If there’s one food to pay attention to, it’s sugar. Sugar has experienced an exponential rise in Britain within the past few centuries and the numbers say it all—Britain’s annual consumption of sugar per person was 4 lbs in 1704, 18 lbs in 1800, and 90 lbs in 1901, nearly a 23-fold increase in the span of roughly two hundred years (“Britain”). There are several potential factors for the changes in British sugar consumption. However, the main factors are sugar’s various uses and its eventual democratization. Analyzing the causes of sugar consumption are vital to understanding the place of sugar in British society, but it also provides valuable insight into how the economy changed so that sugar demands could be met.
This graph tracks the rise in sugar consumption in the United Kingdom from 1815 onward, giving a great visual representation of the astronomical increases in sugar consumption throughout British history.
The Uses of Sugar
Sugar had five primary uses as a: 1) spice, 2) medicine, 3) decoration, 4) preservative, and 5) sweetener (Mintz 79). In the beginning, when sugar was first introduced to Europe in 1100 AD, it was primarily viewed as a spice, similar to cardamom or pepper (79). It was often added into recipes that weren’t overtly sweet dishes and combined with other spices (85). However, sugar as a spice peaked in the 16th century as sugar became more plentiful and as its other uses dominated. Another initial use of sugar that eventually phased out was sugar’s medical uses, which was originally was adopted from Arab pharmacology (80). Many physicians even into the 18th century were fervent proponents of sugar as a health food. For example, a physician, Dr. Frederick Slare, attributes his robust health to his daily dose of sugar after dinner (“Sugar”).
Although sugar as a spice and medicine were important, perhaps more important for our purposes of tracking the historical spike in its consumption are sugar’s uses as decoration, a preservative and a sweetener. First, we will discuss sugar as decoration, which was in full swing among the upper class by the 16th century. Sugar was molded into sculptures, also known as subtleties, and were used to display the host’s wealth, power and status (as seen below) (Mintz 90). As sugar remained a luxury up until the 1850s, sugar’s decorative purposes, at least initially, was exclusive to the upper echelons. Despite this restriction, there was a gradual increase in sugar imports (83). Sugar’s ability to exhibit one’s status was one cause for its increase, albeit a relatively minute increase compared to what was to come.
Sugar decoration from "The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals," an exhibit at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. These decorations could have served as centerpieces at an upper class social gathering. Sugar decoration was a show of power as it was only accessible by few in its initial stages. These decorations were to be admired by guests as they ate their meals. At the end of the party, guests could take pieces of the decoration to eat or to keep as a souvenir (Swanson).
Sugar for the People
The last two major uses of sugar were as a preservative and sweetener, which were on a mass basis. Sugar as a sweetener became popular with the introduction of tea in the late 17th century (108). Not only did sugar make this bitter liquid more palatable, but it increased the caloric intake of the beverage and it also helped ritualize the act of “tea time” (110). Furthermore, this became a popular beverage among the working class as it was hot, sweet and stimulating; most importantly, it was cheap and quick to prepare (110). Sugar as a sweetener helped make it become an item of mass consumption, but its role as a preservative was equally important.
The preservative qualities of sugar, particularly its ability to preserve fruits, had been known for many years, but it had been strictly reserved for nobility in the 15th century (123). Preserved fruits remained luxuries for a longer period than sweetened tea and it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that jam consumption was taken up by the working class. It quickly became an indispensable food for its convenience (125). While, in its initial stages, sugar was only accessible to the wealthy and was a luxury instead of a commodity, its uses spread downwards, slowly but surely. Through this process, sugar largely lost its marker as a distinction of wealth, but mass consumption is what made sugar profitable and a dietary staple (95). One way or the other, through these various uses, sugar found a way into British homes.
Economic Impact and Significance
Now that we’ve covered the uses of sugar, how did it come to be that the working class obtained sugar, which was originally a rarity? Democratization of sugar was possible due to the economic changes that occurred to accommodate for the growing demands. As the consumption of sugar in England rose, so did its production, particularly in the British West Indies. A consequence of this was the dramatic increase in the slave trade. This fed into this proto-capitalistic system of sugar production and made sugar cheaper (107). Furthermore, the economy of sugar was entangled within the trade networks of tea, coffee and chocolate, which all found a large market in Britain, particularly tea. Lastly, events like the free-trade movement in the mid-19th century and increasing foreign imports also helped sugar prices to fall markedly, allowing for the widespread consumption of sugar (126).
This image is of the Triangular Trade, showing how sugar fit into the trade network involving slaves, raw materials and other finished goods. Ships would deliver enslaved people to the West Indies and Americas. Raw materials like rum, tobacco, and sugar would be delivered to England to be turned into manufactured goods.
Mintz, an anthropologist, reiterates that it wasn’t solely sugar’s sweetness that resulted in its exponential growth (135). There were many sweet foods like honey and dates long, long before sugar came on the scene (“How”). It was a combination of different factors that led to the mass consumption of sugar in a relatively short period of time. It seems that sugar’s uses, especially as a caloric source, preservative and sweetener, in combination with the accommodating economy helped solidify sugar as king in England.
“Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 12 Oct. 2007. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
“How Sugar Arrived in Europe.” Dansukker. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
“Sugar in Britain.” Sugar in Britain. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.