By the latter half of the 18th century, Philadelphia, one of the main seaports in British North America, was importing high quantities of cocoa from various sources categorized in the Ledgers of Imports and Exports as “British” (West Indies), “Foreign” (non-British or mainland source), “Coastwise” (Atlantic ports), or simply “North American.”
In America, cocoa importers paid lower transportation costs and import duties than their counterparts in European ports, but this imbalance changed after the passing of the Townshend Act of 1767. The confection now known as a gift for Valentine’s Day, a guilty pleasure, or simply a sweet dessert was, at that earlier time, considered an essential item in everyday life. Large quantities of cocoa beans were on sale in the shops of various merchants in and around High Street (now called Market Street), and each merchant left an individual mark on their products.
At least 24 merchants have been identified as selling chocolate in their Philadelphia shops, including Benjamin Franklin, who sold chocolate in his printshop starting in 1739, multiple Quakers, and Benjamin Jackson, a Black man, were among these sellers. Jackson’s name may not elicit a quick response or recollection, but his business from 1757 to 1769 was one of the most popular. Not much was written about his personal life, but a number of his advertisements give clues as to what he and his business were like.
Jackson’s earliest advertisement, printed in Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Gazette on April 28, 1757, read “Mustard-maker from London, now of Laetitia Court, Market Street, Philadelphia.” Whether he was born in London or elsewhere and moved to Philadelphia is not mentioned. The full advertisement praises the fineness of his mustard and its origin in England. About halfway through the ad is the first mention that Jackson also made chocolate “in the best manner” and sold both commodities at very reasonable rates.
Before the American Revolution, chocolate was often dark and slightly bitter because sugar was expensive. This chocolate was often mixed with orange, anise, nutmeg, vanilla, and other spices to make it more palatable. The manufacturing process started with roasting the cocoa beans and then shelling and crushing them in a large mixing bowl. The beans were then transferred to a heated grinding stone. Using an iron rolling pin, the beans were ground into a liquid and spices were added. Due to the variety of beans from various sources and the many spices, the taste of the product often changed from month to month.
By 1758, Jackson’s main product consisted of a flask of mustard seeds, a crest adorned with his name, and a bar of chocolate for his Laetitia Court location. In this advertisement, he boasts about the high quality of his goods. “As I am the original, and at present, the only proper mustard manufacturer in this province or on this continent, with others being only imperfect imitators of my method. Therefore, to prevent deceptions, all my bottles in the future will be sealed with this city arms, and the following inscription: B. Jackson’s Philadelphia flour of mustard around, as at the top of this advertisement, with proper directions on each bottle. I also prepare chocolate in the very best manner for the perfecting of which no cost or pain is spared.”
By the 1760s, Jackson partnered with Captain Jonathan Crathorne, which resulted in a slight business name change to Benjamin Jackson and Company, as seen in the July 1761 edition of the Philadelphia Gazette. This relationship would be short-lived and appears to have been dissolved by 1765. A public notice of the end to their partnership reads “This is to inform the public, that the co-partnership of Jonathan Crathorne and Benjamin Jackson is now dissolved, and that Jonathan Crathorne has bough of said Jackson all the works late belonging to the company, viz, the mustard and chocolate mills, and all materials thereunto belonging, in the Northern Liberties, a little way from town, on the Germantown Road, and commonly called the Globe Mill, where he continues to manufacture mustard, chocolate, vinegar, etc. and grinds ginger.”
Both men set up separate shops, but used similar logos and promotions often on the same newspaper page. Presumably, this led to Jackson moving to a new location on Front Street next to the London Coffee House. Unfortunately, there were still ongoing disputes between both men that extended past the death of Crathorne due to the similarities in their businesses. For example, Mary Crathorne’s (wife of Captain Crathorne) advertisements that also used the logo popularized by Jackson, but with her name in the crest. Her own foray into chocolate making would not last. Although a number of her former husband’s customers continued their patronage, her own business would fail.
By the mid-1760s, concerns developed due to consequences stemming from the French-Indian War from 1754 to 1763. The cost of trade increased, which led to nonimportation agreements that were in reaction to the newly minted Stamp Act and the Townshend Act. These acts directly affected cocoa by the duties levied on reimported items, which forced buyers to procure them both legally and illegally.
In October 1768, Jackson and his new partner, John Gibbons, addressed in advertisements published in the Pennsylvania Gazette the concerns that consumers were feeling during this time, especially due to the shortages. “[We] take the liberty of informing the public, in general, and old friends and customers, in particular, that we can now supply them with any quantity want, many of whom orders they have frequently been unable to comply with. And as there now seems a noble and magnanimous disposition discussed, and daily discussing felt more and more, amongst the British colonies in America, of encouraging all our own manufacturers.”
At this point, merchants were moving into the position of using their political strength and boycotts to achieve their goals. They also had to take into consideration the cost of items by making them more affordable for more consumers. By 1770, the tone would become more political as consumers were prompted to only buy from the British colonies in America.
Jackson’s death would end his operation. By 1769, William Norton and Company made it known in a January edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette that it had bought out Jackson and Gibbons and purchased the mills. Presumably what William Norton, a Quaker, had observed with Jackson’s success where two items. The first being Jackson’s advertising often talking directly to consumer needs and concerns. The second having experienced workmen to make the product.
Although Jackson’s business existed 100 years before Valentine’s Day became a popular, commercial holiday in the mid-1800s, it would be interesting to learn how he would navigate current marketing tools and modern chocolate making. Would he mass produce his product or go the artisanal route with small batch confection making? Based off of what we do know, it is safe to assume that he would be working with shops like Shane’s Confectionery to produce 18th century-themed chocolate bars, utilizing ethically-sourced cocoa from various ports, and having a hand in marketing. Jackson would find that his Pennsylvania Gazette advertisements still ring true today.