

The Origins of Chocolate

“The cacao beans were not initially used for sweet treats, but rather were initially harvested to make a somewhat bitter, frothy drink,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Ancient Maya and Aztec beverages used fermented cacao seeds as the base of their drinks, the name of which can be translated into something like ‘bitter water.’

“They roasted and ground the beans creating a paste that was then mixed with water, honey, vanilla, allspice, and sometimes chili peppers.”

Dr. Crittenden said that Christopher Columbus was the first European to come into contact with chocolate. He and his son seized a canoe in the Bay of Honduras sometime between 1502 and 1504 that was full of cocoa beans, which he believed were almonds. He brought them back to Europe, though they initially went unnoticed next to the spices, gold, and silver he brought back.

“When it finally did catch on, cocoa was a highly valued drink,” Dr. Crittenden said. “This is also when it started becoming sweeter, as Spanish conquistadors are rumored to have been the first to add sugar cane to the drink.”

Dutched Chocolate

Cacao has mostly been harvested by hand since it was discovered, since a large part of the process is removing the right pods that hang from the cacao tree and opening them up to extract the wet beans. However, machines have come into use in the industry of producing chocolate.

“Between 1828 and 1829, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Van Houten created the very first chocolate press,” Dr. Crittenden said. “It was designed to remove the natural fat from chocolate, the so-called cocoa butter. This made it much cheaper and much faster to produce in large quantities.”

She said that Van Houten also changed powdered chocolate by adding alkaline salts to it, which gave the chocolate a milder taste and changed it to a more reddish hue. This process is called Dutched chocolate in honor of Van Houten’s heritage.

“It’s this cocoa that is used most frequently today, in hot cocoa, ice cream, and for baking,” Dr. Crittenden said.

Chocoholics have been on the rise ever since.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.