Today, sugar is an important part of meals all around the world, but things did not start out that way. A rare commodity at first, the rise of sugar was demonstrated by its ever growing popularity which originated from different reasons that held different meanings, especially in Britain. What caused this good to transition through the social realms as it did?
The origin of sugar in Europe can be traced back to 1100 CE or the late 11th, early 12th century (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15). The Crusades were the opportunity for many Europeans to familiarize themselves with sugar along with other exotic products from foreign lands. From early on the value of sugar was recognized as the Crusaders themselves, after conquering new lands, would oversee the growing of sugar-cane as depicted above (Mintz 1985.28). Sugar was at first only a food for kings. It was used to demonstrate or portray one’s wealth and could only be purchased by the extremely wealthy and in very small quantities, compared to what is available today. Over time, this commodity went from a rarity, to a luxury, to an everyday item.
Development of the capability to produce sugar played a key role in expanding Britain’s consumption basis. One of the causes of increased sugar production and consumption for Britain was the settlement of Barbados in 1627, a West Indian island which the English had previously claimed (Mintz 1985.28). This enabled Britain to produce much more of its own sugar and refrain from having to procure it from other countries, which could inflate the price of the commodity and supply as little or as much as desired. Starting from Barbados and Jamaica, the English widened their territory and using methods of producing sugar that were learned from the Dutch, the British increased their sugar industry greatly (Mintz 1985.38). The greater supply of sugar led to a fall in price of the precious good, and a loss in some of its special value.
To understand the “special value” sugar once held, one must understand the importance of sugar in British society some few centuries ago. Sugar functioned as medicine, sweetener, spice condiment, decoration, and preservative (Mintz 1985.78). Perhaps the most important function to pay attention to in determining the social transition of sucrose is the decorative function. Sugar was combined with different substances to demonstrate wealth by means of sculptures made of clay mixed with sugar, as demonstrated in the picture above, and performances celebrating sugar. Indeed, feasts would be thrown with sugar as an important part of the festivities and even the meals themselves which also demonstrated its use as a spice as well as a decorative material (Mintz 1985.80). With sugar playing such an important role in meals of the rich and powerful, it was very important for the prestigious members of society to bring sucrose into their household. To meet this demand, more sugar was brought into Britain, which supposedly did not indicate more of the citizens of different classes being able to afford it (Mintz 1985.86) With availability of sugar increasing its use as a spice declined and with that, the price and demand of sucrose along with its customary use changed very quickly (Mintz 1985.86). The increased availability and decrease in price caused sugar to follow a downward trend of who was able to acquire it, and how important it was in ceremonial terms. First only the kings, then the nobility and merchants, followed by commoners, and eventually even the poor, all were able to have access to sugar in larger and larger quantities and as such, its value as a king’s food vanished, not that it wasn’t kept at the table as a necessity (Mintz 1985.96)
Sugar moved through the political and economic strata based upon multiple events, such as increased supply and demand along with increased availability and lowered pricing to become what is now an everyday item. From kings to the poor, sucrose has made its way into every mouth and has gone from a rarity to basically a necessity and a right for most people. By all historical indicators, this good will continue growing in popularity for the foreseeable future as seen in the diagram below
Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 5: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal’” February 25, 2015.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.