Changes in Britain’s Use of Sugar and Potential Causes

Only the very rich could afford sugar when it was adapted into the British culture. By the 1500s, royalty used it in edible art-figures or “subtleties” displayed or given to guests at feasts as a show of wealth and power (Mintz 1986:88). Sugar had also been adopted as a spice and as a medicine; these uses faded over time. However, its use as a preservative and as a food increased especially after tea, coffee, and chocolate were made available in the 1600s. The wealthiest initially controlled the use of sugar, but as it declined in price, other classes adapted its use to their life circumstances; choices concerning sugar were influenced largely by status, wealth, or necessity.

Sugar spread to rich gentry and middle-classes, who feigned greater status by copying the wealthiest in their use of sugar as food and décor. This happened because the British West Indies and Jamaica provided more sugar and the price fell by seventy percent between 1645 and 1680 allowing four times more sugar to be consumed in England (Mintz 1986:107&160). Wealthy groups, such as prosperous merchants, wanted to make the appearance of status beyond their income level. For instance, they created subtleties using pasteboard foundations (Mintz 1986:93). Coffee houses serving coffee, chocolate, and tea, began opening in the 1650s and were frequented by the wealthier groups (Mintz 1986:111-117). Sugar was craved by all classes. It is hypothesized that the British had acquired an earlier taste for sweet drinks because they had prepared malted grain ale and honey mead for centuries (Mintz 1986:136-137). Copying the tradition of “the tea” enjoyed by aristocracy, the middle-classes created their own tea tradition with a light lunch, and lower middle-classes created a late afternoon tea time (Mintz 1986:141-142). Traditions were adapted to fit the lifestyle of different income groups in other ways as well. For instance, by 1747 the middle-classes were making homey versions of subtleties they called “jumballs” (Mintz 1986:93), viewed here:

The modification saved sugar making this middle-class version less expensive. Because the use of sugar no longer represented highest status, sugar subtleties were replaced by the rich with new rarities such as porcelains, similar to this:

At this point, sugar had become predominantly a food and preservative, making its way into expensive products. For instance, by the 1830s high priced preserved fruits were marketed (Goody 2013:76). Overall, as sugar came within reach of each class it was adapted to their lifestyle and used to the extent of affordability.

Sugar’s potential to create wealth was noticed by sugar brokers and others. For instance, sugar broker George R. Porter, believed that the poor would consume much more sugar if they could afford it (Mintz 1986:174). Policies protecting West Indian planters that had kept sugar prices high were rescinded, allowing sugar prices to fall sharply after 1850 to free trade levels (Mintz 1986:177&148). Lower income classes were able to afford sugar. Coffee public houses were opened in the1870s by temperance societies to help people resist alcohol at pubs (Goody 2013:79). The timing of this would also have encouraged sugar consumption through tea. As larger amounts of sugar arrived, poor people who worked in factories bought sugar in place of other foods (Mintz 1986:118). Profits were increased by selling sugar at lower prices to all classes including the poor. These profits allowed manufacturing growth, larger bank deposits, more business loans, and other benefits to the upper classes (Mintz 1986:148). The poor bought high-calorie food that gave them energy to keep working in low-waged jobs. However, this does not mean the poor wanted to eat sugar more than other foods.

The poor were hungry and had to make choices out of necessity in using their small factory income. For instance, making bread at home had been traditional, as shown here:

However, it would have been difficult to keep making bread and also keep long factory working hours. Women and children working, cooking fuel costs, and exhaustion pushed families to begin buying bread (Mintz 1986:130). The little meat available was given predominantly to the father out of a feeling of moral duty to support his more strenuous labor (Mintz 1986:144). This rationing of time and food shows that the poor chose sugar out of necessity. After 1870, bread and jam became a very important food to the poor (Mintz 1986:129). It was a staple food in daily life either purchased or made, as seen here:

The poor assimilated tea and jam into routine and special occasions, as had higher income groups, but they intensified its use out of necessity to avoid hunger. It was a cheap, less nutritious, more convenient source of energy and became traditionalized into culture.

Overall, sugar consumption transitioned down through income classes as it became less expensive and changed in use according to the circumstances of differing classes; choices were made based largely on status, wealth, or necessity. Approaching the 1900’s, sugar consumption evolved with more prepared foods flavored and preserved with sugar and packaged for convenience (Mintz 1986:147). For instance, canned condensed milk used in Britain since the mid-1800s (Goody 2013:77) was sweetened and sold as a popular creamer (Mintz 1986:143). By the 1890s, cereals were invented (Goody 2013:80), which encouraged sugar use. Popularized by jam, biscuits also changed through time and mass production techniques, making them and other sugar products widely available (Goody 2013:74). By 1900, sugar was contributing about one sixth of all calories consumed in England, weighted toward the working class (Mintz 1986:149). Clearly, the use of sugar changed over time, becoming more widespread, diversified, and intensified as it transitioned from the wealthiest to the poorest.

References Cited

Goody, Jack. (2013) [1982]. Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.

  1. 72-88. Book.

Kandler, Johann Joachim. Meissenvanda. Circa 1750. Porcelain. Meissen Porcelain Factory

V&A Museum. Meissen, Germany. Web. 8, Mar. 2015.

Makovsky, Vladimir. Vladimir Makovsky – Making Jam. 1876. Oil painting on canvas. Web. 8, Mar. 2015.

Mintz, Sidney W. (1986) [1985]. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Group. Book.

Mitchell, S. Buttermilk Jumbles. 7, Dec. 2007. Photograph.

Web. 8, Mar. 2015.

Walker, George. Yorkshire Woman Making Oat Cakes. 1813. Two dimensional art. New York

Public Library’s Rare Books Division Digital Library.

Web. 8, Mar. 2015.


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