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Trivial pursuits? Accounting for Chocolate in Williamsburg: The Account Books of Francis Jerdone 1751-1752


Francis Jerdone, a Scottish factor for London merchants, recorded the credits and debits of people’s lives for two years in York Town. This utterly mundane manuscript, an account book, beautifully counterpoints the globalizing syntheses that have tended to dominate the study of chocolate. Who bought chocolate, how often, when? These straightforward questions bring into closer relief the bigger question of “why chocolate, ever?”

Jerdone’s account book, one of the few to survive in Williamsburg, did not have many entries for chocolate–just three, in fact. Chocolate was not the costliest item nor was it acquired in great quantities compared to other commodities. By the mid-eighteenth century, rum, sugar, and molasses dominated common trade, along with textiles, tobacco, wine, and of course, the enslaved people who supplied the labor for most of these enterprises.[1]  Of the just over three hundred accounts that Jerdone managed in 1751 and 1752, only two bought chocolate. Even more remarkable is that both clients were from far away Hanover County, in the vicinity of Richmond. This gives the impression that residents of Williamsburg took a pass on chocolate, even though people even farther away in the Virginia backcountry were willing to go into debt for it by the 1770s.[2]

Representing a paltry .9% of all Jerdone’s debtors’ accounts, two of these three transactions happened on the same day.  The oldest entry is an acquisition in his Virginia account books of 50 lb of chocolate, transferred to the cash accounting paid by David Anderson & Company (a partnership with Jerdone) on August 7, 1751 for ₤4, 7s, 6p. This large quantity of chocolate appreciated about 16% in value the following year, a decent return on their investment.

Specifically, in 1752, Mr. John Snelson of Hanover County bought one 50 lb box of “chocolatee” for ₤5 (i.e. 2 shillings per pound).  Of the sales in that same entry (February 12, 1752) Snelson bought more than twice as much (₤12) in total sales in molasses. So, chocolate was not the only item he bought, nor did he spend, relatively speaking, much of his money on it. Of the purchases for his account recorded together (May 15, 1751 and February 12, 1752), chocolate was about 5% of all of his transactions with Jerdone. The same date, February 12, 1752 records another sale of a box of “chocolatee,” but this time of just 49 lbs, still worth 2 shillings per pound, to Mr. Robert Donald, also in Hanover County. Donald had more transactions with Jerdone than did Snelson, mostly for sugar and rum, but also for butter and cheese, while Jerdone acquired four hogsheads of tobacco from him. The relative values of Donald’s transactions are similar in magnitude to that of Snelson: of the 1752 transactions, chocolate was about 15% of the expenditures, and chocolate was only about 2% of all of his indebtedness for 1751 and 1752. The overall economic impact of chocolate seems trivial indeed.

What does this accounting show? In mid-eighteenth century Williamsburg, chocolate was not a necessity nor an item of speculation as much as rum or molasses. Perhaps more important than the quantity of transactions are the social worlds they defined. These chocolate-tinged interludes reveal a surprisingly strong network among the parties across a wide geographic area. The Donald account shows that the 1752 chocolate purchase had significant precedents: Snelson, Donald, and Jerdone invested in rum and sugar together, a venture that they settled on July 5, 1751. Likewise, David Anderson & Company included Jerdone as a partner in investments such as slaves, sugar, and molasses. Jerdone moved to Virginia from Scotland in 1740 to manage the Hanover store of William Johnston, who died not long after Jerdone’s arrival. Jerdone continued as factor for Neill Buchanan until 1745, finally moving to York Town in 1746. Jerdone’s early roots in Hanover County played a significant part in his business even after he relocated far away. The chocolate transactions were few, but they accentuated far-flung economic and social networks.

