"Sugar - save it!" Detail from U.S. Food Administration poster, c1917 (U.S. National Archives).

Sweet Talk

A History of Sugar

Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and that means candy, chocolate, cakes – all the sweet stuff for your sweetheart! It’s just one of the ways sugar has seeped into our personal lives, but it hasn’t stopped there. From the triangle trade to the rise of high-fructose corn syrup, sweetness in America has been a political question too. So why has sugar been so intimately linked to power over the centuries? And how has our national sweet tooth shaped our political and economic priorities? This episode of BackStory finds out, exploring how sugar has shaped, if rarely sweetened, American history.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. John Hancock. It’s a name we tend to associate with the Declaration of Independence, but Hancock first made a name for himself illegally running raw materials for rum, and he wasn’t the only one.

MALE SPEAKER: We’re talking about major American founding families. They were deeply complicit in the molasses smuggling trade.

PETER: After the Revolution, sugar continued to be big business in the Atlantic world, on the scale of oil today. And so when the end of slavery stripped sugar planters of their workforce, American sugar barons turned to Asia.

MALE SPEAKER: In 1869, in their private correspondence, Louisiana planters are very explicit about wanting a new slave labor force essentially.

PETER: Today on BackStory, a history of sugar in America.

Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. Peter, Ed, you know Valentine’s Day is coming up.

PETER: Really.

ED: Good, good, good.

BRIAN: I remembered this when I went shopping in the market and those bags of pastel colored hearts they’re appearing. They say “Be Mine” on them. Only now, of course, they say “Text Me.”

That got me thinking about my days back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of my favorite memories was walking down the street and smelling the aroma of those little hearts being manufactured at the local candy factory.

PETER: I always wondered where they came from.

BRIAN: No. Exactly. I learned later that that factory had been turning out hearts for a 100 years. So I wanted to find out a little bit more about where all this came from, and I put a call in to this guy.

STEVE ALMOND: I’m Steve Almond, the author of the book Candyfreak and registered candy freak.

BRIAN: This is a guy who is obsessed with candy. He claims that he has eaten a candy bar every day of his life. A little over 10 years ago, Steve managed to get to a tour inside the very factory in Cambridge that I used to walk by, the NECCO factory.

STEVE ALMOND: The thing is once you step inside a candy factory if you are a candy freak like me, somebody who is really deeply, sadly obsessed with candy, it’s like you’ve reached home. You’ve reached your spiritual home. And the only thing I could think was, I need to get back into more of these factories. I need to spend more of my time in these places talking to people whose job it is to make candy.

BRIAN: Steve did get into those factories. He traveled around the country, and he talked to the makers of what you’d call throwback candy bars, Twin Bing, Star Bars, GooGoo Clusters.

ED: Ahh, GooGoo Clusters. Chattanooga, Tennessee. You can still get them today.

BRIAN: Only you would–

ED: They’re great.

BRIAN: Only you would know that, Ed.

ED: They’re good.

BRIAN: All of these, including GooGoo clusters, were holdouts from an era that Steve calls the Golden Age of Candy. Those are the years between the two world wars. There were something like 6,000 candy companies in existence at that time.

This was a time, he says, when what I experienced in Cambridge was really a standard part of life for many Americans.

STEVE ALMOND: In Boston, there were five chocolate factories in the North End. And when the winds were blowing to the north, the entire North Shore, North Boston suburbs would just be awash in this amazing mesmerizing smell of chocolate.

BRIAN: Well, I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf is with us.

PETER: That’s me. Today on the show where marketing Valentine’s Day with an hour the explorers the history of America’s sweet tooth. We’ve got stories about the dark underbelly of sugar production and how that system of production shaped US immigration policy.

We’ll look at how for many people sugar substitutes became more addictive than the stuff it was replacing. And we’ll consider the profound impacts of sugar in some of its other forms, like molasses and rum.

But first, we’re going to hear a little more from candy freak Steve Almond. Steve says the inter-war period was the sweet spots so to speak of candy history. That’s because companies had the industrial technology to mass produce candy. Yet the mom-and-pop shops had yet been gobbled up by huge conglomerates, like Hershey and Nestle.

