The Ghirardelli Story

By Lawrence, Sidney | California History, Spring-Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Ghirardelli Story

Lawrence, Sidney, California History

People love chocolate, but how many people know that the country's second oldest chocolate company is Ghirardelli? Founded in June 1852, it has been operating for more than one hundred and fifty years now; only Baker's Chocolate, founded in 1780 in Massachusetts, is older. (1) And Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, the company's factory from 1894 to 1964. is the granddaddy of industrial sites adapted to become public attractions, now common to many American cities. (2) The fifteen-foot-high letters on the chocolate factory's towered brick "castle" are as local a landmark to San Francisco as the TransAmerica Pyramid or Coit Tower. Ghirardelli also stands for chocolate with the potential for intense pleasure that rivals other brand names like Mars, Hershey's, or Godiva. Few people do not recognize the name.

But just be sure to say Chirardelli with a hard G as in ghost or spaghetti, and leave the J sound to gin and gypsy. My grandfather, a member of the chocolate-making family and the company's second-to-last family president, said it the right way. This lively individual, Alfred Ghirardelli (1884-1956), also realized that there was a fascinating story to be told in the origins and evolution of this Italian-American clan and its business. In 1945, anticipating the Gold Rush's centennial a few years later, he commissioned a succinct scholarly history of Domingo Ghirardelli's company, which pinned down important facts about the Italian founder's life and times as a pioneer businessman. (3) Some four decades later, Alfred's daughter Polly Ghirardelli Lawrence (1921-1997), my mother, resumed the effort by combining archival research and personal reminiscences in a volume of interviews (shared with two of her cousins) published by the Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office in 1985. (4)

The present writer, researching a 1999-2000 family exhibition for the Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco, (5) continued this work and found numerous untapped archives, collections, and memorabilia to shed light on the Ghirardelli past. (6) The Ghirardelli story represents a rich, multilayered slice of California history, so let us now funnel backward to see how.


The story begins in the northern Italian coastal town of Rapallo, the busiest and largest of several settlements south of Genoa along the Ligurian Riviera--an idyllic region for an only son of a modestly successful merchant to be raised and learn a trade, except for the political realities. In 1815, two years before the founder of San Francisco's chocolate company was born there, the Congress of Vienna, as part of its liquidation of Napoleon's European Empire, ceded the centuries-old Republic of Genoa to the neighboring Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The Genoese chafed at the loss of independence and rule by a monarchy "equally imbecile as it is corrupt." (7) They reacted by staging uprisings in 1831 and again in 1834. This last one, a major city-wide revolt, was mercilessly quashed.

At that time, Domenico Ghirardelli was a teenage apprentice at Romanengo's, a fancy confectionary shop in Genoa still in business today, (8) learning how to prepare and sell sugar loaves, candies, and sugarsweetened chocolate paste to be diluted in water to create a hot "comfort" beverage and stimulant. But as Ghirardelii readied himself for an independent life, the region remained politically volatile, so with the blessing and financial help of his father,9 he set out for the New World.


In this period, North America was mostly the destination of wayward, ambitious, or poor Protestants, but Italians went to South America, where a compatible Latin culture awaited them. In 1837 Ghirardelli, aged twenty and newly married to Elisabetta "Bettina" Corsini, sailed to Montevideo, Uruguay. Ghirardelli found work in a coffee and spice shop there, but perhaps because of instability created by Uruguay's border disputes, (10) Montevideo turned out to be only a temporary home for the young confectioner.

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