From Rare Luxury to Every Day Staple: British Sugar Consumption

If you were to visit the United Kingdom today, you would surely notice the prominence of sweets throughout your visit.  Candies, pastries, and other sweet delicacies can be found at every turn.  Although this is the norm for the British experience today, it was not so long ago that sugar was a rare luxury only consumed by royalty and the elite.  British sugar consumption grew rapidly in the span of only a few hundred years.  “A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed into a virtual necessity by 1850” (Mintz 148).  Sugar was used in many capacities, with it’s five major uses being “as medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative” (Mintz 78).  These uses evolved over time as consumption and popularity of the sweet substance grew, which led to sugar shifting from being an expensive luxury item that was inaccessible to most, to becoming a staple in most British households.

Henry II of England

Records for royal income and expenditure show that King Henry II was one of the first in England to consume sugar.  “The quantities involved must have been very small: only royalty and the very rich could have afforded sugar at this time” (Mintz 82).  However, in the mid 1800’s the price of sugar dropped, making this desirable commodity accessible to people in all classes.  After the price drop, the poor began to consume sugar regularly and it became a staple in the home.  “Children learned the sugar habit at a very tender age; sweetened tea was a part of every meal; jam, marmalade, or treacle featured in most” (Mintz 143).  Suddenly sugar had a very different place in society, a place where all in Britain not only desired and valued it greatly, but also consumed it as a standard part of their diet.

British boy eating porridge by British painter William Hemsley.  Porridge was often sweetened with sugar during this time.

One possible reason for the British popularity of sugar being added to beverages is that it became a habit because it was a tradition, “…not so much a special English predilection for sweetness — though there may indeed have been such — as a long-standing familiarity with sweetened beverages” (Mintz 137).  This explanation ties in to the fact that our tastes develop and adapt to what we are accustomed to eating and drinking, and if we consume sweet tasting items, we will develop a “sweet tooth”.

Another possible reason for sugar’s rapid growth as a desirable item for the poor and lower class British was the model of upper-class behavior influencing desires.  Because sugar grew to fame as a luxury item, it was a symbol of rank and status in society.  “Sugars began as luxuries, and as such it embodied the social position of the wealthy and powerful” (Mintz 140).  Food items made with sugar would be served in British homes in part to prove status and rank.  People of all classes took cues from the recipes of the elite and adapted these sugar related recipes into standard dishes in their homes.  “As sugar became more known, more ‘homey’, it was endowed with ritual meanings by those who consumed it” (Mintz 122).

The fact that sugar provided variety and much needed additional calories to the British diet cannot be overlooked as a strong factor for the growth in sugar consumption.  

“Some were doubtless inadequately fed; others were bored by their food and by the large quantities of starchy carbohydrates they ate.  A hot liquid stimulant full of sweet calories doubtless ‘hit the spot,’ perhaps particularly for people who were already under-nourished” (Mintz 118). 

The bland British diet was greatly enhanced by the addition of sugar, and people from all classes desired something new and more flavorful in their meals.

Sugar has a strong place in British history and was adored by so many that it became a commodity that made those in the business of sugar very wealthy.  The famous Tate museums in England were started in 1889 by Henry Tate.  The Tate museum attributes it beginnings to its namesake, Henry Tate, who used the fortunes he had made as a sugar refiner to purchase art.  He chose to share this art with the public and did so through starting the Tate museum. (http://www.tate.org.uk/about/who-we-are/history-of-tate). 

Henry Tate, sugar refiner and founder of the Tate Museum

Works Cited:

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Group, 1985. Print.

Tate.  History of Tate.  Retrieved from: http://www.tate.org.uk/about/who-we-are/history-of-tate

National Portrait Gallery. (1620). Portrait of King Henry II.  Retrieved from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/34/Henry_II_of_England.png

William Hemsley. (1893).  Porridge.  Retrieved from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/William_Hemsley_Porridge.jpg

Hubert von Herkomer. (1897).  Portrait of Henry Tate.  Retrieved from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Sir_Henry_Tate.jpg

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