But there was also the fact that sugar itself was seen as a sort of health food. It was really a delivery system for quick energy, and that’s why Steve Almond calls candy bars America’s first fast food.

STEVE ALMOND: The reason they came into being in fact was because the soldiers over in World War I, the quartermasters didn’t want to have a giant block of chocolate. They wanted a self-serving portion that the troops could carry with them for quick energy.

So the whole essence of the idea of the candy bar was, hey, it’s quick, and it’s portable. You could take it with. You can eat it while you’re working. And the way they candy bars were advertised was as quick energy and in fact a replacement for lunch. Hey, you’re on the go, you don’t have time to sit down and have a whole meal, have a club sandwich candy bar, have a chicken dinner.

The chicken dinner candy bar actually had a chicken on the label, like a roasting chicken, like yum. It’s not that it had delicious bits of chicken in the bar, but they were trying to sell very overtly the message this is your get-up-and-go energy, and there’s no downside to it.

Now we know, and it’s overt, and we have cholesterol tests, and we know that obesity is rampant and so forth. So you really have to overcome that knowledge. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, it was like, they’re just great.

BRIAN: But wasn’t there something also pretty honest and transparent about what you were getting? Today we consume so much sugar, but I have a feeling we don’t consume most of it through candy bars. My sense is–


BRIAN: –we consume it through soft drinks. We consume it through the stewed tomatoes we buy.


BRIAN: The bread we buy.

STEVE ALMOND: Right. Yeah.

BRIAN: I don’t want to wax nostalgic for the value of a good jolt of sugar, but people knew what they were getting, right?

STEVE ALMOND: Oh, yeah. If you compare a candy bar, that’s a deal at least you know you’re making. When you buy a jar of pasta sauce and you think, oh, my–

BRIAN: Pasta sauce, yeah.

STEVE ALMOND: –oh, my kids are getting vegetable.

BRIAN: Exactly.

STEVE ALMOND: The Ronald Reagan thing. Hey, ketchup, it’s a vegetable folks. Actually, this just mostly corn syrup. So it’s really very much a Trojan horse kind of situation as I’m sure you well know, sort of growing mono-crop, producing all this corn, figuring out how to most effectively sell it to people.

The whole culture is tilted towards a glycemic index that’s kind of insane and ridiculous. I think the best thing to do and the lifestyle that I’ve tried to lead as my cholesterol has gone out of control and my teeth are falling out of my head and I’m worried about it because I have little kid, the way I try to do it is eat lots of fruits and vegetables and beans during the day and then party like a rock star with overt candy products at night. But stay away from that.

We don’t have soda. We don’t even have juice in the house. If we’re going to do sweet stuff, it’s either fruit or it is candy. And most of the time, of course, it’s candy.

BRIAN: Where does your obsession for candy come from?

STEVE ALMOND: Well, I can speak– personally, when I looked back and thought about my childhood, almost every powerful memory that I had was associated with chocolate and candy. The reason for this, particular to me, I think it was, as I really thought about it, it was the antidepressants essentially that I was using.

When I really thought about the episodes that came to mind, they were all instances in which I was clinging to candy because of the emptiness in the rest of my life for a sense of loneliness or just feeling isolated, frozen out by my brothers, whatever it was. Candy was my antidepressants.

BRIAN: So you were self-medicating?

STEVE ALMOND: Correct. That’s exactly what it was. When I look back and if I’m honest about it, that’s exactly what I was doing. I think what was going on is I just was trying to find a way, a path away from my despair. And candy is pretty dependable.

It is never disappointing. Your friend will disappoint you. Your family will disappoint you. Your colleagues, your bosses, your peers will disappoint you, your children. But candy, I’ve never had an experience where I bit into candy and said, boy, that just wasn’t– maybe I’ve had a few, but it’s pretty hard for me to be disappointed by that experience.

BRIAN: Steve, I do want to ask you having visited these icons of an American past what can you tell our listeners about what you learned from your tour through candy land?

STEVE ALMOND: Well, the one thing the bums me out the most about America and being in this land of plenty is that people are just insufficiently grateful that the miracle of being alive in this time and this place. If you had given a Snickers bar to somebody in Meso-America or Europe, forget primitive man, just in pre-Columbian culture, if you had shown them that miraculously little package of really high-quality chocolate and caramel and peanuts, nougat flavorings, and all the rest of it, and just allowed them to put that in their mouth, their heads would have exploded with joy. And it would have been miraculous. Snickers would be their god that they would pray to. And that thing we can buy for a small percentage of our discretionary income.

