Category Archives: 18th century

The Color of its Countries: Chocolate, Clothing, and Personhood in the Eighteenth Century


No Man is ignorant that a Taylor is the Person that makes our Cloaths; to some he not only makes their Dress, but, in some measure, may be said to make themselves” Robert Campbell, 1747[1]

A curious thing happened in mid-eighteenth-century British colonial commerce: chocolate and chocolate items, such as pots and cups, virtually disappear from shipping records, while in those same records, chocolate appears as a color. In other words, the main use of the word “chocolate” is not as something to eat or drink, but to wear. While most color descriptions of cloth in these shipping records were common, generic terms such as “blue,” “black,” or “green,” both “brown” and “chocolate” appeared, each describing different kinds of cloth. “Brown” versus “chocolate” cloth identified different kinds of stuff and levels of quality for clothing. This new use of “chocolate” suggests that at a certain point, chocolate could say something in clothing that society had not marked quite in that way before. Because clothing is the most intimate yet public part of personhood, it embodies the ambiguities and contradictions of social selves.[2] A person’s dress, a kind of second skin, is an erotic, physical extension of the body into at times new and at times familiar terrain through transforming, revealing, restricting, and hiding intimate contours, a contradictory task of both blurring and bounding the body’s borders.[3] That the distinction in brown colors appeared in clothing suggests that a nuance in personhood was tied to chocolateness. This small semantic shift was part of larger trends in the changing popularity of brown in the eighteenth-century palette. Color, style, and texture of textiles and clothing offer a way to map out how chocolate became a part of the complex geography of territories of societal stricture, political aims, and personal desire.

The color brown did not maintain a consistent place in eighteenth century color schemes. Clothes became lighter and color palettes shifted over the course of the eighteenth century.[4] Roche documents that in 1700, for the French nobility the only colors more popular than browns were blacks, preferences true of domestic servants and wage-earners, while artisans and shopkeepers preferred blacks and grays more than brown.  In another part of the social scale, officeholders and professions preferred whites, grays, and blacks much more than browns.[5] A French morning dress in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exemplifies this preference with floral and fruit designs brocaded on brown silk and lisere ground.[6] Brown was a rich color.

BMFA_French_morning _dress

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection, Morning dress (robe à la français and petticoat) ca. 1740 (with later alterations) ID number 43.647a-b

By 1789, however, French preferences by class changed remarkably: among the nobility, browns ranked behind blacks, grays, whites, and even reds. The same pattern is true for domestics and wage earners, but for shopkeepers and artisans, brown was more common than red, and for professions, brown was preferred more than reds, grays, and yellows, greens, and blues.[7] The rejection of brown by the nobility and its adoption by the professions at the end of the century mirrors the revolutionary political and social transformations of the time; Rousseau recognized this as an acquisition of identity through the power of appearances and that political style had its equivalent in the domain of dress.[8]


Portrait of Johannes Lawyer (1684-1762). Probably 1710-1725. Collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg.

Despite very different local dynamics, parallel sartorial changes took place in many places across the Atlantic World. In the historic textiles and clothing in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, browns appear most prominently from about 1740-1760, complimented by vibrant, acid colors.[9] These brown examples included fancy ribbed silk and brocaded silk satin embroidered with silk polychrome dianthus, roses, and other flowers, Spitalfields Garthwaite and Asian silk damasks woven in large asymmetrical floral patterns, as well as one example of a silk ribbed tabby (plain) weave. By the end of the century, brown gowns were much less fanciful, occurring in conservative solid brown Quaker gowns, though still of silk. Late eighteenth-century examples from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston show a blossoming of printed cotton plain weaves with a brown background. The early pulse of interest in brown during the eighteenth century seems to be more restricted in types of fabric than later in the century, with the sartorial domain of brown settling into a broader yet more conservative, less exotic and more familiar place by the early nineteenth century–the comparatively dour and somewhat boring dress of widowed Quakers or relatively inexpensive cotton prints brightened with flowers and geometric patterns.

