Sugar is a central part of Britain’s cultural heritage because it is the foundation for many of Britain’s defining commodities and features. For example, it would not be possible to talk about the English’s consumption of tea without bringing up sugar, or placate the fact that half of the concentration of tobacco, which the British loves so much, is also sugar. Yet when you think of Britain, sugar is not what first comes to mind. Such a simple omittance proves to be linked to a much more complex idea. Sugar has become so ingrained in every aspect of our food that we neglect to consciously differentiate it from other parts of our diet. Its prevalence causes us to overlook its importance and be ignorant to its history. Our thinking is internal but how we think is also an external reflection of how we choose to identity ourselves. In the same grain, food plays a similar role as Sidney W. Mintz says in chapter 1 of his book, “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”, “[w]hat people eat expresses who and what they are, to themselves and to others.” (13)
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Certain events or objects may shift your thinking and thus shift your identity. Sometimes these changes are obvious and ‘loud’ but other times, the shift is so subtle that one only realizes the differences in themselves or as a society in retrospect. In terms of sugar, “what [turns] an exotic, foreign, and costly substance into the daily fare of even the poorest and humblest people? How [does] this happen so swiftly? What [does] sugar mean to the rulers of the United Kingdom; what [does] it mean to the ordinary folk who became its mass consumers?” (6) The questions that Mintz pose encapsulates the overarching theme of his book and to answer them, I will look at the changes of Britain’s social atmosphere in regards to its use of sugar before and after the rise of capitalism. I will pinpoint specific moments in history where the shift in social emphasis of consumption cleared the path for sugar to be interpreted differently. This also contributed to the fundamental changes of perception in the minds of its consumers. Finally, I will look at other foods and commodities that sugar popularized to understand its relations to how we perceive other foods.
The proletariats’ intensification of sugar was possible proceeding the establishment of capitalism in Britain because those affected by the widespread availability of sugar believed that they could replicate the behaviour of the rich by consuming the same foods in similar ways. In the same vein, the mindset of the people changed and the idea that one could become different by consuming differently also had to do with the transition of power from the nobility to the working class. This was rooted in the fact that the power of mass consumption and the ability to produce changed hands. As the economy progressed, the use of sugar developed from an intensification of the behaviour of the rich to a model for extensification and grew to become the anomaly of foods it is today.
Sugar’s history is one that closely aligns with themes of conquest and control. The belief that one person was above another boiled down to the economic power and ability to purchase sugar in excessive amounts. It was lavish and wasteful. But still it served as a divide between social classes and as the epitome of wealth and social status and thus the demand in England for sugar remained high from its first appearance as a rarity in the 11th century through its widespread availability in the 19th. Mintz describes in detail the initial uses of sugar by the English royalty and nobility; the novelty of sugar delighted the monarchs and it became the new way to show off their power and wealth by commissioning great, elaborate sugar sculptures and decorative uses to display their wealth. (87) And Britain’s economy, built on the foundations of cold-hearted colonialism and the hard back of slavery, profited and flourished as much as a nation could.
The costly production methods of sugar limited its numbers on the market but upped its value and became a symbol of high economic social standing. The royal’s consumption of sugar became the envy of the poor proletariat workers with their bread and tea. This would come to trigger the effect of intensification in which people replicate others of a higher status. “Wealth, authority, power, and influence surely affect the ways diffusion occurs” (121) and the poor became wanting to consume sugar because they witness the wealthy consuming it. The mindset that one could become of a higher status was ingrained in the minds of the proletariats not because of the specific consumption of sugar, but what the sugar represented as the epitomized commodity of power.
“Culture” is an ever shifting term that tries to encapsulate a common behaviour or attitude towards ideas, objects, and beliefs. As such, when the attitudes differ, their meanings also change. “Substances such as sugar, tea, and tobacco, their forms and uses” says Mintz, “became embedded somewhat differently in different portions of the English social system, and the meanings attached to them varied as well. At each level, moreover, differences of age, sex, and the norms of social assortment affect the ways new usages are institutionalized and relearned.” (121) In the case of sugar, the downward movement that amplified its spread was accompanied, as we have seen, by changes in what it meant or could mean to those who used it. “Our capacity to symbolize, to endow anything with meaning and then act in terms of that meaning, is similarly universal and intrinsic to our nature [character].” (153-54) It has been argued, for example, that “sugar…affected the rise of capitalism because the female love of luxury led to its increasing production and importation to European centers.” (139)
But as sugar prices fell between 1650 and 1750, sugar and its meanings percolated downward through English society, finally reaching the lower classes in the mid-18th century. More people used sugar, and new meanings were created and the use of sugar became extensified and at the same time, intensification took a back seat and are known to us as society’s traditions or rituals. The new values that are placed on sugar is a direct result of the thinking of a group or a society in that time period. It can be digressed to Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ As economical power moves away from the nobility, this initiates a movement in the social dynamics of a society. The catalyst was the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 1760s which led the way for Britain to become a capitalist nation. The rise of the market where individual business owners were given the power to control their own distribution of certain goods. Not only did this decrease the prices of what were before luxury goods, these products also became more widespread and accessible to those at the bottom of the social ladder.