So what I’ve tried to do as I’ve moved forward sort of from being here, you could think, well, what is it? Am I enabling people? Am I sort of promoting candy? What I’m really trying to say is be grateful, get down on your knees, and thank God or whoever you need to thank that you are able to live in a place and a time where there is so much unbelievably dependable pleasure that you can get from these little miracles, these little creative miracles, whatever piece of candy it is. That is something that– in human history, it’s one of few unblemished miracles of human progress.

BRIAN: Steve, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks for joining us on BackStory today.

STEVE ALMOND: Absolutely. Great to be with you.


BRIAN: That’s author Steve Almond speaking to us from his home in Boston. We’ll link to an excerpt of his book Candyfreak at backstoryradio.org. We’re also going to post Steve’s description of the most unappetizing candy bars he’s ever come across. It was relegated to the web, frankly, because it’s just too disgusting to broadcast on the public airwaves.


BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break now, but stick around. When we get back, an early American experiment in ethical eating goes unexpectedly awry.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory story. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re getting ready for Valentine’s Day with a look at a persistent and sometimes pernicious role of sweets in American history. In 1878, a chemist in Baltimore made an unexpected discovery while experimenting with coal tar derivatives. He licked a white powder off his finger and found that it was sweet. He named it saccharine. It was the first artificial sweetener.

Today artificial sweeteners are a restaurant staple thanks to calorie-conscious dieters. But when saccharine was first discovered, low calorie was not a term of praise. Consumers liked sugar because it had calories, because it was pure and deliver a quick energy fix.

Many Americans at the time saw saccharine, by contrast, as a chemical adulterant, even a poison. But that began to change during World War II when sugar was strictly rationed. Carolyn de la Pena has written all about this. She told me that many American women began experimenting with saccharine out of necessity.

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: Some of the research that I did was looking into advice columns in local newspapers, what do I do? I need to stew tomatoes and I don’t have enough sugar? I really want to make a treat. And women started giving each other advice about, well, you can go get these little pills in these bottles.

Because other saccharine was vilified in the progressive era, it was kept on the market as something you could use if you’re a diabetic. So you could find it in the Five-and-Dime.

ED: Now to be honest. Were they slipping some of this into their coffee as well?

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: Sugar was something that had to be for everybody else. Sugar was for soldiers, and that’s why you rationed it. Sugar was for your husband because he needed a sweet treat. Sugar was for your kids because they needed the caloric energy and the happiness. And it wasn’t for you.

Women actually wrote to each other through these advice newspaper columns and said, well, what do I use? Where does my sweet come from? And found in artificial sweetener something that they could have for themselves that didn’t really have value for anybody out.

ED: Does that continue after World War II?

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: After World War II, we get the first real national set of commodities that are artificially sweetened and that are called diet. And for that I think the story is really well told around a brilliant entrepreneur, one of the first to see the potential in saccharine, and that’s Tillie Lewis.

Tillie ran a company called Tillie Lewis Foods. It with a canning company. What Tillie did was she saw these fliers from pharmaceutical companies that had developed these products and we’re looking for markets. And she began to add them to her line of jams and jellies and tomatoes.

She came up with what she called the 21-day diet with sweets campaign. She went across the country, and she was featured in women’s newspapers sharing that there wasn’t a need for will power anymore. You could actually indulge yourself in all of the saccharine-laced sweet products you want it and you would lose weight.

And that message was one that was picked up by other entrepreneurs, most importantly Jean Nidetch at Weight Watchers, and that’s when saccharine really became the primary way you could make a good choice, a diet choice.

ED: Things were going fine for the saccharine industry and for a products that we’re using it, yet we know that in the 1970s saccharine developed a bad reputation. What happened?

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: The FDA attempted in 1977 to ban saccharine. They had gone research in that suggested that in large quantities saccharine could cause cancer, and so they set up a period of public comment, and consumers revolted. Millions of consumers wrote directly to the FDA and to Congress and to the President and said, don’t you touch my saccharine. I can’t live without it.