The fickleness of fashion illustrates more than just a process of emulation of elite tastes and sensibilities, as the preferences are not neatly inverted from the early to the late eighteenth century.[10] The increasing emphasis of fashion during the eighteenth century offered the opportunity for people to move through multiple identities, to cultivate the self within the turbulence of political and social mobility and biological change.[11] Roche observed that “status, gender, moral conduct, and education were conferred on clothing, particularly for religious, government, and high status individuals who authored historical accounts and for whom these distinctions mattered most”, but the pattern in preferences for color suggest that these concerns reached much farther than the upper echelons of society.[12]  To maintain stability in the subjective or public self was in fact the challenge, as social and biological personhood is constantly in flux. Within the context of rising consumerism, the impetus of self-discovery is peripatetic and transitory, a desire to consume, to wear for effect, to walk a mile in the shoes, then move on to the next country. From the seventeenth century, “clothing was at the centre of debates about wealth and poverty, excess and necessity, superfluity and necessity.”[13] Maintaining and creating personhood was driven by paradoxical desires for and changing values of economy and luxury, modesty and voluptuousness, wisdom and freshness, familiarity and novelty.

Disquiet about the intersection of body, clothes, and status intensified during the eighteenth century, spurred in part because the notion of “value” took on increasingly elastic meanings as unfamiliar material was incorporated with the familiar.[14] Unfamiliar or new elements included challenges to notions of political sovereignty, race, and class, exotic substances such as chocolate, and technological innovations that produced goods quickly and cheaply. Sumptuary laws of this period restricting dress by class and profession were attempts to assuage these fears. Early in the eighteenth century, Philip V, the first Bourbon king of Spain, decreed that a citizen’s class and dress conform, “so that his dress bespeak his profession, and nobles not be confused with plebeians, not rich with poor.”[15] In the case of the Spanish, concerns about racial passing brought “visual inspection to the forefront of governmentality.”[16] The goal was to stabilize and clarify social hierarchies by what was easily observable and ostensibly clearly read:

costume corresponds to the personage and ways of wearing colours, shapes and fabrics reveal first and foremost the socio-political hierarchies of dress…Colours serve to commend distinction and nobility: ‘Here, it is all a question of shades, those which denote good form.’ As in real life, a person can be precisely recognized for what he is, even what he claims to be. The fictional alchemy makes it possible to castigate social turncoats and defend the need for reality and the appearance to conform. The sartorial metamorphoses serve to illustrate both the autonomy of the culture of appearances and the appropriateness of the person to the personage expressed by successive changes of clothes and disguises. For an aristocratic culture, the affirmation of origins and personal liberty were what mattered above all.[17]

An example of conformity of social role and dress was the German regulation that weavers wear brown for Sunday dress.[18]

The early century affiliation of brown with nobility and richness underscores that consumption of luxuries was rhetorical, social, and politically charged.[19] Sumptuary laws often backfired, heightening widespread desire for restricted commodities. Only Spaniards were permitted to dress in silk, which was prohibited for all other groups.[20] Mixed-blood men and women as well as Africans were instructed to dress in the Bourbon fashion, mimicking fashions worn by elites but in plainer styles and fabrics.[21] Variations in cloth quality explicitly marked subtle differences in rank through connoisseurship of textiles. From a distance, different qualities of weave and material could be hard to detect, but up close the difference was obvious enough. In this way, reinventing the self occurred within a fairly narrow scope of look-alikes.[22] Breaking away from those narrow bounds involved new choices in color, textiles, and style. That weavers had to be ordered to wear brown suggests that they were making just these sorts of choices in color. The very act of placing particular kinds of dress out of reach fueled desire, but the longer term consequence of broadening subversive sartorial habits was that color changed in its semantic context. Brown changed from rich and exotic to natural and conservative–familiar, perhaps a bit tawdry and unremarkable. These semantic shifts are “ripe with the contradictions that lay at the heart of many colonial projects: the creation and maintenance of a strict language of difference in face of the ambiguities that were an inherent part of colonial communities.”[23]

