Cocoa and the working woman

Do you remember cocoa ? It was what we drank before drinking chocolate stole the limelight. I’ve noticed that “hot chocolate” nowadays represents that which is cosy and comforting and maybe even ‘hygge’.

But I’m on a one-woman crusade to revive the splendour which is cocoa.

Our amazing weekly blog about the First World War in Cardiganshire leads us to explore the newspapers of the day, including lovely old advertisements. One method the advertisers of the day employed was to have a series of different ads on the same theme, and my favourite is for Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa (yes, other brands are available).


The Rowntree’s Cocoa ads formed a series about Women Workers, and there were at least nine different advertisements printed in regional papers in the autumn and winter of 1916.  The ads included a nurse, a post-woman, a munitions worker, a railway worker, and a clippy ( or ‘bus conductress’ ).

It was a clever bit of advertising. An engraving of an attractive young woman in the uniform of her profession – and shown preparing or brandishing a cup of cocoa – was accompanied by her commentary on the benefits of cocoa in the context of her work.  Whilst the adverts tapped into the fact that suddenly women were doing ‘men’s’ jobs,  the text often suggested how demanding the women found the work  and how determined they were to succeed. And how very possible this was when fortified by cocoa.

The strapline was ‘A cup of Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa makes a biscuit into a meal’. This too was clever. Although formal rationing was not introduced until 1917, food shortages were occurring by 1916, and the combination of an exhausting working day and low wages might mean that a woman wouldn’t find time to eat satisfactorily. The idea that a cup of cocoa and a biscuit was a nourishing replacement for a full meal must have been attractive to many.


Here’s the ‘commentary’ from the clippy; we have to imagine her working on a mechanized omnibus or tram in a busy town or city.

‘How are you getting on Alice?’ he said. ‘Fine’ I replied but I was feeling a bit tired though I didn’t want to own to it. What with pushing past people standing inside and climbing up top, I can  tell you it does take it out of one a bit. ‘Women don’t eat enough’ he said ‘ why don’t you take a cup of cocoa? – it turns a biscuit into a meal.’ But somehow I wouldn’t, just because it was his idea and not mine. One night I came in extra wet and cold and there was his Rowntree’s Cocoa steaming in the jug and it had such a lovely fragrance that I drank the whole lot up. ’Hullo’ he said when he came in ‘where’s my cocoa?’. Then I had to own up that I had drunk it , but I didn’t care a bit, for I was feeling so fresh and happy . I wouldn’t go without my Rowntree’s Cocoa now for anything – night and morning.

Great, isn’t it ? This young woman won’t be told what’s good for her by the mysterious ‘he’, yet is left feeling so positive under the benign effects of cocoa that she’s willing to concede ‘he’ was right. The same teasing challenge to a patriarchal society pervades the other advertisements too.


The cocoa-drink of these adverts appears to be water-based. Cocoa powder and sugar to taste were combined into a paste with hot water or milk, and then boiling water was added to make the drink. Other versions include the use of evaporated or condensed milk to add milkiness and sweetness.

I’ve replaced my daily hot chocolate with cocoa.  I have it with soya milk, unsweetened, and the resulting drink is austere. I’m equally fond of cow and goat milk though and the natural sweetness of these makes a more traditionally palatable drink – sugar to taste!  My local café has kindly started stocking cocoa for my benefit, and apparently other customers are beginning to express enthusiasm for it too.  So why not try cocoa yourself – either for old times’ sake or as a new experience, and share the pleasure of the thoroughly modern working woman and the enigmatic ‘he’?



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