The History of Sugar Usage in European Civilizations

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Slavery, medicine, preservatives and more — the history of sugar is one of complexity and length. The various developments of sugar before its final status in English society, heavily impacted the culture and economy of the world; impacts that are still relevant today. Looking at the history of sugar and its growth in popularity, consumption and production, clear strides towards a Western understanding of modernity and progress can be observed. The introduction of industrialized processes, capitalist society, and a transformed European culture, can all be linked to the manufacturing of sugar. Since its first acknowledgement in England in the 12th century, the production of sugar has signified the development of Europe into the modernized society that now exists.

From its beginning, the production of sugar was an industrial process; it required skill, mastery, and specific technology. In its earlier years, sugar helped intensify the transatlantic slave trade, shipping millions of African slaves overseas to work on sugar plantations to serve the growing demand. Once there was a taste for sugar across European elites, its popularity continued to spread, signifying the need for increased production, which meant a change in the ways in which sugar was produced.

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The Caribbean sugar-cane industry, which had been colonized by the Hispanic, was influenced by European progress, and signified industrial advancements through their improvements in, “…grinding capacity, cane varieties, pest control and cultivation methods, increasing use of machinery and revolutionary changes in transportation…” (Mintz 69). The growth of production, consumption and capitalism all tied into the industrialization of Europe. With an increase in factories and technology that could mass produce, England provided example of the industrialization that would be copied by other countries. Refined sugar became a symbol of the modern and industrial (193).

Heavily tied to the industrialization of Europe, was the transformation into capitalist culture. From about 1850 on, Europe saw the start of mass consumption, being fed by the growth of the industrialized processes and a greater dependence on the market (147-8). Production became separate from consumption; what was once a process meant to serve a demand, shifted into a process with the goal of creating a demand. Various changes were happening during this time, including: “The heightened productivity of the working class… the evolving world economy, and the spread of capitalist spirit” (179). Consumption and capitalism are both important components of the modern world. To achieve mass consumption, more than just the highest of society would need access to the desired products, which is why we saw an eventual lowering of the cost of sugar. Overall, the European system was able to progress due to the growing demand of sugar, increased worker productivity and declining prices of sugar — signals of the capitalist shift (45).

At its beginning, sugar was something solely for the rich, as its prices were high and out of reach from the poor. In early European society, it became a symbol of status as the rich, “…derived an intense pleasure from their access to sugar — the purchase, display, consumption, and waste of sucrose in various forms — which involved social validation, affiliation, and distinction” (154). Yet, with the growth of consumer culture and the spreading of factories, the prices of sugar began to lower, opening up the market to most of the classes. From the introduction to this new taste, the preference for sugar was irreversible; “As the exemplar of luxuries turned into affordable proletarian goodies… sucrose was one of the people's opiates, and its consumption was a symbolic demonstration that the system that produced it was successful” (174).

Aside from large societal transformations, sugar provoked changes in behaviour that would additionally spark adjustments to traditions across England and the modern world. Drinks such as coffee, tea and chocolate, were introduced to the market along with sugar, stimulating new eating habits of Europeans. The taste of sweetness, tea as a social event and the incorporation of dessert into sit-down meals each proved to be significant and lasting (135). On top of that, shifts in practices common throughout Western society to this day, were also being pushed for, such as: “…changing eating schedules to meet work schedules, teaching labourers to eat away from home, to eat prepared food more frequently, and to consume more sugar along the way” (181). These alterations went hand-in-hand with the industrialization and capitalist systems spreading across the world. From the 19th century on, Europe made compelling moves towards modernity, which gave freedom to the ‘ordinary folk’, changed how and when Europeans ate, and started the trend of modernization followed by the rest of the world.

Each facet of transformation that happened overlapped with one another, simultaneously shifting process, preference, and the culture throughout Europe. The production of sugar is forever linked to “…England’s fundamental transformation from a hierarchical, status-based, medieval society, to a social-democratic, capitalist, and industrial society” (185). These changes are important in the development of Europe and Western society, as they were some of the first indicators of upward mobility and some of the current characteristics of the 21st century. Industrial, capitalist, and democratic societies persistently to be markers of the modern world, which can each be linked to the history of sugar and England’s advances.

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