Sugar has seen an unprecedented rise in popularity and consumption over the last few centuries compared to nearly every other major food good. Though “a rarity in 1650,” writes Mintz, sugar rapidly transformed into a “virtual necessity by 1850” (147-148). Scholars sometimes attribute the rise of the symbolic and economic importance of sugar to women’s consumption—but in doing so they neglect to consider the external societal and commercial influences driving women’s tastes (Mintz 140). Commercialism contributed heavily to the shift in the symbolic significance of sugar from a “rarity” reserved for the affluent to a crucial part of femininity and domesticity (152-3; 157; 163). Indeed, the meanings instilled in sugar through advertising and other forms of media contributed heavily to the minimization of the needs of women and their perceived legitimacy in the increasingly modern world (Mintz 140).
As the media constructed a powerful image of sugar as a healthy product to be consumed by women and children, the actual consumption of sugar grew to reflect the symbolic significance it was given. In the first image on the left, there is a specific “Note to Mothers” passage that suggests that mothers must utilize sugar in order to provide for their children. Other advertisements highlighted sugar as a critical part of women’s roles as hostesses and cooks. The next image shows a woman baking, smiling widely and declaring it “fun to cook—with Quaker sugar.”
The other shows the provision of Nabisco sugar wafers as an “invariable rule” among hostesses. Other advertisements suggest that sugar is a fundamental part of women’s sexuality and attractiveness, claiming that sugar can maintain purity or weight. Sugar had therefore been connected to many different aspects of the daily lives of women as crucial to fulfillment and success.
These and other images linked the symbolic meaning of sugar to historically sharp divisions between gender roles, ultimately acting as a tool to lessen the perceived importance of women. On the one hand, it is likely that increasing restrictions on women’s lives contributed to a shift in food preparation towards convenience, and marketers benefited from the continued feminization of sugar as a quick substitute for nutrition for all but the husband (Mintz 130). In the image below, Domino Sugar Corporation claims that sugar is healthier and can offer more energy than an apple, leading the viewer to associate the apple with nutritional value and food substitution. The man has no idea what sugar is yet his wife is an “expert,” explaining the positive properties of sugar to him. This further enforces the stereotype that women and sugar go hand in hand, perhaps compelling women to feel obligated to incorporate sugar into their lives in order to fit an ideal gender role. A power dynamic for nutrition had also been introduced—meat for men as the “primary bread winner” (Mintz 130), sugar for women and children (Mintz 139-41). Mintz notes the opinion of a doctor in 1863: “The important practical fact is however well established,” the doctor wrote, “that the laborer eats meat and bacon almost daily, whilst his wife and children may eat it but once a week” (144).
On the other hand, the depiction of women as sugar “experts” did far more than categorize sucrose within the division of labor between sexes: it played a crucial role in the depiction of women as “natural” domestic scientists (Lecture Slides)—leaving men to participate and benefit from the increasing importance of science in everyday life that accompanied the rise of modernity. Women were therefore less able to participate in the rapid progression of science and technology that occurred following the enlightenment; rather than broadening participation in scientific discovery to include women, scientific language and images were applied to domesticity to preserve the preexisting distribution of labor.
The image above shows University of Wisconsin women working in a Home Economics class in the early 1900’s. As seen by the beakers and flasks, this was meant to be seen as an equivalent to the biology and chemistry men were doing. While this may have offered women access to some kinds of science, it likely closed far more doors than it opened.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. (1985) New York: Penguin.
Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: U of California, 2009. Print.