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“Sugar! all that sugar!”: gender, gentility, and the tea table in eighteenth-century Britain and its empire

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Sugar nippers 1800-1900 © Manchester City Galleries

“Sugar! all that sugar!” This phrase was allegedly uttered by George III when he encountered an extremely ornate coach drawn by six perfectly matched horses, and learnt that the equipage was the property of a Jamaican absentee plantation owner--but it could also be applied to genteel domestic and social life in England throughout the eighteenth and 19th centuries. In this period, sugar went from an exotic luxury available only to wealthy urbanites to a commodity that was accessible to all but the poorest Englishmen and women. But while even working-class people had the opportunity to sweeten the cups of tea which provided them with the energy required for agricultural and industrial labour, it was among the women of the aristocracy, and then of the emerging urban bourgeoisie, that sugar became central to the social rituals which allowed them to see themselves, and to be viewed by their friends and families, as exemplars of refined femininity, separate from both the male sphere and plebeian ways of life.

As early as the close of the seventeenth century, the Restoration dramatist William Congreve, in his play The Double Dealer (1693) depicted aristocratic social life as highly gendered; men and women would dine together, but at the meal’s end the men would remain at the table to consume more wine or spirits, while the women withdrew to

the end of the gallery, retired to their tea and scandal, according to the ancient custom.

Although this custom was actually very recent, and the conversation was not necessarily centred on gossip, the provision of tea was essential to this aspect of female sociability. In China and India, where tea was grown, it was drunk, as it is today, without an added sweetener, but among the English, very few people chose to consume this beverage without sugar, as they found its natural taste unappealing. But while the availability of sugar made tea-drinking more pleasurable, it also helped affluent women to portray themselves as sophisticated and elegant.

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Sugar castor 1780-1800 © Manchester City Galleries

Prior to the European colonisation of the Caribbean islands, and the establishment of large-scale sugar plantations therein, the commodity was scarce and extremely expensive, available only to monarchs and to the richest members of the aristocracy. In the late medieval and early modern eras, any great banquet was likely to include one or more “subtleties.” These were edible sculptures composed of sugar that was mixed with water and gum arabic in order to produce a pliable paste similar to the fondant used in modern wedding cakes; some were several feet in height and width, and were designed in the form of miniature buildings, animals, and people. Placed on tables for the guests to admire, they served as dramatic centrepieces, and while they could be eaten, their principal function was to impress observers with their hosts’ magnificence. But as sugar became both less expensive and more easily available, and as elite cultural tastes shifted from eye-popping opulence to elegant (comparative) restraint, these items fell from favour. As the Tudor dynasty was replaced by that of the Stuarts, and then the Hanoverians, sugar came to function in elite social life not in the form of huge, opulent individual items, but as part of a harmonious assemblage of decorative and functional objects which constituted the tea table, a site which over the course of the eighteenth century became essential to the self-fashioning of any female inhabitant of Britain or its colonies who wished to consider herself a lady.

While the consumption of beverages such as wine, beer, spirits, or water required only a bottle or jug and a number of glasses, tea-drinking, at least when performed as a social event, called for a large number and variety of objects. In addition to the teapot itself, a woman of fashion needed cups, saucers, trays, and several types of containers and utensils. And while milk or cream was simply transferred from a small silver, pewter, or ceramic jug into a teacup, the inclusion of sugar rendered the tea-taking process more complex. A selection of items from the collections of the Manchester Art Gallery illustrates the nature of this ritual.

Hostesses and their guests might serve themselves sugar from either a bowl or a caster, depending upon the commodity’s consistency. Casters, which were also used for pepper and for dry mustard, contained finely granulated sugar which could be sprinkled into a cup of tea through a number of tiny holes in the top of the vessel. But throughout the eighteenth century, most households purchased sugar in the form of a loaf or a cone, from which a servant would chop small chunks which they would place in a bowl. Although there was no technical reason that drinkers could not use a spoon to transfer one or more lumps from bowl to teacup, those who could afford to do so supplied their guests with sugar tongs, ideally made of silver. These objects were used only for this purpose, so ownership thereof attested to a household’s wealth and sophistication.

