"Do you like chocolate?" That's one of the first questions I ask museum visitors during a chocolate program I lead in the museum's Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza. Nearly every time, the response is unanimous: "Of course!" Most of us don't see chocolate as more than a delicious (and often addictive) candy we love to eat, especially around Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Many people are surprised, then, when I show them how chocolate has had many other uses besides being a confection.
Our interactive program on chocolate history, The Business of Chocolate: From Bean to Drink, helps visitors understand how people made chocolate in the 18th century as well as chocolate's historical roles in American business and society. In particular, I love talking with visitors about chocolate's use in military rations, both because it's a story I first heard from my grandfather and because it's a topic I was able to research during my internship.
My grandfather, Harlan Thomas Kennedy, a veteran of World War II, used to share memories of eating chocolate on the battlefront. Growing up in a poor mining family in western Kentucky during the Great Depression, my grandfather hardly had much chocolate until his time in the army. While in the 82nd Airborne Division fighting in Belgium and the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden, he received field rations, a most spartan variant being the K-ration. These rations each included a chocolate bar!
My grandfather's fondness for the rationed chocolate bars was so great that he would even trade cigarettes for more chocolate. These chocolate bars certainly served as a morale boost when on the front, where resources had to be limited.
Of all foods, why chocolate? Because of its caffeine and high calorie content, it was a reliable source of energy for soldiers on the front. Chocolate consumption among Americans dates back to colonial times—George Washington and the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War would have consumed chocolate as a hot beverage, for example. By World War II chocolate had become a staple of military rations.
In fact, the U.S. War Department collaborated with chocolate manufacturers to produce Ration D bars, especially suitable for extreme temperatures sometimes encountered on the front. A mixture of chocolate, sugar, powdered milk, oat flour, and vitamins provided 600 calories per serving and made a very effective survival food.
It surprises me that my grandpa enjoyed the bars so much, as they were designed more for sustenance than for taste. They were to be eaten slowly to supply maximum energy. The Ration D bars were intended to "taste a little better than a boiled potato," according to U.S. Army Quartermaster Paul Logan in a 1937 correspondence with Hershey's, and many other soldiers apparently disliked the bar since it was mostly bitter and extremely dense. I suppose if the bars were too tasty, they would've been eaten too quickly!
Due to the amount of chocolate the War Department and the Red Cross sent to soldiers abroad, chocolate on the home front was very limited. Many magazine advertisements asked civilians for wartime cooperation and understanding, as chocolate became an integral part in the war effort. Could you imagine if chocolate were rationed today?
As with many other products, chocolate's wartime production helped it develop into a mass consumer food in the decades after the war. If you are interested in learning more about chocolate's military legacy, you should check out the M&M's story, currently on display in the American Enterprise exhibition. M&M's were first introduced to World War II soldiers as a sugar-coated chocolate candy that didn't melt in your hands.
Listening to my grandfather's wartime memories of chocolate helped me realize how small things in our lives connect to bigger movements, ideas, and events. Have you talked with your family members or friends about the role of special foods like chocolate in their lives?
Sean Jacobson completed an internship in the Department of Visitor Services. He is a recent graduate of Western Kentucky University, where he majored in History and Broadcasting. The Business of Chocolate: From Bean to Drink is a free daytime program made possible by Mars, Incorporated. Check our calendar for upcoming dates.
Leadership support for American Enterprise in the Mars Hall of American Business was provided by Mars, Incorporated; the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation; and SC Johnson.