Sugar: The Division and Union of a Society

The frigid 4AM walk to work through a New England winter will inspire one to reflect. In that space I consider the regulars who wait outside the café before open and impatiently pace while I brew the coffee and set out the pastries. I think of my boss, who has taken the last 24 years to perfect the quality of the food, tea, and espresso we serve. My thoughts linger mostly on the little, eclectic, community that swarms and sustains itself off of the common connection of Darwin’s LTD: gourmet coffee and sandwiches. The clientele vary from near impoverished college students and the homeless of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to world-renowned celebrities and Ivy League professors. In the middle of long shifts I have often marveled at the impossibility of such a place existing, yet every day our shop is flooded with customers from every walk of life seeking the same commodities and the same community.


It is a very modern development that such a place could thrive. The history of coffee and chocolate shops is riddled with exclusivity according to class and gender. It was largely sugar that paved the way for these indicators of wealth and prowess to become accessible to the masses thus creating a culture around chocolate especially which today is a business grossing $100 billion dollars annually. (Martin)


The elite of England from the crusades onward considered sugar to be a spice, thus making it a prized, high-class commodity. However it was the rising popularity of tea, coffee, and chocolate among the rich that introduced sugar as a sweetener. (Mints 80, 108) As this exclusive trend spread throughout the upper class of England, chocolate shops and coffee houses began to spring up in various cities in Europe. These were hotbeds of for gambling and networking among wealthy men. These shops were not merely a place for entertainment but also existed as a space where political endeavors as well as social ties were made and solidified. (Green 1)


However by the late 17th century and into the 18th century sugar was becoming more and more accessible to the public. The economic ramifications of this meant that sugar was no longer an indicator of wealth or status, yet by increasing the demand the industry soon became extremely profitable for the elite. (Mintz 95)

With full access to large amounts of sugar, items like chocolate also become more accessible and took a big role in shaping the lower and middle classes of Europe and America in the 19th and early 20th century. As women began to join the work force time and availability to cook for their families was limited. Sugar was used to supplement dinners for mothers and children, viewing it as a source of alternative protein. As this trend continued sugar and sweet foods became gendered and more associated with the feminine than with the masculine. (Martin)


For almost 2800 years access to chocolate was limited to an select few yet the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution played major roles in transforming chocolate from an expensive beverage into a low-cost food. (Coe&Coe 232) We see this same trend in sugar. Today the culture surrounding these commodities has evolved into cafés like Darwin’s. Wealthy and poor, men and women of all ages connect and mingle over their desire for comfort foods and drinks. What was once something that staunchly split society into two groups, isolated from one another in several directions, has now become a societal unifier and common ground connecting every walk of life through food. It stands as an indicator of social progress, moving closer and closer to equality between genders and the chance to pursue a successful future despite economic disparities. These are the truths and hopes which make the 4AM walks worth it.



Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph.

Martin, Carla. “Introduction to Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension, Cambridge. 9, Mar, 2016. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal”. Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension, Cambridge. 24, Feb, 2016. Class Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.


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