How did this language of difference shape the phrasing of the ways of seeing brown? In records of shipments to different parts of the British colonies at about the time that brown was preferred by French nobility and residents of Williamsburg, “chocolate” designated specific kinds of brown textiles. The brown color distinction is also found in Spanish. The only special colors listed from 1781-1810 requisitions and invoices for El Presidio de San Francisco are scarlet and “coco.”[24] Following the death of his brother James in 1739, Obadiah Brown became a shopkeeper in Providence, Rhode Island and invested in numerous commercial ventures until his death in 1762. Undated accounts for Obadiah Brown’s shop record include an entry that “Bought of Joseph Russell” in addition to a bear skin was “1 ps. Chocolate Culler Cloath.” In this case, “cloath” probably refers to broadcloth.[25] Swatch examples illustrated in Montgomery show that in 1736 woolen druggets or silesies from Holland had brown geometric patterns.[26] Striped and checked cotton textiles from Rouen in 1737 also incorporated brown, so lighter fabrics did have warm, dark colors. From 1743 to about 1750, swatches with brown include silk and worsted grograms, superfine grogrinetts, fine worsteds with a water finish, embossed serge, Kidderminster stuffs, Cherryderrys of silk warp and cotton weft as well as silk and cotton textiles with floral patterns, spots, stars, and feather-edge stripes and cotton siamoises.


The pattern of color names is even clearer in the more detailed records from the 1763 invoice book of Hogg & Clayton of Charles Town.[27] The only textiles called chocolate were broadcloth and calimanco, while brown described osnaburgs, hose, silesies, and superfine small ingrain. Calimanco was a fine worsted wool, glazed, and often brightly colored and decorated with embroidered patterns. It was used for fine clothing, and so finely woven it is similar in appearance to silk, yet much more durable.[28]  Broadcloth was also a strong woolen fabric, but finely woven, napped, and shorn resulting in a “soft, silky, but not spongy feel.”[29] It has an appearance similar to felt, with a smooth, soft surface. It was used to make very fine suits. Some checked camlets, linen or cotton coutys, Norwich worsted, serges, druggets or duroys, have brown in 1760.[30] By 1770, woolen frieze from Yorkshire included brown. By 1785, the palette shifted to bright colors, woven floral brocades, and an array of reds. Why call something “chocolate” colored? In Williamsburg and Yorktown probate inventories, chocolate and chocolate items appear as wealth into the 1750s, then fade. Setting some browns apart through phrasing discursively invokes texture, quality, and hue in parallel with actual wealth.

Of all these browns, which ones were “chocolate” brown? This dilemma highlights gaps between the documentary, visual, and material record.  Using the term “brown” masks the profusion of color from 1740-1760. The lighter browns most closely match the foam of whipped chocolate, the common way people consumed chocolate at the time. Darker browns evoke the liquid or even solid chocolate. Linking chocolate to specific shades awaits more decisive evidence, and will reveal much about what qualities of chocolate the term indexed.

Roche argued that “Fashion actively motivates those who care about appearances; frivolous and volatile, it has always stimulated trade and incarnated change. For the West, it has been a ‘mistress of civilization’.”[31] But who did not care about their appearance? Given the social, political and moral import of appearances, disdain for how one looked was itself a statement of personal desires. By this token, the flourishing of seemingly innocent fashion plates and periodicals in the 1780s depicted regimes of body discipline.[32] But people did not adopt these official definitions of bodily appropriateness uncritically; these social guises were often at odds with how individuals constructed their identities by dressing their bodies.[33]  The clearest example of the dissonance between canonical form and individual expression is through mixing dress styles. Mixing styles allowed individuals to move into a restricted status level to manipulate power, trade, intermarry, or even obtain freedom.[34] In the research highlighting these processes, color and color terminology has seen relatively less attention than analyses of garment style and textile quality. All of these elements–color, texture, style, iconography–are part of the grammar of the culture of appearances, a language that permits entry into the often foreign, clandestine country of personal desire.[35] Color, and chocolate in particular, helped define turning points from the splendid to the conventional, the sublime to the mundane, and for this reason offers us a way to more deeply understand personal choices and public personas.


The family of the Duke of Penthièvre in 1768 or “The cup of chocolate” by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier, XVIIIth century, Chateau de Versailles, France.

