Tag Archives: subtleties

The Sweet Taste of Success: Using Sugar to Display Wealth

Today, in the United States, we are so used to sugar being present in the foods and drinks that we consume daily. The overabundance of sugar present in modern consumption has contributed to a public health crisis and sugar has now garnered a negative reputation.[1] Although our contemporary view of sugar differs drastically from when sugar was first introduced to Europe, there is one important similarity that remains. Sugar is an extremely effective medium to convey to others one’s power and wealth, because of its visual and consumptive properties. Visually, sugar is easy to mold as evident in the elaborate decorative displays in both the past (e.g. subtleties) and the present (e.g. wedding cakes). Moreover, because these intricate displays are edible, guests acknowledged the power and wealth of the host by consuming the sugar displays.[2]

The above figure shows the routes of the Triangular Trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. As shown, sugar was an important commodity in the trade. (Popkin)

Sugar was first introduced to Europe around 1100 A.D. and was grouped together with other spices like pepper and ginger.[3] All of these spices were extremely expensive because of how rare they were and only the wealthy were able to afford them. By the fifteen century, sugar imports increased because the wealthy class demand for sugar was increasing, not because sugar had percolated downward to the common class. As a result, sugar became an important part of the Triangular Trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa.[4] By the sixteenth century, sugar started to be consumed in a different form: as decoration.

First and foremost, sugar is able to be visually impressive because of its chemical properties. Sugar easily combines with other food components like almond oil, rice, and different gums. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz describes sugar’s properties in his book Sweetness and Power, “The important feature of these [sugar] recipes is that the resulting pastes were used to sculpture forms—forms having an aesthetic aspect but also preservable and edible.”[5] Because sugar could be molded in such a way, the practice of using sugar as a decoration began to spread from North Africa to Europe. Initially, because only the extremely wealthy, like the royalty, could afford sugar in Europe, they were the only ones who could afford to have sugar decorations at their meals. These people included the king, the nobility, the knighthood, and the church. Sugar was combined with other substances like oil and vegetable gums to make a “plastic, claylike substance.” Confectioners could then sculpt grand displays out of this claylike substance, which were called “subtleties.” These subtleties were served in between banquets and took the forms of animals, objects, buildings, and more.[6]

The sugar subtleties pictured above transformed banquets into grand displays. (Willan)

Because sugar was so limited and expensive during this time period, subtleties essentially emphasized someone’s wealth. Not only were the extremely wealthy able to hoard and consume sugar in their daily lives, they were able to explicitly convey their wealth to others by commissioning grand subtleties. Being able to convey one’s wealth with different symbols has always been a feature of the elite, from clothing to language.[7] In this case, subtleties became a new way for someone to convey their wealth to others. Essentially, sugar allowed the wealthy to be in-your-face about their wealth.

Additionally, what makes sugar particularly effective at being a symbol of wealth is because subtleties are edible and, in most cases, meant to be eaten by guests. This property is unique because a lot of physical displays of wealth are physically impressive as in the case of clothing or items molded in silver. However, there are not many edible displays of such grandeur. Furthermore, the edible nature of the subtleties meant that the displays were not meant to last for a long time, compared to items like expensive clothing and silver. Subtleties were often presented at banquets in between courses, destroyed, and then eaten by the guests. In this way, hosts were able to showcase not only that they were able to afford to commission this piece of art but to also destroy it. In turn, guests would be wowed by these sculptures and then would have to accept the host’s wealth by consuming the sugar. Mintz describes this symbolism, “To be able to provide one’s guests with attractive food, which also embodied in display the host’s wealth, power, and status, must have been a special pleasure for the sovereign. By eating these strange symbols of his power, his guests validated that power.”[8]

As time passed, sugar became less and less exclusive. By the late sixteenth century, subtleties expanded between the extremely wealthy classes like the merchant class. This is evident in that subtlety recipes began to appear in cookbooks, so it was no longer an exclusive practice for the select few.[9]

Even though today, sugar is abundant and present in everything we eat, displays of sugar are still common in the form of different desserts. For example, wedding cakes can become tremendously expensive depending on how grand the couple wants their cake to be. Thus, subtleties are not necessarily items relegated to the past and instead, are still relevant today as a display of wealth and grandeur.

Works Cited

[1] C. A. Grimes et al., “Dietary Salt Intake, Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption, and Obesity Risk,” Pediatrics 131, no. 1 (October 2012): pp. 14-21.

[2] Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986, 90.

[3] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 79.

[4] Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

[5] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 88.

[6] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 89.

[7] Lamont, Michele, and Annette Lareau. “Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments.” Sociological Theory 6, no. 2 (1988): 153.

