In the modern English diet, sugar can be found in seemingly countless recipes; however, only a few centuries ago, it was a rare luxury with only limited applications. In addition to being an expensive commodity, today’s most popular sweetener was also so scarce that the English treated it as a spice (Sydney Mintz, 80). The 18th century sugar bowl featured below illustrates this elite nature of sugar in past centuries. The intricate design utilizing expensive silver places this bowl out of a commoner’s price range but also illustrates the high social value attributed to sugar. Today, sugar has lost its social value but gained an abundance of uses. In his book Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz attempts to explain this transition from a rare luxury to one of the most used ingredients in English (and American) cooking. Although I am mostly in agreement with Mintz, I believe that his economic analysis of 17th through 19th century Britain lacks emphasis on Parliament’s changing tax policies. Like Mintz, I believe that the dramatic increase in sugar production resulting from the colonization of the West Indies was the first step in revolutionizing English sugar consumption; however, I find that Mintz does not provide a full explanation of England’s ideological shift toward free trade producing in the Sugar Act of 1846, which was vital for the dissemination of sugar through all strata of English society.
Before discussing Parliament’s economic policies, it is important to understand the rapid expansion of the British sugar industry beginning in the 17th century. Before sugar consumption in England could rise, the production side of the economy had to grow. Two important elements of sugar production growth during the 17th century were the colonization of islands in the West Indies including Barbados in 1627 and the utilization of African slaves, such as those pictured below, to perform the intense labor necessary to produce large quantities of sugar (Mintz, 37). Furthermore, the utilization of the three roller mill vastly improved the efficiency of milling sugar which enabled a further expansion in sugar production. With these new colonies, technologies, and cheap slave labor, the annual amount of sugar shipped back to England from her colonies more than doubled between 1698 and 1757 (Richard Sherman, 64). While Mintz provides a strong background of this production growth, his assumptions about the impact of this growth could be clearer. Noting that increased production allowed English sugar producers be price-competitive with the Portuguese, Mintz claims, “England was able to drive Portugal out…From the resulting monopoly came monopoly prices” (39). He seems to imply that by being able to provide cheaper sugar than the Portuguese, English producers made it possible to charge higher prices; however, raising prices would have removed England’s price advantage. Here, Mintz lacks clarity and fails to provide the necessary emphasis on England’s protective duties on sugar. The Navigation Acts of 1660 taxed sugar and ensured that sugar from British colonies would ship sugar directly to England (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Sheridan argues that protective duties would have established even higher import taxes on foreign producers, thus preventing any foreign competition from entering the English market (63). The taxes on English sugar and the effective stoppage of foreign producers from selling to Englishmen would have encouraged higher domestic prices within England thus allowing for the “monopoly prices” that Mintz refers to. While the production increase of the 17th and 18th centuries may have made sugar more plentiful, these high prices prolonged sugar’s stint as a luxury.
With this protectionism in place, sugar was still prevented from being made available to common British citizens until producers saw a chance to increase their profits. Mintz claims that sugar producers realized the profit potential of selling to larger swathes of the population in the 18th century (95). This claim would have more power if it was included with his later statement that the working class’s purchasing power was also increasing during this same period (118). Increased wealth among the lower classes of English society could easily explain the decision to make sugar more available to non-elites, presumably through a price decrease. Nonetheless, Mintz explains that this increased availability led to a flourishing of sugar-based recipes so this moment seems to have been significant in the history of English sugar consumption. While this shift in the producers’ strategy created a big surge in sugar usage, I would argue that the 19th century holds the key to sugar’s rise to its modern prominence in our diets. In the 19th century, Parliament and England underwent a dramatic transition from mercantilism and protectionism to a free trade economy. One important stage in this shift was the implementation of the Sugar Act of 1846 which equalized import taxes of sugar, essentially ending protective duties (Philip Curtin, 157). This removal of tariffs on foreign imports increased competition in the sugar industry causing downward pressure on sugar prices in England, and as prices fell, availability rose. Mintz does acknowledge that the free trade movement increased the availability of sugar and created another blossoming of recipes using the sweetener (126). He recognizes the free trade movement’s importance in the changing economic and social position of sugar, yet his decision not to discuss the Sugar Act seems to leave a gap in his explanation. This law allowed common Englishmen to obtain sugar at a much cheaper price than was previously possible, thus allowing for increased usage and further exploration into sugar’s utility. This new availability completed sugar’s downgrade from luxury to common good, but provided 19th century England with an ever sweeter diet that could be seen as the root of our modern sugar obsession.
It is sometimes easy to forget the impact sugar has on our everyday diets, but a brief look through a grocery store can serve as an incredible reminder of how much sugar we consume. The above image of a variety of sodas illustrates the modern popularity of sugary products. Soda, candy, and a plentitude of other food items that we enjoy on a regular basis contain high levels of sugar or replacement sweeteners. The development of sugar into popular products such as these can be traced to the 18th and 19th century developments in sugar consumption. Mintz’s text, while an excellent overview of sugar’s rise, seems to suffer somewhat from its broad scope. While he covers the most important topics, the large amount of information Mintz conveys is not always as clear or explicit as one would like. Hopefully, this paper will aid those who have read Mintz’s work to make further connections between England’s economic development and the rise of sugar into its modern popularity.