In these letters, when you read them, they’re mostly written by women. A lot of them are on flowered stationery. A number of them say, I have never in my life protested anything. This is 1977. We’ve come through the ’60s, and we’ve come through Vietnam.

ED: Right.

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: And at this moment, this is the moment that they’re going to protest. And during that period public comment, people at the FDA remembered that they never in their career and ever would again receive such fervent letters in protest of their recommendation as the massive defense of saccharine that American consumers embarked on.

ED: Where did this come from? What was this a spontaneous response? Was this the saccharine lobby that was drafting these letters for these folks?

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: There actually were little ads that you could cut out in most major American newspapers that were sponsored by something called the Calorie Control Council, which was a–

ED: It sounds like something under Obamacare.

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: It was a group of artificial sweetener manufacturers that worked together to help market expansion. So, yes, consumers were directly educated by those who stood to gain by selling more saccharine that this was an infringement of their rights, that this was the government stepping on their toes, that they needed to fight back.

But I don’t think that fully explains the story. I think you also have to realize in the 1970s there were very popular books about the health effects of sugar, that sugar causes disease. Sugar causes attention deficit disorder. Sugar is the primary bad thing in the American diet and must be eliminated.

And on the other hand, you had organizations like Weight Watchers that were giant industries based on telling women, you have a craving for sweets. You can’t control your craving for sweets. You can control it by using our substitute food products, and these substitute foods will keep you safe.

It’s a society where a significant number of people are addicted to sweet, and they believe that the only kind of sweet that will allow them to have how health is artificial sweetener, and the fear of cancer cannot combat that.

ED: What comes of this battle? Who wins?

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: Consumers win, if that’s a win for consumers. The period of public comment is extended and extended. The letters keep coming in, and eventually the decision is made by Congress to continue to keep saccharine on the market.

ED: I want to just ask you. We’re in the midst of an epidemic that some people feel is fueled by the over consumption of sugar. Weren’t these people kind of right?

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: Unfortunately, we don’t have research that shows us that consuming artificial sweetener leads to weight loss. We consume more sugar as a nation now then we used to consume, and we consume artificial sweetener, and we consume corn serve on top of it.

Artificial sweetener is much sweeter, whether it’s 200 times or 500 times sweeter than sugar. So as we acclimate to these diet products, we also developed more of a taste for sweet. And our whole pallet has been sweetened. And certainly the addition of artificial sweeteners has helped do that.

But I think also we have to think maybe our bodies are smarter than we think. And when we take in sweetener, that’s not attached to calories that we go looking for those calories later in craving carbohydrates. Research that’s emerging now actually shows that artificial sweetener leads more frequently to weight gain than weight loss unless it’s in a very controlled environment.

ED: Why did you write this book?

CAROLYN DE LA PENA: I wrote this book for my mother. I grew up in a house in the 1970s and 1980s that had substitute everything, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Crystal Light, Mrs. Dash, diet sodas. I think my mother and along with a lot of women from that generation just really heard the message that your desires are out of control, and you can trust yourself, and so we’re going to change your food, and then you can trust your food.

I wrote this book so we would understand that maybe we’re not full, that maybe all that artificial sweeteners in our diet it’s a quick fix, but that it might just be OK to go back and look at caloric sweeteners and have a little now and then.

ED: Carolyn de la Pena is a professor of American studies at the University of California Davis. She’s the author of Empty Pleasures, The Story of Artificial Sweeteners From Saccharine to Splenda.


BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. Today on the show, a history of sugar in America.

FEMALE SPEAKER: One more health study I need to tell you about this afternoon. This one related to almost everyone’s favorite ingredient, sugar. It turns out added sugar raises the risk of deadly heart problems.

BRIAN: This is CNN earlier this week reporting on what’s been called the biggest study of its kind. It’s hot off the presses of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study draws a direct connection between the amount of sugar in most Americans diets and a much higher risk of fatal heart disease.

But if we rewind about 250 years, sugar’s dark side looked a little different. The problem wasn’t consumption. It was production. Back then, almost all the sugar that sweetened Americans’ diets came from the West Indies. And those West Indian cane plantations ran off of a particularly deadly form of slavery.

