London's Chocolate Houses

Towards the end of the [seventeenth] century, chocolate houses began to spring up, rivaling the coffeehouses the city had known since about 1650. The two kinds of establishments had much in common. Both offered food as well as their special beverages; often card playing, dice and other gambling; and talk, always talk, talk about everything from poetry to gossip, politics to business.
Chocolate houses were central to London's gregarious- all-male gregarious-social life of the time. The patron, entering, would toss a penny on the counter to pay for admission to the place and the right to riffle through the free newssheets. Then he would pay for his chocolate, which wasn't cheap (The English government, like the Spanish, found it a lucrative tax item), and join a table of cronies to sip and chat.
Many of the patrons were the dashing, sporty young gentlemen called "bloods" in the era's slang. Their normal dinnertime was at three or four in the afternoon; by six they'd be carousing and gambling in the chocolate houses around Covent Garden or St. James's Street. Not surprisingly, things sometimes got too energetic. One night at the Royal Chocolate House, hangout for a wild band of bloods, a gambling dispute exploded into swordplay and three of the chaps were cut down. In the midst of it all one Colonel Cunningham sat blinking, fortunately with his devoted footman standing by. The stout fellow carried his colonel bodily through the whooshing swords and out of the room, uncut and undaunted. The Royal Guards were called in. When their please and threats didn't quiet the free-for-all, they swung their musket butts, knocking down bloods right and left. Quetzalcoatl, in the Land of Gold, must have looked down in horror at the brawl into which his xocoatl had fallen among the unruly British.
As a matter of fact, though the Aztecs did think xocoatl was intoxicating, it seems unlikely that the bloods were inflamed by mere chocolate. Probably their drink was made, not of sugar and spice, but of wine and other spirits diluting the chocolate; it was the seventeenth-century Englishman's mode. But not all the chocolate houses were so rowdy. Some of the more aristocratic ones in the West End even banished smoking from their premises. And two- White's and the Cocoa Tree- attained real eminence.
White's opened in 1697 as a chocolate house like any other, with gambling and the rest, run by Francis White. By 1709 the place stood out enough that when Richard Steele began to publish his boulevard newspaper The Tatler [sic] that year, in the first issue he promised that "all accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment shall be under the article of White's Chocolate House." Many of the paper's early issues were datelined White's, where Steele wrote them.
When Francis White died in 1711, his widow took over and lifted the place up the social ladder. Soon all London was talking about the fashionable society to be met there. The lady rose, too, being known first as the "Widow White," then "Mrs. White" , and finally "Madam White." She was so confident of her house's appeal that she raised the admission price from the usual penny, and even more of the gilded set glided through her doors. White's trendiness was certified by newspaper ads for London's glossiest amusements, which listed "Mrs. White's Chocolate House, in St. James's Street" as the place to buy tickets- for opera performances at the Haymarket theater, for instance. When the London producer of Handel's operas switched his line of work, he remember that. He was an emigrant Swiss named John James Heidegger, and he quickly became the talk of the town as the aristocracy's professional master of the revels, a sort of early Elsa Maxwell. To make sure that admission cards to his balls, ridottos, and masquerades got only into the right hands, he issued them at White's. Those who didn't plan to attend were requested kindly to turn in their cards at White's as well, lest the wrong people get hold of them and crash his carefully cast galas.
Snobbish didn't mean stuffy, of course. IT was perfectly fine for the right people to do the wrong things, so long as they did them stylishly. Gambling at White's, for example. In 1733 the place was still so well known for high-toned high stakes that the painter William Hogarth utilized it as a ready-made metaphor. In A Rake's Progress, his morality-play series of eight satiric engravings depicting the joys and dissipation of a blood, he set the gambling sequence in White's.

-pp. 21- 23, London's Chocolate Houses in Chocolate: An Illustrated History by Marcia and Frederic Morton (1986)

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