The Chocolate Connection: Hans Sloane & Jamaica (Review)

Lloyd Library & Museum offers exhibition on pioneering studies of chocolate

Critic's Pick

Downtown’s Lloyd Library & Museum, a fascinating private nonprofit institution that collects books, journals and archival material related to natural history, botany, pharmacy, medicine and scientific history, recently faced a dilemma. How should it recognize the 350th anniversary of the birth of Hans Sloane, a pioneering scientist and physician whose name is not really on the tip of everybody’s tongue?

Maggie Heran, director of the library, says, “We knew we had good material, but we wanted something to catch people's interest.”

That something turned out to be chocolate.

The Chocolate Connection: Hans Sloane & Jamaica utilizes the scholarly depth of the library's collection and gives chocolate lovers something to see and think about.

Irish-born Sloane made his name in London, partly as a result of extensive travels in the New World. He was deeply interested in botany and natural history. In Jamaica he gave close attention to the cacao tree and became convinced, as a physician, that drinking chocolate was good for one’s health. Chocolate as it comes from the tree is bitter, but Sloane reduced that effect by advocating a drinkable milk chocolate.

Because Sloane and chocolate collided on Jamaica, we are showcasing some works from Lloyd's collection on these topics and demonstrating how they interact with each other,” Heran says.

In 1696 Sloane published a book on the botany of Jamaica. The library's copy is in the exhibition, open to a double-page illustration of the cacao tree. Other beautiful old books in the show also have wonderful illustrations; a particularly fine example is seen in the color prints of an 18th-century French publication, La Botanique Mise a La Portee De Tout Le Monde, by Nicolas Regnault. One of the Library's earliest depictions of the cacao plants, showing the seeds, is in a book published in 1633, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, by John Gerard.

While Sloane brought medicinal effects of the cacao plant to a large public, he was hardly the first to ascribe it special qualities. The plant had been known in Central and South America since at least 350 BCE (before the Common Era). Pictures in both old and recently published books on display at the library show special drinking vessels of unique pottery (or even of gold) meant for chocolate.

R.B. Johnson, in The Food of the Gods — published in 1903 and part of the show — reports, “At the royal banquets frothing chocolate was served in golden goblets with finely wrought golden or tortoise shell spoons.” Frothing chocolate, anyone? The exhibition does make the point that modern science has found downsides to excessive chocolate consumption — the caffeine and the calories.

A particularly telling exhibition inclusion is a photograph taken by one of the Lloyd brothers, the founders of the library. Curtis Gates Lloyd's photograph shows a man drying cacao beans on the island of Trinidad in the winter of 1891. By that time the library was a project underway by the three brothers, whose Lloyd Brothers, Pharmacists Inc. was increasingly influential in the field. They recognized the value to others of the personal library they had built up and wanted it to become a collection providing “a library of botanical, medical, pharmaceutical, and scientific books and periodicals … (to) serve the scientific research community,” according to the mission statement.

Under Heran's directorship the library's stated mission has expanded to include “constituents of the general public” and to develop “library services and programming that bring science, art and history to life.” The library had always been open to the public, but exhibitions like The Chocolate Connection illuminate these sometimes-arcane subjects for a broader audience.

The Lloyd brothers themselves make a fascinating story, with their unending curiosity and devotion to books. One of them, John Uri, was a novelist as well as pharmacist. They can be imagined feeling kinship to the indefatigable Hans Sloane, whose own library and collections formed the basis for the British Museum and the Natural History Museum of London.

An engaging adjunct to the exhibition is art works by Art Academy of Cincinnati students, who were asked to produce illustrations creatively employing chocolate as the central theme. These works, fanciful takes on an inviting subject, are shown in the library's temporary exhibition gallery and also turn up among the items in the primary exhibition.

The Library invites those who can't make it to the exhibition to explore the material on its Web site,, where background information includes the informative labels and a bibliography shows the library's own books on the subject, consulted for this exhibition.

LLOYD LIBRARY AND MUSEUM (917 Plum St., Downtown, 513-721-3707) is open 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. The Chocolate Connection: Hans Sloane & Jamaica continues through Jan. 31. Get show and venue details here.

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