three men at a table molding candy

Taste: the Consumption of Sugar


What drove the trade in sugar, with all its economic and political effects, was sugar's success as a commodity. Although the market for sugar fluctuated, demand for sugar rose steadily as consumption increased. This, in turn, rested on the taste for sugar, or rather the taste for what could be made with it. The second half of the exhibit features works that show in detail how sugar was enjoyed and marketed in Britain and America.


One of sugar's salient features is its versatility: cooks and confectioners have found myriad ways to combine it with other foods and manipulate it into different forms. As sugar became more available and more affordable, ways to consume it proliferated. Cookbooks came to contain more and more recipes that depended on sugar, and specialized books on sweet dishes, sweetened baked goods, and confectionery grew in popularity.


Another consequence of sugar's increasing accessibility and affordability was the flourishing of trades associated with its consumption, especially baking and confectionery. Confectioners began as luxury merchants catering to the well-to-do, but the trade in confectionery grew as falling sugar prices brought sweets within the reach of more and more consumers. Advances in technology, with specialized machinery for each of the numerous processes involved in making candy, made mass production possible and lowered prices still further. The result was the marketing of cheap sweets: the nineteenth century saw the birth of penny candy, perhaps the first modern consumer good aimed specifically at children. Bakers, too, traded in an endless variety of sweet goods, from cheap cookies to elaborate cakes with fanciful icing and worked-sugar decorations.


Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sugar became more and more a part of life for Americans, at home and in the marketplace. Sugar found its way into a staggering variety of foods, both those made at home and those sold commercially. Making candy enjoyed great popularity as an accomplishment for women and as a home pastime, especially for families with children. Making ice cream, too, established itself as a family ritual. As sugar companies competed for the consumer dollar, advertising campaigns sought to establish brand names in the public consciousness, boasting of the latest in modern refining techniques, the purity of the sugar and molasses produced, and their suitability for a wide array of uses.