Art and History II: The Changing Value of Sugar as a Decorative Material in Britain

In Britain, four hundred years ago, sugar was a luxury item that only the elite had access to. The craze for sugar was widespread among them. At this time, sugar was used decoratively as a symbol of wealth and nobility because it was expensive and easy to mold into decorative use. Over time, however, the price of sugar decreased and it became more accessible. As a result, sugar lost its value as a symbol of wealth and the elite lost interest in using sugar as a decorative material.

Because sugar cane could not grow in the British climate, sugar was not available in Britain until transportation and trading was developed enough to bring sugar into the country (Sugarnutrition.org.uk). After sugar started being imported in the 1600s, as Mintz describes, the price made it beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest (82). As a result, displaying decorations made of sugar became a symbol of wealth, power and social status.

Sugar was popular among the elite because it was sweet and also easy to shape. Decorations made of sugar were made to be “admired and then eaten by guests” (Mintz 92). Cooks of the time discovered the relative ease with which other edibles such as almond and rice can be combined with sugar in liquid or solid form (Mintz 87). Such combinations resulted in pastes that were used to sculpture edible and preservable forms (Mintz 88). Sugar paste was used to form objects such as platters, dishes, glasses, and cups. At the end of a banquet, guests either ate all the cutlery made of sugar or break them (Mintz 92).

The image below from an illuminated manuscript portrays sugar’s popularity as a decorative material among the elites. Tables at royal banquets were embellished with ornate dishes, especially with sugar sculptures, enabling the host to show off his wealth and status. Two servants in the image carry sugar sculptures, one in the form of a ship and the other, a castle. Presenting sugar artwork at a royal feast, the host highlights his wealth and ability to afford using a rare commodity like sugar for embellishment.

An illuminated manuscript of a royal feast in late 15th century
An illuminated manuscript of a royal feast in the late 15th century

In the 1800s, as sugar became cheaper and more plentiful with the emergence of forced labor, its potency as a symbol of wealth and status declined. At that period of time, middle class gained access to sugar and started to emulate the elite’s use of sugar as a decorative material. Mrs. Glasse’s special confectionery cookbook of 1760 included elaborate displays for tables, resembling the festive tables of Henry IV or Archbishop Warham (Mintz 94). The image below represents how the cookbook was used as a manual that was “plain and easy,” that anybody would be able to follow the instructions in it. She used the association between sugar as a decorative material and the king to appeal to a wider, lower class audience. Sugar’s spread in the lower classes of British society caused sugar to lose power to distinguish elites. Hence, with the increased availability of sugar, this culinary art lost most of its appeal, even for the middle class (Mintz 94).

Mrs. Glasse’s special confectionery cookbook of 1760

Today, sugar products have become so mainstream that they are no longer associated with upper class. As sugar prices decreased and it became widely available, sugar in the form of decoration fell out of favor among the elites. A rarity in 1650 became a luxury in 1750 and transformed into a virtual necessity by 1850 (Mintz 148). Sugar’s importance and value transformed from an essential and alluring substance formed into art for banquet tables to a quick and easily accessible snack made into the products below. In order to understand the industrialization of sugar products, it is important to take a closer look at labor in sugar factories. How did sugar, a display of wealth in 1600s, eventually become a source of wealth?

Sugar products as snacks in the 21st century

References:

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

“About Sugar: History of Sugar.” Sugar Nutrition UK. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.sugarnutrition.org.uk/history-of-sugar.aspx >.

Images (in order of appearance):

  1. “Royal Feast.” British Library. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/large105853.html >.
  2. “Gastronomy Books.” Library of Congress LC Online Catalog. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/digitalcoll/digitalcoll-gastronomy.html >.
  3. “Accidentally Vegan Food List.” PETA Accidentally Vegan Food List Comments. PETA. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.peta.org/living/food/accidentally-vegan/ >.
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