In the 18th Century Quaker merchants and apothecaries began to get involved in the chocolate industry. At this time chocolate was used to make cocoa: there was nothing like today’s chocolates. Cocoa was thought to have medicinal properties and to be a good alternative to alcohol. Chocolate was an ‘innocent trade’.
Three great family firms grew up – Frys, Cadburys and Rowntrees.
Joseph Fry (1728 – 1787) was an apothecary in Bristol. He began selling cocoa from his shop in 1759, emphasising its health-giving properties. It soon became popular in Bath where the coffee houses sold it to the aristocracy. In partnership with John Vaughan he purchased the business of Walter Churchman, the leading cocoa manufacturer, in 1761. By 1764 Fry, Vaughan & Co had agents in fifty-three towns and a chocolate warehouse in London.
Joseph’s son introduced the Watts steam engine in 1795, which made Fry’s the first chocolatier to use factory methods to manufacture their product. Fry’s also obtained a patent for a machine to roast the cocoa beans and by 1824 they were using 40% of the cocoa that was imported. Employees were paid relatively well - ten shillings a week at a time when a farm labourer could expect to earn only seven.
John Cadbury (1801 - 1880) had served an apprenticeship in the tea trade. When his father gave him a sum of money to set up his own business in 1824, he became a tea dealer and coffee roaster in Bull Street, Birmingham. At this shop he prepared cocoa based beverages, crushing the beans using a pestle and mortar. Cadbury saw the potential for cocoa powder and drawing on his experience of roasting coffee beans and preparing nib (crushed cocoa beans) he decided to open a factory in 1831. The earliest extant price list dated 1842 shows sixteen varieties of drinking chocolate and eleven cocoas. The product could be bought as pressed cakes, flakes, nibs and powder.
In 1847 Fry’s introduced the chocolate bar to England. They melted cocoa butter, mixed it with cocoa powder and sugar and pressed the resulting paste into a mould. It was difficult to extract all the fat (butter) from the cocoa, so additives such as potato flour were used to stop the cocoa powder from sticking together. (Some of the less scrupulous chocolate manufacturers used additives such as brick dust to enhance the colour of their chocolate.)
However when brothers George Cadbury and Richard Cadbury took over the family business in 1861, they began to innovate. They worked on an improved method of extracting the butter, so that they no longer needed additives of any kind. They began to use marketing slogans, advertising the new Cadburys' chocolate as “Absolutely Pure: Therefore Best”. In 1868 they began selling chocolates in boxes. To the dismay of some Quakers the design of the boxes of chocolates became more elaborate as time went on, but the idea proved to be a winner, and the company thrived.
In 1869 Joseph Rowntree (1836 – 1925) left his father’s grocery business in York to enter a cocoa and chocolate partnership with his brother John. Rowntrees grew into a highly successful concern, developing many new chocolate products.
Quaker firms were not the pioneers of milk chocolate, but they soon developed their own formulas. By 1913 Cadburys Dairy Milk chocolate bars were the company’s best seller.
The Cadburys and Rowntrees showed an enlightened concern for their workforce. One hundred and forty four cottages were built for the Cadbury workers near their factory at Bournville. Infant mortality and death rates in the village in 1915 were half those of Birmingham as a whole. George's wife, Elizabeth Cadbury, played a crucial part in this work. Rowntree founded the village of New Earswick for low income families in 1902. Education was provided for both children and adults. Rowntree is particularly remembered for his Adult Schools. Cadbury was the first firm to grant its workers a 5-day working week and to provide medical facilities, a canteen, leisure activities and community gardens. Rowntrees also took a keen interest in the wellbeing of their employees and the wider community (Joseph's son Seebohm Rowntree undertook a seminal study of poverty in York) and the family played an important part in the establishment of the public library in York..
None of the Quaker chocolatiers exist today, though many of their products do. Frys merged with Cadburys in 1919; Rowntrees was finally taken over by Nestlé in 1988 and Cadburys by Kraft in 2010. The Quaker influence in these businesses had either declined or disappeared by the time these takeovers and mergers took place.