Sugar: A Necessity of the British Working Class

Though sugar has successfully infiltrated nearly every facet of the British diet, this was not always the case. During its early years in Britain, sugar was reserved for royalty or the truly elite. For a time in the 18th century it was even the subject of an abolition-based boycott.

A Poem Imploring Britain the Boycott Sugar - Written by the Tyler Family
A poem imploring Britain to boycott sugar – Written by the Tyler Family

By the mid 19th-century, however, it had become a staple for the working class. Perhaps not just a staple, even, but a vital addition to their diet and culture. Though there were many factors contributing to this new culinary trend, the primary reasons are centered around the fact that sugar was convenient, and sugar provided energy.

The convenience factor was a major contributor to the high consumption of sugars among the working class, and this manifested in many shapes and forms. There were opportunities for female employment around the mid 1850s and thus, many households had two working parents. This left little time for food preparation: if the wife—and let it be noted that cooking was still entirely a woman’s domain—was out of the house earning an income, she could not be home to make food for her children’s midday meal or begin preparation for that evening’s supper. Thus, bread baked outside the home was substituted for homemade varieties, a practice that was “representative of the shift from a traditional cooking system, costly in fuels and in time, toward what we would now proclaim as ‘convenience eating’” (Mintz 130). The convenience provided to these same working class families by sugar as a preservative also applies to jam, which could be used to sweeten tea or spread on bread in the absence of butter (Mintz 129).

This culture of convenience was not isolated to just sugar, however. Convenience eventually won out against even porridge: the advent of all kinds of prepackaged, canned, and preserved goods brought about by industrialization and mechanization in the 19th century meant that the amount of food prepared and eaten within the home was declining. Prepackaged cereals, such as Grape Nuts and Shredded Wheat, spread to British tables in the 1890s, where their easy preparation (even easier and faster than porridge!) proved invaluable in households with two working parents (Jack Goody 81).

"Porridge" by William Hemsley
“Porridge” by William Hemsley. Porridge eaten by children in the 19th century would frequently have sugar added to it.

Sugar also became such a necessity for the British lower class because its high calorie content made it an excellent source of energy. The foods eaten by the working class of mid 19th-century Britain made for a simple diet that left the eater susceptible to malnourishment Fast-burning carbohydrate-based foods such as bread and potatoes were eaten most frequently, and this lack of variation provided very little stimulation or energy to the consumer. And though the working-class did have access to meat, we know that it was not portioned equally among individual members of a family (Mintz 130). Instead, it was given to the man of the house, who left his children and wife to find energies and calories through other means—means which ended up being sugary:

…the very high consumption of sugar in some poor families is very closely correlated with the poverty of their diet in what one might call secondary satisfactions of diet and in its immediate stimulating faculties. This is a very important point in sugar consumption, especially when this includes sweets and “spreads” (on breads) for children. (Mintz 177)

British female laborers enjoying a tea break
Tea break for the workers of the British Oil Cake Company, Manchester.

Thus, when sugar became more widely available to the lower classes after 1850, it brought caloric bulk, energy (and perhaps even pleasure) with it. The husband ate meat nearly every day, and his wife and and children dined on tarts, pudding with treacle, or sweetened tea (Mintz 145). Though still carbohydrate-dense and certainly lacking a great number of essential nutrients, the addition of sugar to these meatless meals meant the addition of a great number of vital calories to the diets of working-class women and children.

Sugar has had many uses over the hundreds of years it has been in Great Britain, and it has impacted all social classes and people therein. However, it was its effectiveness as a convenient sweetener and source of energy that made it such a vital necessity for the working classes.

Works Cited:

Goody, Jack. Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Penny Van Esterik and Carole Counihan. New York: Routledge, 1997. 72-90. Print.

Hemsley, William. Porridge. N.d. Porridge. Wikimedia. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. Retrieved from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/William_Hemsley_Porridge.jpg

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

Tea Break for Manchester Oil Cake Company Workers. N.d. Manchester, UK. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/02/12/8c/02128ca5655a228388396f996d2a300e.jpg&gt;.

Tyler Family. “Sugar and Slavery.” Sugar in the Atlantic World. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

<http://clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/sugarexhibit/sugar06.php&gt;

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