Trade-card 'Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate'. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane the Chocolatier: A Tasty Myth

By James Hawkes

Sir Hans Sloane is a man who is justly remembered for many things, as a philanthropist, President of the Royal Society, and father of the British Museum. But one thing it seems he shall always be remembered for is inventing milk chocolate. For that alone he would truly deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest luminaries of his own or any other age.  But…

Does Sloane deserve to be credited as the inventor of milk chocolate as he is so often lauded for all across the internet? Even the British Museum proclaims that “It was Sir Hans Sloane who introduced milk chocolate for drinking.” Unfortunately it seems that Sloane and milk chocolate is a myth with little basis in reality.

Three tin-glazed earthenware chocolate cups, ca. 1740-1745. Image Credit: British Museum.
Three tin-glazed earthenware chocolate cups, ca. 1740-1745. Image Credit: British Museum.

Chocolate had been in use long before Columbus, with the Mesoamericans drinking a bitter but spicy chocolate drink. Following the Spanish conquest similar chocolate drinks spread to Spain and gradually began to slowly make inroads throughout Europe. It was not until shortly before Sloane’s birth in the mid-seventeenth century that chocolate began to enter the English consciousness as both a medicine and an exotic treat for the English elite. Sloane’s life witnessed an increasing prevalence of chocolate in England, although it remained a luxury. Its status as a luxury good and status symbol is underscored by the beautiful chocolate cups Sloane imported from Italy. Chocolate was thought to have many different properties, it could serve as an aphrodisiac or help with hangovers.

Trade-card 'Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate'. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Trade-card ‘Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate’. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But contrary to popular belief Sloane did not invent the concept of milk chocolate. In fact, a great variety of milk chocolates and even icy chocolate cream recipes had been published for the English market in the seventeenth century.[1] Shortly after Sloane’s death in 1753 an entrepreneur named Nicholas Sanders brought Sloane’s Milk Chocolate onto the market. Sanders claimed to have an original chocolate recipe from Sloane as he battled against others attempting to purvey chocolate with Sloane’s name.[2] Sloane’s name remained golden, so far as chocolate buyers were concerned. The famous Cadbury Company even sold chocolate under his name in the nineteenth century. And of course, there is the modern Hans Sloane Drinking Chocolate.

As James Delbourgo has argued, Sloane–a rich baronet–would have had little motivation to get into such a grubby business as chocolate selling. Particularly “in an era that prized the public fiction of gentlemanly disinterestedness,” a close association with an item which had such negative, even racy connotations, would not have served his hard won image of virtue.[3] Sloane was a doctor and as such had been known to prescribe chocolate medicinally now and again. He even appears to have enjoyed it as a treat on occasion.

Sloane’s time in Jamaica had given him first-hand experience of the exotic, including the use of cocoa. His scientific publications included high quality illustrations of cocoa and he preserved a botanical specimen in his collection.

Chocolate suffered a bit of a branding problem in England since first entering the market in the seventeenth century. Promoters often attempted to improve its reputation by claiming that their recipes had sanction from the high and mighty, whether a king, or like Sloane–a famed physician to royalty.

In the eighteenth century, the lower classes were unlikely to consume chocolate, while chocolate took on decadent, even subversive associations in elite culture. Chocolate houses often catered to gambling (such as the famous modern gentlemen’s club White’s which was founded as a chocolate house) and on the political spectrum it included the almost-Jacobite Ozinda’s, with the Cocoa Tree serving as an unofficial Tory headquarters.

White's Chocolate House, London c.1708 coloured lithograph published by Cadbury. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
White’s Chocolate House, London c.1708 coloured lithograph published by Cadbury. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

So why does the idea that Sloane invented milk chocolate persist? Well, it makes a nice story and, once a story becomes common, it can be difficult to correct. It is an easy and compelling tale to have the first inventor of something be a famous and important person who got it right the first time… Unfortunately the attribution of milk chocolate to Sloane is no more than just another tasty myth.

