With Christmas on its way — and winter as well — some of us will use steaming mugs of hot cocoa, topped with marshmallows or whipped cream, to take the chill off while celebrating the season.
In Gideon and Ellen Hixon’s day, hot chocolate also was enjoyed, but they would have been surprised by the size of our servings. Their hot chocolate set has small cups, holding barely 4 ounces, poured from a special chocolate pot.
The hot chocolate set is presently in the family parlor at their home, Historic Hixon House, as we like to imagine that Mrs. Hixon and a friend, or perhaps a grandchild, would have enjoyed a cup or two together in that room.
This is a late 19th century reproduction of an 18th century set. How do I know that? By the small size of the serving cups and by the tall narrow shape of the chocolate pot.
In the 1700s, hot chocolate was a complicated affair, and an expensive one. It was a luxury item, served from elegant porcelain or silver pots. But to make the hot chocolate you had to laboriously grind the cacao beans with sugar and spices, and then mix that with hot water or milk. The mixture constantly wanted to settle to the bottom, so the hot chocolate required much stirring. Tall narrow pots were used, with a lid that had an opening in the middle: the finial would have been removed and a long stirring rod inserted through the hole so that the chocolate could have been stirred and kept in suspension.
All that went away in 1828 when the process of preparing cocoa powder from the cacao pods was invented by a Dutch chemist named van Houten. Cocoa powder made hot chocolate easier to make and consume, and the price went down as cocoa powder became more readily available.
This chocolate pot does not have a hole in the center of its lid, telling me that it was produced after cocoa powder became commonly used. It has no maker’s marks at all, and I have no way of confirming how this even came to be in the house. Was it purchased by the Hixons in La Crosse, or is it a souvenir of a trip to Europe? They traveled there several times and brought back a great many things by ship.
I am inclined to think that Ellen Hixon did bring this back from a trip to the Continent, based on the motifs on the pieces. Victorian Americans, just a few generations removed from their Puritan ancestors, did not hold with a lot of nudity in their art, while Europeans have enjoyed the human form in all its unclothed glory since the Renaissance. Greek and Roman mythology have been the excuse for nudity and violence ever since, elevating our natural human interests to a mythical, classic plane.
It’s hard for me to picture Doerflinger’s department store selling this chocolate pot set. Cupids, nymphs, goddesses and one mortal male are depicted undressed, frolicking and fighting. I know the man is mortal because he has just been stabbed by a bare-chested goddess standing over him with a spear, while he appears to be dying in the middle of the lovely pastoral landscape.
The small crown on her head, combined with the fact that her modesty is partially maintained by floating draperies, makes me think she is meant to be Hera, wife of Zeus. But I’m just guessing, and I am not up on my Greek mythology enough to know who she was killing or why. Perhaps the maker was simply inspired by the original Mayan belief that their chocolate was the “food of the gods,” long before Europeans discovered it and took it back to Europe with them.
This chocolate set was much more than a way to drink hot chocolate, and by the end of the 19th century the availability of cocoa powder may have led most people to drink theirs from standard-size cups. This was a way of showing the user’s appreciation of European culture and history.
Today we still associate Cupid, the god of desire and affection, with chocolate, but we’ve removed the sex and violence that was a part of his world.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 2, 2017.