Take your lumps! — Sweet ones!

Tea parties are common events in innumerable Regency romance novels. Countless characters in attendance at those fictional events take sugar in their tea. But the manner in which they take that sugar is not always historically accurate.

Will that be lumps or cubes?

The production of sugar increased steadily during the eighteenth century. This had the effect of reducing the cost, taking sugar out the category of luxury commodities and making it available to most English households. Sweetening tea, which had also become much more affordable, was one of the most common uses to which sugar was put throughout the Regency.

Though the volume of sugar production had increased up to the time of the Regency, the way in which it was packaged remained much the same as it had for the previous century. Granulated sugar as we know it today was not yet technically possible. Rather, sugar was turned out as a solid cone which was sometimes called a" sugar loaf." Sugar cones typically weighed between one and three pounds and were usually between eight to twelve inches high, with up to a six-inch diameter base. There was no standardization in the size and shape of sugar cones at this time. Each sugar refinery produced sugar cones in slightly different sizes, based on the size and shape of the sieves which each refinery used.

The basic sugar-making process was to press the juice out of the harvested sugar cane at a mill. This opaque, dark green sugar juice was then strained and a small amount of lime was added to prevent fermentation and help separate out the majority of the impurities. Once the impurities had settled out and been removed, the juice was boiled down to concentrate the sugar. The heat caused the sugar to become slightly brown, though not quite as brown as modern-day brown sugar. This sugar concentrate was then poured into inverted cone-shaped wire sieves, from which the syrup (molasses) could drain away though a small hole in the bottom. The crystallizing sugar in the cone sieve was then allowed to dry for several days until it became a hard, solid cone of a slightly brownish-colored sugar.

When ready for market, sugar cones were wrapped in paper, usually an indigo blue color, which had the effect of making the sugar look whiter. Occasionally sugar cones might be wrapped in brown paper instead. The paper was secured around the cone with string, a dab of sealing wax or both string and wax. This wax was typically red, and might be impressed with the seal of the refinery or the sugar seller from which it was purchased. Some sugar sellers would also pound the sugar cones into what was known as "powdered" sugar, not comparable to modern powdered sugar, it was more like a coarse granulated sugar. This "powdered" sugar was more convenient to use, but was also a much more expensive, luxury commodity.

Most households purchased their sugar in solid cones. Once in the home, the housewife or kitchen servants used sugar nippers to break chunks of sugar off the hard cone. These nippers were most often made of iron, were similar in appearance to pliers, having jaws which terminated in a pair of small curved blades. A large illustration of a typical pair of sugar nippers can be seen on the "Handling Collection" page of the Museum of Croydon.

Sugar nippers were large, heavy, functional tools which were seldom decorated and were not meant to be part of the tea service which was placed before guests. Prior to serving tea, the nippers were used to break a number of chunks off the sugar cone, then used to break these chunks into smaller lumps. These lumps were then deposited in the sugar basin, a bowl which was a common part of most tea services and was intended for holding sugar lumps for serving. A pair of sugar tongs was used to place the sugar lumps in the tea by the lady of the house as she served her guests. These sugar tongs were typically made of silver, though they could also be made of gold or pewter. They had the appearance of large, elegantly decorated tweezers which could grasp the sugar lump and drop it into the tea cup.

Sugar cubes were not invented until 1841, in Dacice, South Bohemia by Jakub Krystof Rad, the director of a Czech sugar beet factory. He turned his efforts to this purpose because his wife, Juliana, had badly cut her hand when trying to cut sugar lumps from a large cone of sugar. By 1843, he had patented his invention and sugar cubes were in production at Rad’s factory, There is a monument to this important invention in Dacice, in what is now Czechoslovakia.

Sugar cubes were not avaialable in England until 1875, more than thirty years after their introduction in Europe. A German inventor, Eugen Langen, of Cologne, had patented his own method for making sugar cubes in the 1870’s. The rights to make sugar cubes by this process were purchased by Henry Tate and fellow Liverpool sugar refiner, David Martineau. For more than fifteen years, their Liverpool refinery made sugar cubes for tea tables all over England. Then, in 1892, Tate acquired the exclusive manufacturing rights in Britain for a superior cube-making process which had been patented by Gustav Adant of Brussels. This process was put into production in Tate’s Liverpool refinery in 1894.

Too often I have read novels in which sugar cubes were served at a Regency tea party. Impossible! Sugar cubes were an invention of the Victorian age. They did not exist in the years of the Regency. So please, authors, make sure your characters take their lumps if they want sugar at your next Regency tea party.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Take your lumps! — Sweet ones!

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    there was also broken sugar which was cheaper because it was what had broken off the sugar loafs or those damaged in transit which was about half the price weight for weight of sugar loaf. Also there was moist sugar, the unrefined muscovado like sugar that was somewhat cheaper. Where loaf sugar was something over 1/- per pound, broken sugar was 6d-8d and though I have no figures on moist sugar in the period yet, I’m guessing by extrapolation from earlier figures we are talking 8d-10d.
    Of course the ethical sugar to drink was maple sugar because it was not made by slavery; the abolition of the slave trade did NOT mean the end of slavery, only the end of selling people. There was also beet sugar from Germany which increased in popularity from around 1812 though it wasn’t grown commercially in England until the 20th century and in the regency was more popular on the continent. I’m trying to find out more about this.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Most maple sugar came from North America, and in the early years of the Regency, there was a war on with the US. That impeded shipping, even from Canada, to England, so maple sugar was not always easy to get there until the war ended in 1814.

      Beet sugar was pretty much anathema in Regency England, since its cultivation was strongly promoted, one might say, forced, by Napoleon. The British blockade and conquest of French territories in the West Indies was fairly effectively keeping sugar out of France. Once Boney learned about beet sugar, he mandated its cultivation in all of the German territories he had conquered. Needless to say, the English were having none of that. Besides, they were getting plenty of cane sugar from their own West Indies plantations, so they had no need of beet sugar, and no interest in supporting anything that Napoleon liked.

      There are a flock of books on sugar history. Just plug “sugar history” into the search box at Google books and you will get a long list of titles. Most of them are still under copyright, so you will not be able to read them online, but once you have authors and titles, you will be able to get them from your local library, if they have them, or ask them to get them for you via Inter-Library Loan.



  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    Many thanks, I will do that, it’s a deeper subject than you think when you spoon sugar into tea first thing in the morning. It certainly makes sense that Napoleon’s insistence on beet sugar would put the British off even if it was a more ethical sweetner

  3. Kate says:

    Thank you for the info – am writing an article for a village magazine on a local grocer’s receipt we have from the 1790s where he has purchased sugar loaves, lump sugar and moist sugar – it’s so interesting finding out just what these were.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are quite welcome! I am glad you found the article of interest.

      That receipt must be like a little snapshot into a moment in the life of that village grocer. I hope your article is well received.



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  6. Jaylan Caglar says:

    “what is now Czechoslovakia”…. I’m seriously questioning the validity of the rest of this information now.

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