Historian Alan Taylor has written about one group of people especially troubled by the link between sugar and slavery, Quaker abolitionists. In the 1780s he says some wealthy Philadelphia Quakers banded together in a novel if ultimately unsuccessful attempt to do something about it.

ALAN TAYLOR: This Quaker network was looking for some alternative source of sugar that would be made within the United States by free people rather than in the West Indies by slaves.

BRIAN: I have I guess where they looked.

ALAN TAYLOR: Well, they are looking at maple sugar trees, and the man who calls their attention to these maple sugar trees is William Cooper, who is a land speculator who has a prime chunk of real estate with thousands of maple sugar trees on it. And these trees are on a tract called Oswego in what’s now Oswego County, New York, which is around the town that Cooper founded and named for himself, Cooperstown, New York.

When you’re a land speculator, you need some paying commodity, something that these settlers can bring to your store that you can take on to the wider world and sell. And so he hoped that maple sugar would be that commodity that would enable these settlers to prosper. And they will all be doing good because the sugar will be made by free people and their families here in the United States rather than being made by slaves in the West Indies.

BRIAN: Now how strong was this desire to counter slavery in his motivations?

ALAN TAYLOR: He like most people was a complicated person, so he owned slaves.

BRIAN: Uh-huh.

ALAN TAYLOR: He is in New York state, and at that time slavery was perfectly legal in New York. They were domestic servants. They weren’t farm workers, and eventually he would free them.

We might be tempted to say, well, he’s a hypocrite for having slaves but preaching that people should buy his sugar because it was not made by slaves. But people were involved in all sorts of moral complications in that time if anybody had slaves.

BRIAN: So what goes wrong Alan?

ALAN TAYLOR: What goes wrong is that maple sugar production is highly volatile, depending upon weather conditions in March and April. So the quality and the quantity of the sugar that they are bringing into Cooper’s store is highly variable. And then the transportation problem is one the Cooper doesn’t solve because Cooperstown is a pretty long schlep to get to Philadelphia. And along the way, these barrels are exposed to rain, and the rain seeps in, and it destroys the sugar.

BRIAN: So what’s does he do when he’s faced with all this failure after so much optimism?

ALAN TAYLOR: Well, he will try again for a second year. The first attempt they make is in the spring of 1790. And that’s the one that gets all this publicity. And then it turns out there wasn’t a lot of production behind the publicity.

He tries again in 1791, and he gets the production up a little bit better. But by that point, people are skeptical. So he doesn’t get as much publicity. So he tries a third year, and this year the climate conditions were even worse, and the production is just a fraction of what he produced in the first two years.

And at that point, he just throws up his hands and says, I’m out of this. I’m not to lose money on this. So when push comes to shove, William Cooper’s has got to make some money, and it’s not his principles which are prime really driving that.

BRIAN: So what happens to this enterprise that he’d mobilize so many of his neighbors into, turning to sugar production and the cooperage, so to speak, and the transportation and all that, what happens to it all?

ALAN TAYLOR: Well, he has procured all of these iron kettles that are used to boiled this sap down into syrup. Then there are these molds that are used to crystallize the sugar in. So all of those have being dispersed out to all these farmers.

And I think a lot of them kept this and continued to produce this maple sugar for their own household consumption and maybe to barter locally. But he’s not able to connect this to a wider market in a way that will compete with cane sugar. But when Cooper was pitching this at his peak of enthusiasm in 1789 and ’90, he said one of the great benefits is this will preserve the maple trees.

It’s a beautiful tree. They were big. There were a lot of them. They’re productive. And so he’s expressing a conservationist ideal, which is that these are too valuable in the long run to be sacrificed in the short run by burning them. Because you can also burn these trees to make a product called potash, which was widely used in various industrial processes at that time.

And this is a time when the Industrial Revolution is getting going, so there is a pretty voracious demand for potash, particularly in England. But once maple sugar turns out to be disappointing, William Cooper does a 180, and he starts to promote potash production. He flip-flops. All right. Suddenly he becomes the guy who wants to burn up the American forest.


ALAN TAYLOR: He tried maple sugar, and it didn’t work. So number two is potash, and it does work in a big way, and it helps him to achieve his primary goal, which is to sell land and to develop the settlement around Cooperstown.

