Changes in British Sugar Consumption during the 17th and 18th Centuries

“A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed into a virtual necessity by 1850.” This is how Sidney Mintz summarizes sugar’s meteoric rise in consumption in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. While sugar had been present in Europe since as early as 1100, it was not until chocolate was introduced in the 1500s that total consumption began to skyrocket. Still, this change could be traced back to a number of possible causes, many of which are presented here.

Sugar in Britain had 5 main uses, including medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative (Mintz). The last two uses are particularly insightful – sugar was used abundantly as a sweetener for chocolate, and chocolate was similarly increasing in popularity over this period of time. As a preservative, sugar fundamentally changed diets and eating habits of average British families during the time period. Bread and jam became more popular than bread and butter thanks to jam’s higher shelf life, and consumers could feel the jolt of energy that the sugary replacement gave them. Furthermore, since meat usually went to the breadwinner of the household, who was usually male, women and children had to resort to these sugary meal replacements for food. Consequentially, sugar was marketed heavily to mothers as something healthy and important both for them and their children.

While the increase in the number of possible uses positively impacted sugar demand in Britain, there was a comparably positive impact on sugar supply as well as Britain and other European nations drastically reduced the cost of sugar. The rise in sugar consumption during this time period and the rise of the slave trade are heavily intertwined – Britain relied heavily on her sugar colonies to sustain her rabid consumer base, and forced labor allowed more sugar to be produced at a fraction of the price (Sheridan).  Mintz goes so far as to say that sugar was “the most important product of the [plantation] system”, and his claim is certainly reasonable; sugar produced the most slaves of any crop, so much so that black slaves began to outnumber whites in some English colonies (Martin). Mintz argues that sugar was greatly responsible for transforming Britain from a hierarchical, medieval society into a capitalist juggernaut.

According to Mintz, mass consumption of sugar really took off around 1800, but sweetened tea, coffee, and other hot drinks helped to bump up demand in the 1750s, at least among the wealthy. The drinks when unsweetened were excessively bitter to many European consumers, and sugar helped to amend this. Sweetening, as a result, became a very significant part of the chocolate-making process, and this contributed to the rising popularity of chocolate.

The rise of sugar consumption in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries was truly remarkable, especially considering that consumption continued to skyrocket in the following centuries. Slavery fundamentally changed the way that sugar was produced, decreasing its price and exposing an abundance of new consumers to the industry. This was met by increasing demand in sugar as people touted its significance in medicine, food preservation, sweetening, and more. Looking at this time period sheds light on the essential changes that occurred in Britain and the rest of the world that allowed sugar to be as widespread as it is today.

Bibliography

  • Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 5: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Lecture.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
  • Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and slavery: An economic history of the British West Indies, 1623-1775. University of West Indies Press, 1974.

 

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