Sweet and Dangerous

A History of Sugar

Loading sugar cane in Hawaii, 1917 (Library of Congress)

Loading sugar cane in Hawaii, 1917 (Library of Congress)

From the triangle trade to labor struggles in Hawaii to the rise of high-fructose corn syrup, sweetness in America has always been politically charged. Why has sugar been so intimately linked to power over the centuries? How has our national sweet tooth shaped our political and economic priorities?

In this episode of BackStory, we’ll explore sweetness in American history.  The Sugar Act of 1764 helped feed colonial resentment of Great Britain, paving the way for protests and, ultimately, the American Revolution. A century and a half later, US tariff walls gave Puerto Rican sugar a ready market – but pushed the territory toward a one-crop economy that later collapsed.

Through the 19th century, sugar was intimately linked to slavery; free blacks in the 1830s boycotted slave-produced sugar in a stand against the “peculiar institution.” A century later, the sugar beet industry revolutionized the rural Midwest, bringing with it questions about the role of foreign migrant workers and urban factory workers. So where does sugar fit into labor history in the US? How has this tasty cash crop affected our environment and our economy? And what does it tell us about globalization before the 20th century?

Please help us shape this episode — post your ideas, stories, and questions below!



Comments (30)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Quinton

    Arguments are made that we (the 13 colonies), won the American Revolution because British forces were busy guarding carribean sugar barons. Hoorah, we win, sort of! Todays sugar industry creates more than 420,000 jobs in 42 states and will contribute 26 billion dollars plus in economic activity annually. That’s good right? Although, sugar does have a direct effect on the health industry, obesity. Obesity claims more lives and drains more of the healthcare budget than smoking. Obesity is linked to diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. It inflates healthcare costs by 36 percent and medication costs by 77 percent. Sugar lowers the effectiveness of the immune system making persons more susceptable to illness.

  2. Brittany

    For most of the nation’s history, sugar was beloved, but sacred–rationed in war time and used for treats on special occasions. I’d love to learn more about how the price and availability of sugar affected recipes. I did some food history research on the 1930s and found a recipe for Apple pan dowdy, basically apple pie. What surprised me most about the recipe was that it used molasses, but not much sugar. So what changed to make sugar appear in even the most unlikely recipes and food items? (Side note: the pan dowdy was amazing and by far the tastiest research I’ve done)

    Also, having lived in Vermont, I saw many recipes that used maple, apples, or honey (or a combination) as the sweetener. In addition to being delicious, the recipes can be quite expensive to make because maple and honey, especially, cost significantly more than refined sugar. While I longed to make maple walnut scones, I learned from one of my professors that maple sugar was originally a less expensive alternative to the more-desired white sugar. When Vermont went through the redefining of it’s image, it turned the maple industry–and it’s products–into an exclusive treat priced accordingly. I’d be interested to know that broader trends that occurred with sugar–and the recipes that use it–across the country.

  3. Brian

    Louis Nelson, Associate Professor in the UVA Department of Architectural History, would be a great person to talk to! He focuses much of his research on the sugar industry in the Caribbean context, and could lend a perspective on how it connects with the American sphere.

  4. LW

    One of the first books that fascinated me as a young history major was Stanley Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, which considers how the production of sugar transformed the European diet and colonial power. In passages that anticipate sugar’s modern role in diet and trade, Mintz notes that the ingredient moved from the domain of the rich to the cabinets of the poor in a few hundred years. Today, we’ve moved even farther, with government-subsidized corn production spurring the innovation (some would say, pestilence) of high fructose corn syrup, and the food products it enhances — a great many of them marketed to low-income consumers.

    What led to these subsidies, and is there any connection between the support of corn, in particular, and the lack of large-scale sugar production in the United States? Did the collapse of the one-crop Puerto Rican economy inform farm subsidies in any way? And on a different note, how did the marketing of sugar to women — in the form of cookbooks and style manuals — shape demand on the homefront?

  5. Alice

    I just want to know: What’s the deal with high fructose corn syrup? How does it compare, nutritionally, with sugar?

  6. Debra

    I’ve heard of some strange mixed drinks, in American history, made from rum. One involved nutmeg, I think? I would love to hear about interesting rum (sugarcane-based) alcohol recipes from back in the day.

  7. Alex

    I’m curious about the widespread practice of church’s having a Lord’s Acre, usually devoted to the growing of cane. How did this practice begin and how essential was it for maintaining church finances?

  8. Mattie

    In the book ‘Inhuman Bondage’ by David Brion Davis, he mentions the suggestion that the added sugar to European diets changed or altered brain development in some way (I believe it would be in the 1600-1700s). It would be fascinating to hear more about this in context with the sugar trade.

  9. Jeronimo

    I conducted my own research a year ago on the Spreckels family of San Francisco. Found a bunch of wonderful threads about sugar, the history of Hawaii, The Spanish American war, the immigration of people across the pacific, and the labor movments that arose from the sugar plantations in Hawaii and California. There is soo much to the post civil war story of American sugar. One interesting fact about the story of California’s sugar is that John Steinbeck spent time working in a Spreckels sugar refinery in Spreckels California, which is still one of the United States best preserved factory towns.

  10. Jess

    [quote comment=”101985″]Is this a podcast? I cannot figure out how to access it if it is. Please advise.[/quote]

    John — Jess here, one of the BackStory producers. This show is still in the works, but will be coming out in early February. Check back then and you’ll be able to listen!

  11. David A. Burack

    What I have not been able to find is some old information–that I know exists–on sugar’s alleged benefits in terms of making calories more available to a general population that most of us have long forgotten or never realized existed in the first place: hungry.