[8] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 90.

[9] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 93.


Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Third. Thames & Hudson.

Grimes, C. A., L. J. Riddell, K. J. Campbell, and C. A. Nowson. 2013. “Dietary Salt Intake, Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption, and Obesity Risk.” PEDIATRICS 131 (1): 14–21. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-1628.

Lamont, Michele, and Annette Lareau. 1988. “Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments.” Sociological Theory 6 (2): 153. https://doi.org/10.2307/202113.

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

Popkin, Barry. n.d. “Figure 1: The Atlantic Trade Routes between Africa, the New World And…” ResearchGate. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Atlantic-trade-routes-between-Africa-the-New-World-and-Europe-The-trade-triangle_fig2_49676792.

Willan, Anne. 2016. “How Raw Sugar Transformed the European Banquet.” The Getty Iris (blog). February 23, 2016. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/how-raw-sugar-transformed-the-european-banquet/.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy’ by Hannah Glasse. n.d. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/5d/84/fae6076fcf6cc9867c26985f2650.jpg Gallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0034892.html Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-04-03): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/d766bfa8 CC-BY-4.0. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Art_of_Cookery_made_Plain_and_Easy%27_by_Hannah_Glasse_Wellcome_L0034892.jpg.

Title-Page: Glasse, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.” n.d. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/bf/d5/d1b945439258ef0255875ef8d3a2.jpg Gallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0014985.html. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Title-page;_Glasse,_%22The_art_of_cookery_made_plain_and_easy%22_Wellcome_L0014985.jpg.

How Sugar’s Functions as a Sweetener and as a Decorative Material has Affected English Society

Sugar has played a significant role in transforming England’s social, economic, political and culinary values throughout history – “Britain is built on sugar.”[1] Since it first came to England in the 12th century (around 1100 AD) it had been used to: treat illnesses and preserve food. The molecular structure of sugar has also been altered to create sugar based decorative materials. However, by the late 18th century sugar became increasingly incorporated in foodstuffs as a sweetener – this function of sugar is currently its primary use in England. How did this unique crop become so valued as a sweetener? How has it affected past and contemporary English culinary and social expectations? That being said, sugar’s uses as a sweetener and decorative material have had long-lasting direct and indirect impacts on social and culinary English norms.  

Sugar’s function as a decorative material has been a symbol of power and social hierarchy for centuries in England. Sugar’s transformation into a decorative material originates from its blending properties, which had been recognised through its function as medicine. Sidney Mintz argues in his book, Sweetness and Power, that “the connection between elaborate manufacturers of sweet edibles and the validation of social position is clear.”[2] This has been the case from at least the 16th century – when sugar’s importation prices stabilised – right up to the industrial revolution in the late 18th century – when sugar became a relatively inexpensive commodity that was consumed by nobleman and commoners alike. The complexity and expensiveness of moulding sugar into ornaments made this function accessible only for kings and then, over time, to the wealthiest (nobles, knights and churchmen) in society. Furthermore, the designs of these intricate sugar structures were not only confined to grand buildings or valuable objects. They also included family or royal crests and, more importantly, messages or intents of a king or lord. It is important to add that these subtleties were primarily presented in social settings such as banquets and coronations. For these reasons, sugar’s use as a manufactured subtlety was a unique and elaborate form of presenting one’s wealth and status.

Even though these subtleties were a symbol of power for at least 3 centuries, the industrial revolution and the mechanisation of the sugar industry made sugar a relatively inexpensive commodity. Sugar became readily available to the average English worker. According to Mintz, “it [decorative sugar structures] is no longer considered a sign of elevated rank to stuff one’s guests with sugar… sugar is largely confined to Saint Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Birthdays and Weddings.”[3] In the western world at least this is the case. As sugar became increasingly commercial and accessible, it’s function as a demonstration of wealth was soon overcome by the dietary and culinary importance of this commodity.

A similar case could be made for the consumption of tea – it was first consumed by the wealthiest in society as a symbol of wealth, but eventually it was readily available to the average English worker. Mintz argues that “as the English drank more…[tea] became more English in two senses: by the process of ritualization…and by being produced more and more in the colonies.”[4] In the 17th century, the first tea and coffee houses were opening their doors in London. These coffee houses were social spaces where the Englishman would engage in conversations and debates over a warm cup of tea – tea facilitated social exchanges. Sugar in past and contemporary English society complements the consumption of tea. Mintz recognises the economic and dietary importance of tea and, hence, makes an interesting connection between the significance of sugar and tea in English society. Given that tea was arguably the most profitable aromatic commodity by the 18th century due to its ever-growing demand, it became clear that sugar’s primary function during this period in England was as a sweetener of tea. Even though, sugar complemented chocolate and coffee, tea’s warm and lightly refreshing texture was more appealing to the English commoner – it was also cheap and easy to make. Tea was a valuable and readily available commodity and sugar played a central role in transforming tea’s popularity in English society, however, after the 18th century sugar became increasingly incorporated in a broader range of foodstuffs and beverages.

