It pits idealism against capitalism, religious piety against the forces of greed and cutthroat competition. Though, like great fiction, it defies belief, it’s the true story of our favorite guilty pleasure. (In fact, I could probably fish the remnants of a Snickers wrapper out of my jacket pocket nearly any time. I’m not proud, I’m just saying...)
For nearly a century and a half, the forces of Mars, Hershey, Lindt, Nestlé, and Cadbury battled it out for global chocolate supremacy. The slow evolution of the stone-hard, greasy, and nearly inedible “chocolate bar” of the 1850s into the sensuous, melt-in-your mouth confections of today would take saintly patience, great ingenuity, vast sums of money, and the kind of industrial espionage that would make 007 green with envy. The long, winding road to the perfection of cocoa drinks and milk chocolate and the opening of international markets was littered with many casualties – not only “lost” candy bars and shuttered factories, but to many in Britain, innocence itself.
The sweet center of Chocolate Wars is historian Deborah Cadbury’s captivating narration of the story of her relatives, Cadbury Bros. executives Richard and George Cadbury. Devout Quakers, the brothers’ legacy owes as much to their enlightened business practices and jaw-dropping generosity as it does to their much-loved chocolate treats. In fact, the three largest British chocolate firms were all helmed by Quakers, whose religious tenets defined the accumulation of personal wealth as a sin.
As they slowly built their chocolate business, the brothers Cadbury despaired of the pernicious deterioration of bucolic life in 19th century Britain, as dark clouds of soot blanketed swelling northern industrial cities like their beloved Birmingham, blocking the sun and choking their citizens. The author paints a portrait of a determined George Cadbury, recoiling from the creeping slums, chronic poverty, and rampant ill health rapidly sweeping the city and surrounding their factory. “Why should progress and the ‘triumph of machinery’ lead to a reduction in quality of life?” Cadbury wondered. “Machinery,” he declared, “creates wealth but destroys men.”
George and Richard Cadbury took action. “How could they raise men’s ideals and help them improve their lot?” Step 1: They started Britain’s first adult school, raising thousands of slum-dwellers into health and literacy. “How could they assist women and children break the cycle of poverty?” Step 2: They would move their factory from the grimy center of Birmingham to the countryside where the sky was robin’s egg blue and the air was fresh and clean. It would be a model factory for all the world to see, with “perfect friendliness among all.”
With their new Bournville factory, the Cadbury brothers “were determined to use their growing business in a way that was compatible with “enlarging the riches of human experience.” Its workers enjoyed the latest in labor-saving machinery, roomy, well-lit workspaces, organized recreation for employees and their families, and beautiful grounds in which to walk and take their lunch. To house the workers, 370 charming cottages were built on 500 acres of verdant land surrounding the factory.
The brothers made every effort to treat their employees as equals, not as subordinates. The factory and its happy, healthy workforce thrived. And on Dec. 14,1900, “ever mindful of the corrosive effects that wealth could have on his soul,” George Cadbury gave away nearly all of his wealth to create the Bournville Village Trust, for “the amelioration of the conditions of the working class and labouring population.”
A quarter century later American milk chocolate magnate Milton Hershey would create his own eponymous utopian village in rural Pennsylvania, donating much of his present and future earnings to founding a school for orphans and needy children, still operating today. Could competitive commerce and Christian ideals coexist? For a while they did, beautifully.
Meanwhile, as Cadbury worked to perfect its own products, Swiss chocolatiers were miles ahead, and much in demand, even on Cadbury’s home turf. Their milk chocolate was smooth and delectable, clearly superior. What was their secret? Their competition was dying to know, and far less scrupulous firms than the Cadburys were doing everything above and below the line to find out. Among them, an ambitious Milton Hershey, anxious for a chocolate breakthrough, took a long tour of English and European chocolatemakers around the turn of the century, trolling for secrets. With a few new ideas packed in his luggage, he returned to America to launch his own sweet dream.
The 20th century brought great challenges to England’s Quaker chocolate triumvirate. Strategic mergers of competitors and Hershey’s meteoric rise in the US closed off lucrative markets, and cynical attacks on their snow-white image and “fairyland” business practices from a skeptical British press compelled the Cadburys to buy their own newspaper to correct misinformation and provide another point of view. They beat back accusations of profiting from African slave labor at the turn of the 20th century, and World War I tested their Quaker resolve as pacifists, with some members of the family choosing to take up arms against the Germans while others distinguished themselves in the ambulance corps.
Recently, the American food behemoth Kraft acquired the very English Cadbury company in a strong-armed takeover, sending shockwaves throughout the British Isles and its nervous workforce. It’s unclear what effect that will have on the still-operating Bournville factory. Clearly the great social experiment is over at Cadbury, a unique family-run operation for most of its 176 years in the chocolate business.
Cadbury’s book, like her namesake’s famous sampler, is full of surprises and delights. There are a few villains in her story, but many heroes, whose fortitude and good works are an inspiration. Most of the sweet confections these chocolate pioneers worked so hard to bring to life are still favorites today – Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar, Nestlés hot cocoa, Hershey’s Kisses, the Snickers candy bar – were all perfected about 100 years ago, by the first great generation of chocolatiers. They may have been constantly at war over who could produce the best tasting chocolate, but that’s a war we all win, every day.
John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director.