Consumption as Class? The Evolution and Implications of Sugar Usage in 18th Century England

Until the 18th century, sugar was a commodity strictly confined to the nobility (Mintz 45). However, by the mid-1700s, the “poorest English farm labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea” (Mintz 45). In less than a century, sugar evolved from a symbol of the ruling classes to an everyday commodity consumed veraciously by the working class. Yet, this process cannot merely be explained by the social adaptation of consumption practices by class—though distinct social meanings ascribed to sugar certainly developed within the social hierarchy of England. Rather, the evolution of sugar in England is representative of a complex system of political and economic power, of production and consumption. This blog explores the historical evolution and significance of sugar consumption in England. I will begin by analyzing the evolution of consumption practices as sugar pervaded households throughout the social hierarchy. Then, I will contextualize sugar consumption in England within a broader historical narrative, arguing that consumption patterns in the country were unique. Finally, I will locate the distinctness of British sugar consumption within the political and economic mechanisms of 18th century England. Though early consumption practices were representative of a social hierarchy and served to validate social status, the mounting taste for sugar throughout English society conferred political and economic, rather than merely social, significance.

Social Evolution of Sugar Consumption 

Some historians link the growing demand for consumer goods, such as sugar, in 18th century Europe to consumption as a signal of respectability and class (Smith 3). This is especially salient when examining the nascent phases of sugar consumption in England. When the commodity first arrived from the Caribbean, it was both expensive and rare, characteristics that contributed to its popularity among elites (Godoy 1). Before sugar was made economically available as a sweetener, it was utilized among the elite classes as a spice or condiment, decorative material, and an additive in medicine (Mintz 79). The exclusive association between sugar and the elite class bestowed symbolic weight upon the product in English life, providing its users with validation of power, authority, and status.

Though the evolution of sugar as a sweetener signifies its initial dispersion throughout English society, this method of consumption also played a significant role in the social life of elites. The focal point of English nobility’s political and cultural life was London’s many chocolate and coffee houses (Coe and Coe 223). Sugar played a significant part in these institutions, as sugar was added to both substances in order to enhance palatability. To be associated with such pleasures was to be among the political and economic elite and to have access to decision-making processes. Further, these institutions were places in which respectability and privilege were conferred (Cocking, 2018). However, while the image below conveys that these posh establishments were initially limited to political and social elites, their existence represents the diffusion of sugar into the broader public domain.

White’s Chocolate House in London
Source: Cadbury/ Wikimedia

By the mid-1700s, sugar was consumed by a widespread population, evolving into a necessity rather than a frivolity. While sugar had previously been associated with elitism, the social expansion of sugar contributed to its development as an everyday commodity that linked sugar to proletariat survival. Among the working classes and the poor, sugar was utilized as a sweetener for tea and coffee, as well as to supplement the consumption of carbohydrates, such as porridges and breads (Mintz 118). As a cheap, accessible source of calories, sugar came to be synonymous with the everyday Brit and was gradually reduced from its status as a luxury product. The recasting of sugar as a symbol of the working class, rather than elites, is representative of extensification, in which larger numbers of persons were becoming familiar with the good on a regular basis (Mintz 122).

The Consumer Revolution

Some historians have argued that European society experienced a “consumer revolution” throughout the eighteenth century, marked by the increased consumption of non-European consumer commodities (Smith 5-6). Indeed, it appears as though such a “revolution” occurred with regards to sugar consumption in England. Over a period of seventy years, English per capita consumption of sugar nearly quadrupled, indicating significant dispersion of the commodity throughout English society (Rivard et al. 424). As the following case study reveals, some individuals consumed sugar in excess daily.

“A Vindication of Sugars ,” written in 1715, argues for the beneficial nature of sugar. This entry suggests that the Duke of Beaufort survived to an old age because of his excessive sugar consumption.
Source: The British Library Board

William Wadd remarked in 1816, “ For one fat person in France or Spain, there are one hundred in England” (5), which is suggestive of the unique nature of English sugar consumption. In other European colonial societies, such as France, sweet delicacies were reserved only for the monarch’s court and highest-ranking nobility (Green 1). During the French revolution, indulgence in sugar came to be associated with immorality, as the history of the marquis de Sade—whose affinity for “pastry and sweets” is well-documented—exemplifies (Coe and Coe 230). Rather than permeating social classes, sweetness came to represent the hedonistic nature of the ruling elite. Thus, the widespread nature of sugar consumption in England represents a unique phenomenon that simultaneously reflected and enabled political and economic influence at the time.

Consumption Beyond Class

The extensification of sugar has explanations beyond the social structure of British society. The taxation of sugar served to bolster the financial resources of the British Empire. By the mid-1700s, the annual taxes procured from sugar imports sustained the ships of the British Navy (Godoy 1). As the navy was the primary mechanism through which British influence was spread throughout the globe, sugar served a political purpose in the British Empire. The expansion of the British Empire was enabled by the importation and consumption of sugar. Economically, widespread consumption of sugar in England solidified demand from British sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The novel, everyday uses for sugar that developed among the British working class necessitated the continued production and importation of the commodity. Further, sugar enabled the widespread consumption of chocolate, coffee, and tea, encouraging the demand for these items, as well

Sugar Plantation on the British colony of Antigua 
William Clark/ Wikimedia

Conversely, the availability of sugar was also reflective of state and business interests. Compared to other colonial powers at the time, England approached the colonization of the Caribbean most aggressively. According to Mintz, England “fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves… and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system” (38). Demand for sugar was conceived of, in part, by British suppliers, who realized that production and consumption were inextricably intertwined (Mintz 42). Despite a significant influx of sugar from British sugar islands throughout the 1700s, demand in the country continued to rise significantly—in this case, consumption matched production. Though sugar was initially consumed by and symbolic of elites, the British expansion of planation production necessitated a differentiation of sugar usages and an expanded consumer market. With this in mind, the spread of sugar can be viewed, not necessarily as an example of social extensification, but rather as a construction of the state. Thus, the diversification of sugar consumption cannot be merely identified as a social phenomenon. Rather, it is embedded within the broader political and economic mode of English colonialism.

Works Cited

The British Library Board. Sugar in Britain. British Library, London.

Clark, William. The Mill Yard. 1823. British Library, London.

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire.” NPR, 7 April 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire. Accessed 8 Mar 2020.

Green, Matthew. “How the Decadence and Depravity of 18th-Century London Was Fuelled by Hot Chocolate.” The Telegraph, 23 Dec. 2018. http://www.telegraph.co.uk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/surprising-history-of-london-chocolate-houses/. Accessed 8 Mar 2020.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

Rivard, Christopher, et al. “Sack and Sugar, and the Aetiology of Gout in England between 1650 and 1900.” Rheumatology (Oxford, England), vol. 52, Nov. 2012. ResearchGate, doi:10.1093/rheumatology/kes297.

Smith, Woodruff D. Consumption and The Making of Respectability, 1600-1800. Routledge, 2002.

Wadd, William. Cursory Remarks on Corpulence, or Obesity Considered as a Disease: With a Critical Examination of Ancient and Modern Opinions, Relative to Its Causes and Cure. 3rd edition, Smith and Davy, 1816.

White’s Chocolate House. 1708. London.

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