The other part of the story is the degree to which chocolate was part of Williamsburg-area life outside of Jerdone’s business. Probate inventories from Yorktown and Williamsburg in the 1750s attest chocolate, cacao beans, and chocolate material culture–the pots, cups, and mills essential to chocolate consumption–in middling and gentry life. It was not Williamsburg that was missing out on chocolate, it was Jerdone. These other residents tapped into other networks to acquire chocolate, then transmitted it along lines of client relationships (in the case of shop owners) or kin. What is clear is that the Williamsburg community had several means (who and where to buy from) to satisfy tastes at a time that chocolate became a more common wealth item. Jerdone was one of many, so he in no way monopolized chocolate distribution networks, but perhaps did for Hanover County. This network of transactions also may have paved the way for Jerdone’s move to Louisa County, just beyond Richmond in 1753. Chocolate, being the quirky, unusual transaction, perhaps helped cement ties to people and places in a way that more common trades did not. Chocolate might have made a difference.

So, the key point is not so much the commodity itself, but the social engagement and requisite objects and actions that were bundled with it. As Orser argued, “humanity simply cannot be conceptualised in the absence of material things.”[3] To what degree did the presence of chocolate imply the acceptance of new social and cultural customs? Rather than mere knick-knacks or trivial asides, such substances embodied entry into an economic and social order, and its unevenness provided an opportunity for distinction.[4] Distinction, however, has its pitfalls. Pierre Bourdieu noted that some dominant individuals inhabit a contradictory social space that invokes an ambivalent relationship to the producers of cultural materials and their products.[5] In the case of chocolate in eighteenth-century Virginia, ambivalence would stem in part from the locale of production, i.e. mostly Spanish America, and the indigenous roots of chocolate material culture. Who bought chocolate brings us closer to those who navigated this ambivalence, and how it was marginalized enough that chocolate could enter other conceptual categories such as a flavor and color. Even though, as Bourdieu asserted, “tastes for food are homologous [with class], such that the dominant class drink more milk and eat more chocolate than the working class,” Jerdone’s networks show that the transition to these tastes that became iconic had an uneven, partial, and transitory start.[6]

Tightly knit, geographically dispersed social networks appear to define part of the context for a commodity on the cusp of what Sidney Mintz termed “extensification,” the use of a formerly restricted good on a regular basis and in new ways by increasingly larger numbers of people who included much broader segments of the social network.[7] How does that transition happen? It is not inevitable. The easy fallback in acculturation models (that bugaboo of historical archaeology) is that all people react the same to the introduction of foreign objects, which flattens an uneven and dynamic process.[8] The very spottiness of waves of extensification shown in this example from Williamsburg illustrates how people built or thwarted communities and connections through the consumption of commodities. The accounting work of Francis Jerdone teaches us that extensification may have occurred by leapfrogging from one zone to another as much as by diffusion among people who live near each other and have regular face-to-face contact. Mundane evidence such as  Jerdone’s books contribute to a more nuanced view of the subtle social networks and the development of tastes at a moment of revolutionary change in the Atlantic World political economy.

[1] Mintz, Sidney (1986)  Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Books); Smith, Frederick, (2008) Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida).

[2] Martin, Ann Smart (2008) Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia, pp. 82-83 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press).

[3] Orser, Charles E., Jr. (2005) The Material Implications of Colonialism in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland, in Was Ireland a Colony?: Economics, Politics, and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Terrence McDonough (ed.), pp. 69 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press).

[4] Mullins, Paul (1999) Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America and Consumer Culture (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum); (2001)  “Racializing the Parlor: Race and Victorian Bric-a-Brac Consumption” in C. E. Orser, Jr, (ed.), Race and the Archaeology of Identity, pp.158-176 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press); Bourdieu, Pierre (1999) “Site Effects” in The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, p. 127 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

[5] Bourdieu, Pierre (1991) Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press), p.244; Orser, Charles E., Jr. (1996) ‘Artifacts, Networks, and Plantations: Toward a Further Understanding of the Social Aspects of Material Culture,” in L. de Cunzo and B. Herman (eds), Historical Archaeology and the Study of American Culture, pp. 233-256 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press).

[6] Bourdieu (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, p.382-383 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universtiy Press).

[7] Mintz, (1986), p.157.

[8] Orser (2005) pp. 66-83.

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