    Throughout Europe in recent centuries, and in the Americas, and everywhere else, apart from the aristocracy, it used to be hard to become well fed. You don’t believe that? Welcome to world history.

    I well remember an article from an popular encyclopedia from the 1920s that I picked up, a volume that has disappeared, extolling the extraordinary benefits that accrued to the general population because of cheap sugar. Maybe that too was an industry-financed piece of propaganda, but it had to have had at least a grain of truth in order to appeal to a somewhat intelligent readership.

    Please don’t remind me of the sorry pass that we’ve come to today, nutritionally, and the even sorrier story of sugar’s association with slavery, etc. I’m well aware of and regret and deplore it properly. What I’m interested in is something that puts the “craze” for sugar in true historical perspective, as people of the time experienced it, and not as we look on it today, as some insane aberration of a society running off the rails.

  12. Renee Cook

    The absolute love of my life, ranking in line with my babies and chocolate, grew up the son of a depression era general store owner in the south. He is a retired State Representative, and he has told me stories about a cane plant in the area where the syrup would cascade downwards in mazes of bamboo shoots becoming thinner as it became warmer. He developed quite a sweet tooth on that cane syrup dipper and to this day only eats his Lea’s sourdough biscuits with the dark cane syrup of his youth and keeps a jar of chocolate frosting in his refrigerator door for 2am emergencies. He’s very health conscious, and the hardest working man I’ve ever seen, and the stories he tells of the cane syrup, and the pomegranate bush, and the riding along with the farmers to the cotton gin add a sweetness to the heritage you can’t put in a jar, and have earned him the right to eat frosting on a spoon and drink milk from a jug… I have shared some of these podcasts with him and he loves it… If this show has already been produced please email me a link to listen, and if not, feel free to email my huny through his website. Thanks!! LOVE YOU GUYS!!!!

  13. Jack Warner

    Read Sweet Stuff, by Deborah J Warner. She is a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Many sides to the history of sugar. Available through Amazon.

  14. Gail C. Christopher

    I recommend that you reach out to Richard Johnson, M.D. His new book, releaesed jn 2013 takes a look at the history of sugar and obesity.
    It is quite relevant to today’s challenges as the 0besity epidemic escalates.
    You can get the book from Amazon.com.
    Love your show…..
    Gail C.

  15. Bryan

    I’d love to hear a piece on the early United States’ ambivalent relationship with Haiti and its sugar trade. Without official acknowledgment of its independence from former chief trading partner France, how did Haitians seek out trade with new partners in New England. While debate raged in Congress over whether a slave-holding nation could or should endorse Haiti’s national project for a black republic, US merchants were becoming a cornerstone of its cash-crop economy. And at the same time, Haiti’s new republican leaders and aristocrats were instituting forced labor policies based in part on the southern plantation system to ensure it could continue selling a large volume of cash crops. I believe there’s a new book that argues Haiti’s contemporary situation stems from this early 19th century decision to remain a ‘peripheral’ economy.

    The dynamics of trade and diplomacy between Haiti and the US seem a very interesting historical moment to unpack, especially as it connects early US ambitions in the Caribbean and Latin American to the confused racial and geographical attitudes of the day. I’d love to hear more.

  16. Stamatis

    I’ve heard that in the Civil War the Union Army was dispensing rations of condensed milk to its troops since it was nutritionally and calorically dense and shelf stable due (at least partially) to it’s high sugar content- how important was this in their overall food supply line? Does sugar’s preservative power factor in anywhere else in our history?

  17. Brendanjosef

    US consumption of sugar skyrocketed in the second half of the 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries, but I’m curious as to how exactly this sugar was consumed, particularly the amount that went into the developing processed food industries. I know there were new candy, ice cream, desserts, etc., but it seems that consumption in general outpaced these other factors. The big refineries and later the Sugar Trust sold most of their sugar to wholesale merchants, do we know what percentage went directly to consumers and how much went to other producers of foodstuffs? And how did the relationship between wholesalers and the food industry in general change during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era?

  18. Katie Hargrave

    So glad you’re working on this program! I’d add the Boston Molasses Flood to the mix, Steven Puleo’s book on the topic is brilliant!

  19. Venece

    Very interested to know when or if this podcast is still going to be broadcasted. The topic has really peaked my interest!

  20. Ben

    As I happen to be reading Jen Anderson’s book _Mahogany_ right now (which is a wonderful read I might add) I think it would be worth talking about how sugar planters diversified their investments with exotic woods. Perhaps one of the most interesting bits in her book I have come across is how English sugar planters would fell and sell mahogany during years when sugar crops underperformed. Thus years of market shortages of sugar were years when mahogany was cheapest (as the market was glutted). Savvy merchants dealing in wood could predict the future of the exotic wood market based on sugar production… Just something to think about.

  21. Michelle

    I’m curious about rum and the degree to which it’s seen as a solidly American booze. Knowing what little I do about the whiskey rebellion and how important whiskey was to corn and wheat farmers with limited means of preserving their crop, I’m curious about how differently rum was perceived. I guess I’d associate whiskey with small farmers who represent some sort of a democratic ideal while rum is associated with big, aristocratic sugar plantation owners. Is there anything to that?

  22. Barbara Osborn

    Please look into the aspect of the “Big Sugar” in Florida. The web of subsidies, campaign donations, politicians in the pockets of Big Sugar and now the destruction of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers is mind boggling.

  23. Elizabeth

    Such a great topic! I’m curious about the role that sugar played in war. It seems like sugar has been a crucial factor in most wars the United States has waged–from the critical part that the sugar tax played in the Revolutionary War; to the interplay between sugar production, slavery, and the Civil War; to Coca-Cola’s role in WWII; to the role of sugar rationing throughout; and SO much more. I would love to hear what the American History Guys have to say!