The Power of Symbolism and Meaning in Sugar ConsumptionIn Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power the story of one commodity, sugar, is given its rightful place of importance in the evaluation of modern history. Throughout his book, Mintz delivers evidence and theory as to how sugar came to shape the political world as it is today and how what was once a luxury item of the rich and powerful became a staple food source for the poor of Great Britain and eventually the world. The history of sugar consumption is distributed into five historical categories based on function: as medicine, as a spice, as decorative materials, a sweetener and finally, as a preservative. In this brief paper I will focus on the part of consumption by the West, especially England as a sweetener. I will show how new meanings began to be associated with sugar through the changing class politics of sugar consumption within the British Empire.
One of the major anomalies of the history of sugar Mintz investigates is how the consumption of sugar began to become a necessity of the working class of Great Britain starting in the mid-19th century. Instead of being concerned with the actual act of consuming sugar this paper will focus on the meanings behind consumption of sugar in a ritualistic manner. When the lower classes in Great Britain began to consume sugar they were greatly participating in a practice Mintz terms intensification (Mintz, 152). Intensification is described as the process in
which consumers greatly replicate, or even emulates, the practices of others of a higher social status in their consumption of a particular commodity (Mintz, 152). Mintz claims that "Tobacco, sugar, and tea were the first objects within capitalism that conveyed with their use the complex idea that one could become different by consuming differently” (Mintz, 185). The working class peoples of Great Britain viewed their own consumption of sugar as a route to becoming different, or a way to increase their social status in life. One example of this type of behavior is the wedding cake (Mintz, 152). The wedding cake is very symbolic in British culture with its very design imitating the sugar confections of Kings and Nobles in the English court. Even though over time the event specific meanings of the wedding cake have evolved the very design and occurrences of wedding cakes are still a form of intensification because the ritual started as imitation by a lower class of a ritual of consumption performed by the ruling class (Mintz, 152).
Despite the beginning of consumption of sugar by the lower class starting in a process of intensification sugar soon became even more valuable to the poor as a source of calories, than sugar had even been to the rich in their ritualistic power displays (Mintz, 153). This upheaval of the traditional place of sugar as a luxury item to a commonplace necessity gave new meanings and uses to the consumption of sugar by the lower classes removed from the practices of the privileged (Mintz, 152). This process of innovative change is given the name extensification. Extensification is the force that changed the meanings of sugar completely by imbuing it with new meanings.
To understand the new meanings of sugar in a more complete way it helps to see sugar not as an ingredient but instead as a symbol whose consumption is imbued with certain meanings and rituals. Our consumption of sugar today is a result of the processes of 19th century England. As the consumption of sugar changed “what foods (sugar) meant to people, and what people
signaled by consuming (it) - were associated with social differences… including age … class, and occupation” (Mintz, 151). The “meaning” of consequence here is the internal meaning which people explain when asked to show they know what things are supposed to mean. (Mintz, 151) Internal meanings are what everyday proletariats of the 19th and 20th century thought of when consuming sugar consciously. The fact that the British of differing classes were both consuming sugar does not mean that they all were participating in the same system of symbols and agreed on one meaning. Mintz explains this by stating "People agreeing on what something “is” is not always the same as them agreeing on what it means" (158)1. Sugar as a symbol was given its own internal meanings by the new working class consumers based on a historically acquired and cultural specific arbitrary basis (Mintz, 154). Internal meanings created patterns of every day existence and meaning in consumption.
These everyday meanings were not created in a vacuum. All the meanings are created based on historical explanation. Sugar was given its meaning through political struggle in the very foundation of British society as illustrated above with the example of the wedding cake. The lower classes sought to have the same luxury as the aristocracy. The consumption of sugar represented intraclass struggles more than anything else (Mintz, 185). While this paper has focused on explaining the transition of sugar as a luxury item to an everyday commodity consumed by the working class of Great Britain through giving an explanation of the internal meanings of consumption, a further study is needed. Mintz argues that a study of the "power" in sugar must look at these internal meanings along with the broader outside meanings of the consumption of sugar such as the political entities of the colonies (173). These outside meanings beg explanation in order to fully understand the significance of sugar in the creation of not only
the political world but, also the economic one. The study of sugar consumption is not limited to only understanding the significance of sugar, it is an example of how focus on one commodity can help to evaluate the entire global economy. After reading this paper you should be able to apply the same modes of thinking such as intensification and extensification to other commodities of influence today.