Sugar and Power

Despite sugar’s ubiquity in the modern Western diet, it was once reserved as a medicinal ingredient for the wealthiest consumers. From the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, sugar transformed from a rare luxury item to a commonplace ingredient, shaped by dramatic shifts in health, trade, and politics. Sugar became increasingly desirable in the early modern period as its consumption became essential in several new, caffeinated drinks: coffee, tea, and chocolate. The rise of sugar was also encouraged by the popularity of molasses, a byproduct of sugar processing, and rum, the distilled spirit made from it. Colonial structures and the exploitation of enslaved people facilitated the remarkable increase in sugar production and popularity. Through evaluation of sources pulled from literature, art, economic and political texts, maps, material goods, and recipes, many found within the Newberry Library’s own collections, we will delve into the history of sugar (c. 1100 to 1900), focusing on the connections between sugar consumption and production with social, economic, and political power.