Fry’s Chocolate is one of the oldest European chocolate makers, starting from the 18th century with a Quaker named Joseph Fry (1728–1787) and his wife, Anna, and their store in Bristol, England. Fry had made his money in the metal typeface foundry business (similar to THIS previous blog post), allowing ventures into other businesses. For the Fry family, this included general stores, soap making, and chocolate production. It was a pretty successful business that eventually lead to a rather profound breakthrough in 1847 with the production of the first solid chocolate bar. Fry's was bought out in 1919 and the name was retired in 1981. Let’s find out how that happened and get into some tasty history.
The story of chocolate goes back well over 5,000 years ago to the Olmec civilization that dried the seeds (beans) from the fruit of cacao trees, native to Central and South America. How the beans were used were a bit different than today. Olmecs used the drink for special occasions. Traces of theobromine - the stimulant found in cocoa beans - has been found in Olmec pottery from 1500 B.C.E. The cacao fruit produces one sweet flavor from the white pulp the seeds sit in, a different flavor from fresh seeds that are cleaned, and the most recognizable chocolate flavor when the beans are allowed to ferment for 5-7 days followed by being roasted. The powder would then be mixed with milk, water, possibly sweetened with the white pulp of the cocoa fruit, and was used as a ceremonial drink.
Chocolate made it to the Mayan civilization where the drink would be used for special events like finalizing transactions, sealing treaties, and consuming in celebration. Cocoa migrated to the Aztec civilization, who called it xocolātl (where the Spanish got the word "chocolate"). The Aztecs acknowledged xocolātl came from “Olman,” as Olmec in Nahuatl means “land of rubber.” This was because rubber trees were abundant and the Olmec produced a latex extract for rubber balls, bowls, waterproofing boats, and clothing. From the Mayan-to-Aztec era, the drink became thicker, frothier, and was sweetened with honey and/or spiced with chili peppers.
Although there are some opposing views to the particulars, the ultimate reality is that cocoa made it to Europe via the Spanish. Because of the bitterness, chili peppers, and the consistency, the conquistadors, like Columbus and Cortez, were not fans. But in hopes of creating something “better,” the beans were exported to Spain, where it ventured across globe, thanks to milk, butter, and a whole lot of sugar. Xocolata Jolonch began in Spain, starting in 1770. Ten years later, Baker’s Chocolate Company began in Massachusetts in 1780. François-Louis Cailler founded Cailler in Broc, Switzerland in 1819. Lindt and Sprungli was founded by Rodolphe Lindt in Kilchberg (Zürich), Switzerland in 1845. That brings us to J.S. Fry & Sons from Bristol, England in 1822.
THE MANY JOSEPH FRYS
Joseph Fry was trained as doctor and pharmacist, and being at one of the major ports importing goods from the New World, he was convinced that cocoa had medicinal purposes and chocolate could be helpful for combatting the consumption of alcohol. Fry married Anna Portsmouth of the Hampshire Portsmouths (he married well), opened his business in 1753, and began selling cocoa powder around 1756. In 1761, Joseph Fry took on partner John Vaughan, and together they produced some of the finest ground cocoa powder in England. But all this time, chocolate was mainly a drink or a flavoring used in other pastries and confections.
Fry, Vaughan & Co lasted from 1761 to 1787. When Fry passed away, his wife, Anna took over and the company became Anna Fry & Son (the “son” being Joseph Storrs Fry). Anna died in 1803, and Joseph Storrs Fry took over, partnering with a Dr. Hunt to create Fry & Hunt that lasted until 1822 when Hunt retired. Thus, J.S. Fry & Sons began in 1822 and with the help of Dr. Hunt, the Fry family were quick to make drastic improvements to production including using steam engines, adding arrowroot to the cocoa making it less oily, and reinvented the roasting process to take less time. By 1824, the Fry family was absorbing around 40% of the cocoa being imported into Britain.
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In the 1840s, the Frys were continuing their growth and testing, and a remarkable achievement came with mixing cocoa powder, sugar, and cocoa fat over heat to form a smooth paste. The paste would be poured in a form (in this case, a bar), and when the mixture cooled, it hardened. The Fry family had created the first chocolate bar - a portable form of consumption that could be divided and eaten slowly over time at the discretion of the customer, rather than having to return to the shop each time one craved chocolate. It also wasn't a drink. It’s not determined whether this helped with alcohol consumption, or if it resulted in a new series of chocolate-and-booze pairings.
By the time Fry’s makes it into the hands of the grandchildren, much of the profits of the business were being diverted to Quaker-based Christian charities and organizations, and less on innovation. Their massive business maintained in cramped factories, and many of the machines had not been upgraded. It’s little surprise, that Cadburys, founded in 1824 by fellow Quaker John Cadbury (1801-1889), bought out Frys Chocolate in 1919. Cadburys kept the Frys brand alive until 1981. Kraft bough Cadburys in January of 2010, and the next year closed all the original Frys factories.
SIGNS AND ADVERTISING
How much is Frys Chocolate advertising worth? Authentic antique advertising has always held decent values. Even with a sign in this rough shape, we're talking about a company that is well over 200 years old. Even after being bought out by Cadburys in 1919, the Frys brand would've continued into the mid-1900s, before declining until it's eventual demise in the 1980s. Therefore, anything from the 1800s until the 1920s would be worth quite a bit.
In the above picture, the first "Frys Chocolate" sign is 48" long x 12" tall, and sold by Purcell Auctioneers auction for €1,118.13 ($1,220.55) on Aug 16, 2023. It was manufactured by Patent Enamel Co Ltd (1889-1960). In contrast, the second long sign was sold back in December 03, 2021 by Ewbank's Auctions for £600.00 ($796.56). It's also a much larger sign coming in at 74" wide x 15" tall. Just in the past 3 years, the value of Frys Chocolate porcelain signs have drastically increased.
The green "Frys Nut Milk Chocolate" sign measures 14" wide x 20" tall, and was sold by Purcell Auctioneers for £600.00 ($796.56) in their Aug 16, 2023 auction. Yes, it's in pretty rough shape, but it still maintains that great green color and sharp bright "FRYS" lettering. The most popular sign, and the one most often reproduced, is the blue sign showing the little boy experiencing five stages of the chocolate experience. The one above measures 18" wide x 12" tall, and even though it shows its age, still brought in £1,534.00 ($1,845.62) in G.W. Railwayana's Jul 02, 2022 auction. A much cleaner version was sold by the same auction house in Nov 08, 2021 for £1,770.00 ($2,397.67). THIS is the one we sold in our shop, and THIS one was reproduced by Cadburys in the 1930s.
Check your closets, attics, and garages... you may have some pretty valuable hidden treasures worth investigating. If interested, you can find Frys Chocolate recipes from the 1920s by clicking HERE.