- Sweet Stuff: An American History of Sweeteners from Sugar to Sucralose by Deborah Jean Warner
Deborah Jean Warner makes no extravagant claims in Sweet Stuff. She does not argue that sugar changed the world or hold it up as a "window" onto larger dynamics in politics or culture. Instead, she provides a relatively straightforward history of American sweeteners, organized by production locations and by sources, including cane, beet, corn, molasses, honey, sorghum, and maple, as well as non-caloric saccharin, cyclamates, aspartame, and sucralose. The lack of an overall argument or historiographical discussion will leave some readers feeling lost in the details. But Warner's clear prose and meticulous research make Sweet Stuff accessible and valuable, particularly for those interested in analytical chemistry, industrial Brooklyn, and environmental history in Florida and Louisiana.
John Adams described molasses as "an essential ingredient in American independence" (p. 35). According to Warner, after the Sugar Act of 1764, taxes on sugar products accounted for 97 percent of British revenue. After the 1776 Revolution, sparked in part by those burdensome tariffs, the new [End Page 205] American government began collecting money from sugar products. Those tariffs constituted the single largest source of federal funds until the institution of income taxes in the twentieth century. Sugar was tariffed by grade, which had significant implications for American manufacturing and chemistry. Cane was subject to some initial processing in the West Indies because it degrades quickly after harvest. But American firms carried out subsequent processing domestically because raw materials were subject to lesser tariffs than refined sugar. New York became a major processing center because of its port, coal, cheap labor, and access to financial capital to pay for and insure large shipments of raw sugar. By 1876, Havemeyers & Elders processed more than 100 million pounds of sugar annually on the Brooklyn waterfront.
Processors, traders, retailers, and the federal government all relied on chemistry to grade sugar for tariffs, detect adulteration, and ensure quality. Sugar is thus fundamental to the history of analytic chemistry. Warner notes that most of the founding members of the American Chemical Society were sugar chemists. The Havemeyers funded Havemeyer Hall, the location of Columbia University's chemistry department. Leon Godchaux, a Jewish Louisiana sugar baron, also invested in analytical chemistry, along with transportation, newspapers, levees, and statistical research after he bought his first cane plantation in 1862. On his death in 1899, he was the richest Louisianan and the nation's largest sugar producer.
Indeed, a significant part of the history of sugar in the United States involves efforts to find domestic alternatives to West Indian raw materials, either by growing cane in places like Louisiana and Florida or by developing novel sources of crystallizable sucrose. Spaniards first planted cane in Florida in 1572. But production became viable only after the Everglades were drained, a process that started almost immediately after Florida attained statehood in 1845. Warner's chapter on Florida shows how thoroughly hydraulic engineers, soil chemists, plant pathologists, breeders, agronomists, entomologists, and livestock experts changed the state's landscape, all in order to grow sugar.
Meanwhile, American abolitionists favored beet, sorghum, maple, and other alternatives because cane relied on slave labor. American beet sugar production began in earnest after the 1862 establishment of the USDA and of land-grant colleges and the 1887 establishment of agricultural experiment stations, and it was supported by a heavy traffic in French technical expertise. By 1934, cane and beet-sugar production exceeded consumption, so Congress limited both sources in 1934. That same law was also the first American legislation limiting child labor because beet-sugar working conditions were so severe. Today, sugar not specifically labeled "cane" is probably made from beets. Neither sorghum nor maple ever could be reliably produced at sufficient scale to displace cane or beet. [End Page 206]
Regulation, tariffs, price supports, and government-sponsored research are vital to sugar's story, but can be difficult to follow because they cut across the production locations and sources that Warner uses to organize...