[1] Baumgarten, Linda (2002) What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, p.52. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT

[2] Baumgarten, 2002; Loren, Diana DiPaolo (2007) Corporeal Concerns: Eighteenth-Century Casta Paintings and Colonial Bodies in Spanish Texas. Historical Archaeology 41(1):23-36, p.36; Voss, Barbara (2008) The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco, p.252. University of California Press, Berkeley.

[3] Loren, Diana DiPaolo (2008) Beyond the Visual: Considering the Archaeology of Colonial Sound. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 12: 360-369. Voss, 2008, p.253; Roche, Daniel (1994) The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the ‘ancien régime’, p.455. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[4] Sarti, Raffaella (2002) Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture 1500-1800, p.204. Yale University Press, New Haven.

[5] Roche, 1994, Table 11.

[6] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston ID number 43.647a-b

[7] Roche 1994, Table 15

[8] Roche, 1994, p. 511-512.

[9] Many thanks to Linda Baumgarten, Curator of Textiles and Costumes at Colonial Williamsburg, for sharing her insights and the fabulous collection at Colonial Williamsburg with me.

[10] Veblen, Thorsten (1994 [1899]) The Theory of the Leisure Class. Dover Publications, New York.

[11] Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. R. Nice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.; Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, New York; Cohn, B.  (1996) Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. Fisher, A. S. and Loren, Diana Dipaolo (2003) Embodying Identity in Archaeology: Introduction. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13(2): 225-230.

[12] Roche, 1994.

[13] Roche, 1994, p.5.

[14] Moreau, J-F (1998) Traditions and cultural transformations: European copper-based kettles and Jesuit rings

from 17th century Amerindian sites. North American Archaeologist 19(1):1–11.

[15] Katzew, Ilona (1996) Casta Painting: Identity and Social Stratification in Colonial Mexico. In New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America, Ilona Katzew, editor, pp. 20-21. Americas Society Art Gallery, New York, NY.

[16] Voss, 2008, p. 256.

[17] Roche, 1994, p.408.

[18] Sarti 2002, p.208.

[19] Appadurai, Arjun (1986) Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, A. Appadurai, editor, p.3-63. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Sarti 2002, p.206.

[20] Klor de Alva, J. Jorge (1996) El Mestizaje from New Spain to Aztlán: On the Control and Classification of Collective Identities. In New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America, Ilona Katzew, editor, pp. 58–71. Americas Society Art Gallery, New York, NY.

[21] Castelló Yturbide, Teresa (1990) La Indumentaria de las Castas del Mestizaje (A Study of Dress of the Mestizo Classes). La Pintura de Castas, Artes de Mexico 8:74–78.

[22] Voss 2008, p.285.

[23] Loren, Diana DiPaolo (2007) Corporeal Concerns: Eighteenth-Century Casta Paintings and Colonial Bodies in Spanish Texas. Historical Archaeology 41(1):23-36; Stoler, Ann Laura (1989) Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule. Comparative Studies in Society and History 31(3):134–161.

[24] Voss, 2008, Table 15.

[25] Personal communication, August 2013, Linda Baumgarten, Colonial Williamsburg; Manuscript in the Brown family archive, the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

[26] Montgomery , 1984, p.177.

[27] Many thanks to Taylor Stoermer, Research Historian at Colonial Williamsburg for sharing this ledger with me.

[28] Montgomery, 1984, p.185.

[29] Montgomery, Florence (1984) Textiles in America 1650-1870. W.W.Norton & Company, New York

[30] Montgomery, 1984.

[31] Roche, 1994, p.3.

[32] Roche 1994, p.471, 477

[33] Loren, Diana Dipaolo (1999) Creating Social Distinction: Articulating Colonial Policies and Practices along the Eighteenth-Century Louisiana/Texas Frontier. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Anthropology, State University of New York, Binghamton. University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, MI; (2001) Manipulating Bodies and Emerging Traditions at the Los Adaes Presidio. In The Archaeology of Traditions: Agency and History before and after Columbus, Timothy R. Pauketat, editor, pp. 58–76. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

[34] Loren 2007, p.30.

[35] Roche, 1994, p.511-512.

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