The visible shift in Britain’s economy is the direct cause of the rise of capitalism. As demand grows, the market expands. This creates more jobs, more efficiency and following the industrial revolution of the late 18th century, machinery reduced the production process of sugar and suddenly what was once a luxury good is now easily accessible to all types of people, most notably of course, was the proletariats- working class. The widespread of sugar gave the working class a new kind of freedom. Suddenly they could afford to put sugar in their tea and emulate the ways of the rich. In many ways, this consumption of sugar allowed the poor working class to feel as if their standard of living has been elevated.
This normalization of sugar brought upon the second wave of change in the people’s ideologies. Through the process of extensification, sugar becomes important to the poor as a source of calories rather than status. Sugar was introduced to the poor at a time when they were struggling to stabilize their diets. These poor citizens needed energy to work, which they realized could be obtained through sugar. (147-48) Sugar was used by the poor as a supplement for complex carbohydrates that they could not afford. As sugar became a staple in the household, it’s novelty wore off. And with this new way of normalization came a new age of thinking that preceded modernization. “At the consumption end, changes were both numerous and diverse. Sugar steadily changes from being a specialized—medicinal, condiment, ritual, or display commodity into an ever more common food. (36-37) Sugar was being incorporated into so many aspects of the daily lives of ordinary people that its existence faded slowly into the background. The capitalistic society of Britain in the 19th century held economic power as well as certain authority. The availability of sugar opened doors to jobs, cuisines and uses that the proletariats exploited. As sugar changed from a luxury item to an affordable item, people across all classes began to indulge in it. The power that was originally given to the upper class citizens who consumed sugar transitioned to those who produced and sold it.
Tobacco was introduced to Britain in the late 16th century and tea, traded by the Dutch East India Company, was popularized only in the mid 18th century. The earliest record of sugar in Europe/Britain however, was as early as 1109. But why is it that even with such centuries of earlier discovery, sugar will yet to emerge as an important part of the diet and instead, it paved the path for the success of tobacco and tea? There are 2 possible explanations for this. First, the effects of sugar is not as immediate as that of tobacco and rum and even the caffeinated effects of tea, with no “visible, directly noticeable consequences.” (100) The monarchs imported the finest leaves as enjoyment during their afternoons to drink, socialize and relax. Workers too poor to afford proper meals drank a cup of tea made with the worst quality in the place of a meal during their work breaks. Sugar proved to be the perfect complement to tea and it enhanced its consumption especially in the homes of the poor. The addition of sugar in tea instilled the sense of refinement, both in the royal houses and in the homes of modest citizens. Second, the psychological and chemical effect of the sweetness made people naturally happier and tea became the most successful selling byproduct of sugar, followed by coffee and chocolate and even tobacco. And these products are responsible for making sugar part of the daily diet; tea sweetened with sugar was drunk everyday by everyone by the year 1800. (143) The ingredients in tobacco was roughly 50% sugar and when it was first introduced, was a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Not only did the use of tobacco became prevalent in society as a symbol of wealth and status, the sugar content in the joints served as a factor of addiction. Thus as the market for tobacco and smoking grew, production of sugar grew naturally alongside it.
It is interesting to see how the same products can be used by such polar social groups, in different setting but in similar ways. The versatility of sugar demands the exploitation by the masses, no matter the gender, race or social standing. With each new discovery, each new age in time, things will certainly change the way we act and think. But what changes is not our nature as human beings, but our thinking, our values, and thus our identities. The role food- and sugar- play in the shaping of our identity is something that is now apart of our history and lifestyle. What transformed the history of sugar from who used to it to how it was used is solely based on the power structures that made it possible for sugar to become the first luxury-turned-necessity, which propelled a revolution in diet and lifestyle, particularly in the British working class before and after the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism.
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