William Hogarth’s 18th century portrayal of a London coffee house. He depicts a social setting where Englishmen would typically meet to engage in conversation over a warm cup of tea or coffee.[5]

As more foodstuffs and beverages were introduced into English society, sugar as a sweetener played an increasingly important role in British social and culinary life after the 18th century. These sugar infused goods included, according to Mintz, “pastries, hasty puddings, jam-smeared breads, treacle puddings, biscuits, tarts, buns and candy,” while the British newspaper, The Guardian, points out that England’s “annual per capita consumption of sugar was 4lbs in 1704, 18lbs in 1800, 90lbs in 1901 – a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe.”[6]  After 1850, it was the working classes that made up the bulk of these average per capita annual consumption rates. These poorer classes primarily consumed sucrose-heavy sugar infused foods, which contributed to a larger proportion of their diet during the 19th and 20th centuries. As cheap sugar expanded away from being an additive to tea and moved towards energy rich foods, workers were able to consume sugar – usually during their break times – as a type of “quick energy” good that positively affected their output and productivity.[7] In other words, cheap sugar was a substitute to the proteins. This substitution has had both positive and negative effects on the working classes: on the one hand cheap sugars filled the calorie gap caused by the prices of proteins. On the other, this substitution generally lowered the protein intake of these people, in particular women and children, who weren’t receiving the required nutrients to maintain a healthy diet. Nevertheless, sugar clearly played a major role in transforming the Englishman’s dietary norms after the 18th century.

In conclusion, the introduction of sugar as a sweetener into mainstream English society has had on-going positive and negative effects on the Englishman’s diet. While sugar’s function as a decorative material played a central role in presenting social hierarchies from at least the 16th to the 19th century, the industrialisation and commercialisation of sugar saw a decline of this function of sugar. Even though these sugar-based subtleties are still primarily found in social settings, such as birthdays and Christmas, their symbol of wealth and power phased out almost two centuries ago. Sugar as a sweetener was largely an additive (added-sugar) in popular foodstuffs and beverages such as tea, coffee and chocolate up to the early 18th century – it was expensive and difficult to obtain. After the mid 18th century, similar to tea, sugar became “ritualised” and was increasingly extracted from the colonies.[8] Sugar became a big-business enterprise and a readily available good for all to enjoy and benefit from: sugar was a new source of energy for working men and a cheaper alternative to protein for women and children. However, the negative effects of this sugar rush can be seen in England today with 28.1% of adults and 17% of children being obese, prompting a range of sugar taxes to be introduced as recently as 2018.[9]

[1] The Guardian Newspaper, “Britain is built on sugar: our national sweet tooth defines us,” 12 October, 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity.

[2] Sydney W. Mintz, Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history (New York: penguin Books, 1985), 90.

[3] Ibid, 94.

[4] Ibid, 110.

[5] William Hogarth, “An Election Of Entertainment,” Oil on Canvas, 1755, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Election_Entertainment.jpg

[6] Ibid, 133. And “Britain is Built on Sugar.”

[7] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 147-148.

[8] Ibid, 110.

[9] The Global Diabetes Community, “2018 UK sugar tax,” 15 January, 2019. https://www.diabetes.co.uk/nutrition/2018-uk-sugar-tax.html

Works cited:

Global Diabetes Community. “2018 UK sugar tax.” 15 January, 2019. Accessed 8 March 2020. “2018 UK sugar tax,” 15 January, 2019

Guardian. “Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” Guardian News and Media. 12 October 2007. Accessed 8 March 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity.

Hogarth, William. “An Election Of Entertainment.” 1755. Oil on Canvas. London. Sir John Soane’s Museum. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Election_Entertainment.jpg.

Mintz, W. Sydney. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

The Tea Habit and The Dramatic Increase in British Sugar Consumption in the 17th and 18th Centuries

British sugar consumption dramatically escalated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Records show that British per-capita annual consumption grew from 4 lbs. in the early 1700’s to 18 lbs. in the early 1800’s representing a 400 percent increase in just one century (Mintz). While the figures are astonishing, the increase in sugar consumption can be attributed to several things including the decrease in price, the democratization of use, and most notably, the ritualization of drinking tea.  Henry James once said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” And with tea, came sugar.