[1] Kate Loveman, “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640-1730,” Journal of Social History, No. 47 Vol. 1 (2013): 34-35.

[2] James Delourgo, “Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate and the Whole History of the Cacao,” Social Text 106, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2011): 86.

[3] Ibid.                                                                          

How to Build a Universal Collection, or Nicknackatory

By James Hawkes

Sloane and me at the British Museum.
Sloane and I at the British Museum.

The sheer immensity of Sloane’s collection poses a daunting challenge for the researcher, especially given its present division among different institutions. It might be useful to consider Sloane’s collection alongside smaller and more manageable (not to mention intact!) ones.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom as part of a senior-undergraduate course offered by the University of Saskatchewan. Coins in Early Modern Collections of Curiosities was a hands-on study of coins in two early modern cabinets of curiosities: John Bargrave’s seventeenth-century collection (Canterbury Cathedral) and William Constable late 18th century cabinet of curiosities  (Burton Constable).

Although Sloane’s numismatic collection has physically endured better than, say, his beloved butterflies, we don’t have many details about this part of the collection. The catalogues describing Sloane’s coins disappeared during the Second World War.  But by studying other complete (if comparatively small) early modern collections of coins, gives insight into Sloane’s goals and influences.

Cabinets of Curiosities were intended to represent the whole of Creation in microcosm, something far easier to discern with intact collections. In our age of narrow specialisation, Sloane’s collection has been divvied up so thoroughly between the British Library, the British Museumn, and the Natural History Museum, that the universalising ambition of Sloane can be hard to see. Smaller cabinets also provide an appreciation for how the sheer size of Sloane’s collection made it so exceptional.

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)
No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

So, how do you go about building a universal collection?

The world is filled with strange and wondrous objects and if you are as serious about building a microcosm of it as Sloane was, then you’ll need to get your hands on some pretty weird artefacts. These can range from simple oddities like a “rope snapped by a strong man,” to an alicorn or even a horn from a woman’s head. 

Not all of Sloane’s contemporaries were enthusiastic about his penchant for collecting almost anything that fell into his hands. As Horace Walpole, one of the trustees Sloane appointed to posthumously oversee his collection said:

You will scarce guess how I employ my time; chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir hans [sic] Sloane is dead, and has made me one of the trustees to his museum. . . . He valued it at fourscore thousand; and so would any body who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese!

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams also expressed similar sentiments about the value of Sloane’s collecting in an ironic ode on the subject. In this poem he claimed that he was acquiring for Sloane’s “nicknackatory”  such fantastic curiosities as Dido’s sword, Eve’s snakeskin, Adam’s fig-leaf, Noah’s stuffed pigeon, a sultry glance from Cleopatra and a few “strains of Cicero’s eloquence.” He even suggested that Sloane’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction extended  to his medical practice… Sloane has acquired such invaluable medicine as: [1]

The stone whereby Goliath died, Which cures the head-ache, well apply’d.

It is certainly worth noting that Sloane’s medicine chest contained some items that we would now think of as pretty odd, such as holding bezoars (a mass from a goat’s intestines) as sovereign against poison.

Many major English museums originated–like the British Museum–in personal cabinets of curiosities, but these were so integrated with other collections that the institutions are uncertain about the provenance of a number of the artefacts in their care. For historians, this tendency to merge collections rather than to preserve them in pristine isolation (as the British Library treats stamp collections) may seem unfortunate.

However, this disregard of previous collectors and focus on the artefacts themselves was also the general practice of Sloane and his contemporaries. For instance, Elias Ashmole’s collection (which became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) was largely grounded in the Ark of the Tradescants. Sloane himself was (in)famous for how much of his incomparable collection was built on the wholesale acquisition of the collections of others.

