ISSUE 77, BEGINNINGS, Part 2: Onset of the Sugar Binge
Onset of the Sugar Binge
1825—the price of raw sugar sinks to between 6 and 11 cents on the New York Market. Three years before it had cost almost twice as much. [“Lowest and Highest Prices of Commodities for Fifty Seven Years 1825-1881,” American Almanac for 1883 (New York, 1884), 102]. What happened? What made refined sugar sufficiently cheap that it came easily within the common household budget?
Before answering these questions, we should be certain about what was meant by raw sugar. This meant brown sugar—the bulk crystal that had not been refined to the point that you could produce white crystal. Sugar, both white and brown, were shaped into cones and retailed in that form. You can see the shape today in Hispanic groceries throughout the United States. A blunt cone of tan to brown sugar. In the 1820s brown sugar of various shades of refinement were 36 times more abundant in retail settings than the more expensive and high end white sugar.
The reason why the sugar price dropped in the 1820s can be stated bluntly: the United States imported less raw sugar because it produced more. It produced more because planters in Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana had come upon a sugar cane variety tolerant enough to cold that it could make crops in the Lower South. In the 18th century the various cane varieties planted failed with every sharp cold snap. But in 1814 Thomas Butler King of Savannah secured joints of a cane variety grown in the Dutch colony of St. Eustatius in the West Indies—Purple Ribbon Cane. It had thicker walls than the Creole Cane varieties that had been tried since the 1730s. Purple Ribbon was indigenous to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (Jakarta Indonesia). It had been shipped and planted in four of the Dutch West Indian islands in the 1750s. King’s plantings thrived despite January freezes. Its cultivation spread along the Georgia Lowcountry and Louisiana, leading to an exponential increase in sugar production. Sugar mills and refineries sprouted from Sapelo Island Georgia to Bayou Terrabone in Louisiana in the later 1810s and early 1820s.
What did cheap sugar mean? We tend to think of sugar as a sweetener. But the 1820s saw it also as an extraordinary preservative. The esters in sucrose inhibit the growth of microbes, and householders knew the power of sugar to prevent spoilage in the 18th century. So when it became cheap, household that grew fruits and berries, tomatoes, angelica, and ginger saw that they no longer had to risk the loss to spoilage of that part of their harvest that did not sell at market. It could be preserved in syrup. The later 1820s became the golden age of jams, jellies, and preserves. Look at the explosion of printed recipes for such confections in the newspapers and cookbooks of the 1830s and beyond.
And that was not all. Sugar could drive fermentation, particularly alcohol production. The later 1820s began the heyday of fruit and vegetable wines, and a brief efflorescence of flavored vinegars.
I suppose one could say that the cheapness of sugar contributed to the popularization of candy in the United States, but not in a direct way. Cheap and popular candy was not made in the 1820s from sugar, raw or refined, so much as molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process—the material left over from cane sap when the sucrose was extracted. Most molasses retained some admixture of sucrose, although blackstrap came close to total exclusion. So it was sweet. Molasses candies abounded in the decades before the Civil War, pulled to a silvery sheen or given texture by the addition of roasted peanuts, benne, or coconut.