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Myer Myers, Sugar Tongs, 1784-1786, Silver, (2.5 x 15.2 x 4.8 cm), Luce Centre collection, 1955.43 New-York Historical Society. Photography New-York Historical Society

While the Art Gallery’s collections include a number of sugar castors, bowls, and tongs from the eighteenth century, at this time Manchester was not a city of considerable wealth or sophistication, and these items are not sufficiently elegant to have graced the tea table of a woman who aspired to fashionability. By contrast, these sugar tongs from the New-York Historical Society symbolise the wealth and taste of Thomas Arden, a Manhattan merchant, and his wife Mary, and were made for them in the mid-1780s by the renowned Jewish silversmith Myer Myers. Made in the bow form which had recently become stylish, these delicate tongs have a large surface area for bright-cut engraving, and are decorated with Arden’s initials, floral detailing, and a geometric border, all of which added to the cost of the object. Using these tongs to move sugar lumps from a bowl to a cup called for the dextrous, delicate movements associated with refined women, and the bright silver would shine in candlelight, contributing to the beauty of the tea table and attesting to Mary Arden’s high socioeconomic status.

Ironically, it was the association of the tea table, and thus of sugar, with refined femininity that contributed to the end of the plantation slavery that produced this commodity. With the establishment in Britain of a movement to abolish first the Atlantic slave trade, then the institution of slavery itself, British women were called upon to show their womanly sensibility in a different way, not through consumption but by abstention. As activists raised public awareness of the conditions in which sugar was produced for British tea tables, many of them targeted women as the main purchasers and consumers of what one Methodist minister called

a drug comprised of...sin and misery.

Truly genteel women, the abolitionists claimed, would not use a commodity that was associated with cruelty and immorality; they would buy “free-grown” sugar from South Asia, and if it was not available, they would renounce luxury in favour of virtue and do without. While some women ignored the anti-slavery movement’s calls for a sugar boycott, many others not only abstained themselves but called upon other women to follow their examples. Many of these campaigners were members of that same rising urban bourgeoisie which was particularly concerned with gentility and style, and thus they had considerable success in convincing their friends and neighbours that it was morally wrong to continue to buy slave-grown sugar or related products. Elizabeth Heyrick, one of Britain’s leading female abolitionists, emphasised the fact that, although women had no political rights, if they sought a “test to prove their sincerity” in the anti-slavery cause, they could find it in giving up the most lucrative of “West Indian productions”; this sacrifice, she claimed, would

give the death blow to West Indian slavery.

While few women of the era were likely to have agreed with the radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft that female consumers were “rendered weak and luxurious by the relaxing pleasures which wealth procures,” nor did they wish to be identified with what was increasingly viewed as a cruel and morally corrupting form of labour. A pseudonymous contributor to the Newcastle Courant at the end of the eighteenth century was amazed to find that, while he was away from his home for a short period, the women in his household had “perused a pamphlet” by the abolitionist William Fox, and as a result

had entirely left off the use of Sugar, and banished it from the tea table.

If British women had made sugar fashionable in the eighteenth century, by the early decades of the nineteenth many did their utmost to make it unacceptable.

Natalie Zacek

Dr Natalie Zacek is Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Manchester. She is author of monograph, Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1670-1776 (Cambridge University Press 2010) and is on the editorial board of the Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives series. She is currently completing a book manuscript about the history of horse-racing in the nineteenth-century United States.

Zacek is actively engaged in sharing her research and teaching expertise beyond the academic community. In 2017 she curated the exhibition 'Bittersweet: Legacies of Slavery & Abolition in Manchester' at The Portico Library Manchester.  The exhibition shared the stories of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its consequences in Manchester and around the world, with original artefacts, contemporary artworks and new historical research.