Just as Sloane was attempting to present the world in microcosm, the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum can be seen as an attempt to represent Sloane’s collection in microcosm. Our class visit to the gallery was an opportunity to see items from Sloane’s collection, with its strange juxtaposition of naturalia and classicism. This gives a small taste of the experience that Sloane’s contemporaries might have had when visiting his in Chelsea so many centuries ago. It is a powerful moment to actually see the physical objects of centuries ago, rather than merely to read about them or look at pictures. The heady experience of actually seeing the objects is of course why–both in Sloane’s time and today–museums are so popular. Cliche but true, they make history come to life!

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum
A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

[1] Barbara M. Benedict, “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012), 120, 126-128.

Eight pigs on a meadow near a wallow with a thatched barn in the background. After E. Crété after W. Kuhnert. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Strange Pigs

There are strange pig tails in the midnight sun
From men who moil for hog’s stones
The science trails have their secret tales
That would make monstrous piglets groan;
The English nights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that marge on the note of Stephen Gray
Concerned with porcine impersonation.(1)

Pig tales occasionally show up in the Sloane Correspondence, and they are inevitably crackling good fun. But what do pigs have to do with the history of science? A while back, Samantha Sandassie (@medhistorian) wrote a fascinating post on the role of pigs in early modern medical history: besides providing a useful addition to one’s diet, pigs were often the subject of wondrous stories. By the eighteenth century, they were also the subject of Royal Society interests: classifying strange objects from animal bodies, understanding the development of fetal deformities, and analysing the composition of food stuffs.

John Morton, a naturalist who described fossils and wrote The Natural History of Northamptonshire, wrote to Hans Sloane about an extraordinary hog’s stone in April 1703. Morton thanked Sloane for his friendship and promised his service in return; this included sharing his work in progress on fossils. The description of the hog’s stone was, presumably, a taster for Sloane, but Morton also mentioned the possibility of sending it as a gift to the Royal Society. Sloane’s patronage was desirable, but even more so was attracting the interest of the Royal Society, and Morton was successful in both.

On the 30th of November 1703, Morton—nominated by Sloane’s rival, John Woodward—was accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. By June 1704, Morton had gifted the stone to the Royal Society after they had favourably received his account of it. A seemingly small offering, perhaps, but one that helped to establish a correspondence that continued for over a decade.

Sloane’s family members also sent him objects of interest. On Sloane’s birthday in 1711, his stepson-in-law John Fuller sent “a Couple of Monstrous Piggs, one of them was farrowed alive the other dead, the sow had six Piggs beside, all of them as they should be”. A quick perusal of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society reveals that monsters remained a source of fascination to the Society throughout the eighteenth century.

Disability and deformity were frequently explained in terms of the influence of maternal imagination: that the pregnant woman either had cravings or had been subjected to extreme emotions, either of which could shape an unborn child. (See, for example, Philip Wilson’s article on maternal imagination and disability.) Fuller’s piglets would have been especially intriguing, given that only two of the sow’s litter had been monstrous. What might the study of deformity in animals mean for the medical understanding of human reproduction? And why, moreover, were traits only passed on to some offspring? Food for thought: a fine gift, indeed, for Sloane!

But the strangest pig tale in the correspondence is from Stephen Gray, who was better known for his work on electricity than porcine expertise. Even so, in the summer of 1700, Sloane requested that Gray send further details about the fat of some pork that he had sent to the Royal Society. Gray denied all knowledge of the pork sample, insisting that either someone had the same name or was impersonating him. A fairly random occurrence that raises so many tantalizing questions: was there another Stephen Gray who was a pork expert? Was this a practical joke? And if so, was it intended for the Society or Gray? And what was its point? In any case, the Society clearly wanted to find out more about the chemical composition of pigs.

These three little pig gifts may seem like small tokens, but reflect the roles of patronage, reputation and curiosity in early eighteenth-century medical and scientific knowledge. Now, if only the joke or insult behind Gray’s impersonation could be deciphered: any thoughts?

[1] With apologies to Robert Service and my father, whose favourite poem is Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. I’d started this post in time for Father’s Day post, but was otherwise occupied at the time and unable to finish it.

Image: Eight pigs on a meadow near a wallow with a thatched barn in the background. After E. Crété after W. Kuhnert. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.