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But let’s go back to sugar’s not so humble beginnings.  Initially, sugar was considered a luxury item afforded only by the noble and wealthy. In Britain, sugar served 5 different purposes – as a medicine, a spice, a decorative material, a preservative and as a sweetener.  And it commonly served more than one such purpose at a time (Mintz).  Cookbooks of the late 16th and early 17th century even treated sugar as a sort of drug to help balance the “humors” — energies that were believed to affect health and mood (Godoy). Like other spices, sugar was used to enhance the flavor of foods.  When combined with various ingredients, sugar was molded into fantastic shapes and structures to decorate noble dinner tables as a symbol of the host’s wealth and standing. Sugar’s preservative qualities extended the life of perishable fruits and meats and prevented spoilage.  But it was with the introduction of chocolate, coffee and tea that sugar’s use as a sweetener became relevant.  Interestingly, the British enjoyed a long-standing familiarity with sweetened beverages such as ale and wine so it is understandable that they would chose to sweeten these otherwise bitter beverages with sugar.

Sugar was expensive and relatively rare, making it a perfect object of conspicuous consumption for the status chasing elite (Goody).  Tea, an exotic import first made fashionable by a Portuguese princess, quickly gained popularity with the rise of coffee houses in London. As the price of tea and sugar dropped, they gained wider appeal across all socioeconomic lines and daily consumption per person increased. Over a relatively short period of time, the habit of drinking tea with sugar became ritualized.  In the chocolate and coffee houses of London, gentlemen and wealthy merchants took their tea sweetened with sugar. Women of privilege enjoyed tea accompanied by pastries, breads and jam at home with their friends often using their finest china and tea pots.

“We can imagine them then that while seventeenth century men were

at coffee houses drinking tea and exchanging gossip, their wives

gathered at one another’s hoes to do exactly the same thing – justin a more

refined atmosphere” (Tea.co.uk)

The first sugar habit learned by the English poor was part of the tea habit, and the tea habit spread downward from the rulers and outward from cities at a rapid rate (Mintz).  For the working class, tea with sugar often served as a break from their backbreaking jobs.  In homes of the poor, men who were the primary bread winners dined on meat while their wives and children subsisted on tea with sugar, bread and preserves.  Regardless of wealth or social status, the amount of sugar consumed at each meal continued to rise.  Tea sweetened with a strong dose of sugar was an affordable luxury: It gave workers a hit of caffeine to get through a long slog of a day, it provided plentiful calories, and it offered the comfort of warmth during a meal that otherwise often consisted only of bread (Godoy).

It is important to acknowledge that the dramatic increase in domestic demand for sugar was intertwined with the rise of the slave trade. 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). They conquered the most colonies and went the farthest and fastest in creating the plantation system to satisfy growing demand for sugar (Mintz).  In the British West Indies, the number of enslaved Africans grew to 263,000 by the mid 1700’s (Martin). They were required to work 18 hour days and received only minimal food, clothing and shelter from the plantation owners. As a result, their life expectancy was only 7-8 years (Martin).

Sugar consumption levels continued to rise during and after the Industrial Revolution. By the 1900’s, annual per capita consumption approximated 80 lbs. climbing to an astonishing 120 lbs. in the 2000’s (Martin).   As processed food manufacturers gained a better understanding of taste preferences, they increasingly added sugar to everyday consumables like ketchup, cereals and dairy products. Currently, soft drinks are the biggest single source of added sugar for young people, with boys aged 11-18 getting 42% of their intake this way; and for adults aged 19-64, the main sources are also confectionery and jams, soft drinks and cereals (Jeavans). Clearly, the British love for sweet beverages survived and flourished throughout the centuries.

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In conclusion, the significant increase in British sugar consumption in the 17th and 18th centuries was a direct result of the increasing affordability of the commodity, the democratization of use, and the ritualization of tea time. Today, the British remain some of the greatest consumers of sugar in the world and are taking great steps to encourage people to limit their daily added sugar intake to ward off obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.


Works Cited

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition and Forced Labor.” 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.  Web.

Jeavens, Christine. “How Much Sugar Do We Eat?” BBC News, BBC, 26 June 2014.  22 Feb. 2018.  http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays – How Tea + Sugar Reshaped the British Empire” The Salt. NPR. 7 April 2015.  22 Feb 2018. https://www.npr.org.sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire

“Tea – A Brief History of the Nations Favorite Beverage” UK Tea and Infusions Association 2018.  22 Feb 2018. http://www.tea.co.uk

Ward, J.R. “Oxford History of the British Empire.  The Eighteenth Century. The British West Indies, 1748-1815” Oxford University Press.  New York. 1998 https://books.google.de/books?