ED: Alan Taylor is a historian at the University of Virginia. His story about William Cooper appears in his William Cooper’s Town, Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic.


BRIAN: Seventy years after William Cooper’s failed experiment, virtually all the sugar Americans consumed was still being produced by slaves, but now these were American slaves. And they were working in the cane fields of Louisiana. On the eve of the Civil War, Louisiana’s sugar industry was booming.

It was an industrial power that in today’s terms was worth $4 billion, but by the end of the war, its value had plummeted to just a small fraction of that amount. Plantations were devastated. And the enslaved workers who’d driven the sugar economy were now free to escape from the cane fields. Few had any desire to stay there.

MOON-HO JUNG: So Louisiana planters begin thinking about other possibilities.

ED: This is Moon-Ho Jung, a historian at the University of Washington. He says these planters were especially interested in what had already happened in the British West Indies. Slavery there had been abolished in 1838, and so Caribbean sugar planters had imported indentured servants from Asia to take the place of their former slaves. The laborers were known as coolies, and the Americans thought coolies might be the solution to their labor problems as well.

MOON-HO JUNG: So in 1869, there was a fairly big convention in Memphis organized to try to set up a company to recruit workers directly from southern China to Louisiana. They are very explicit in terms of what kind of labor they want. One of the persons at the convention is Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

And he is arguing for a new South which is very much related to the old South. It’s about the resurgence of white supremacy. It’s about the resurgence of the plantation economy. And the call for Chinese workers becomes a part of this movement in terms of what kind of labor they want.

So if I could give you a quote. This is one of the speakers in Memphis in 1869. This person says the West Indian plantations quote, “Now employee a coerce labor and again blossom like the rose. Who’s labor is it that has done this? India and China answers. Asiatic labor supply in place of that stricken down by emancipation. Shall we not profit by its for example?”

ED: You can’t really believe that people just say so explicitly what they me. Would it be great if we had coerced labor?


ED: 1869, a quick calculations suggests it’s not that far from when slavery had been declared illegal in the United States. How did they navigate that legal landscape as well as that vast geographic landscape?

MOON-HO JUNG: In 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War, the US Congress passed a law prohibiting Americans from participating in the so-called coolie trade. US consuls supposedly would be able to tell the difference between a coolie who represented slavery and a voluntary Chinese immigrant. But the problem was all Chinese workers were represented as coolies.

So they became very confused as to whether to certify these shipments of recruits, Chinese labor recruits to Louisiana as either voluntary or as coolies. And so some of these consuls wrote to their superiors in Washington, DC, to ask very explicitly, what it is a coolie? How do you define a coolie.

And when southern recruiters end up in China, they begin arguing these are voluntary immigrants. These are not coolie. And by and large, federal officials allow them to recruit these workers.

ED: Does this Asian labor then become an enduring part of Louisiana sugar plantation society?

MOON-HO JUNG: Not to a great extent. I would say that many of these Chinese workers in Louisiana decide that this is not the life that they had hoped for, and they escape Louisiana as fast as they can.

ED: So it sounds as if the larger political consequence of this importation of Asian labor into the sugar districts may have lain elsewhere because I think a lot of people would know that in the 20 years after this that the United States as a whole begins to exclude immigrants from China to the United States. Can you explain what connection there might be between these two episodes?

MOON-HO JUNG: Yes. There is a deep connection that really goes back to the 1830s when American newspapers began writing about Chinese and Indian workers in the Caribbean as a new form of slavery. And so in the debates over Chinese exclusion in the 1870s and 1880s, many of the folks behind the exclusion movement begin proclaiming that excluding the Chinese would be an anti-slavery measure. That is it would be a vote for freedom.

So in the debates leading up to the exclusion of the Chinese, this is what a California senator said, a vote against Chinese exclusion quote, “Is to commission under the broad seal of the United States all the speculators in human labor, all of the traffickers in human flesh to ply their infamous trade without impediment under the protection of the American flag and empty but teeming, seething slave pens of China up on the soil of California.”

And so the people that really pressed for Chinese exclusion begin arguing that this is not an anti-immigration measure, but in fact it’s a pro-immigration measure. It’s an anti-slavery measure because they were not prohibiting real immigrants from the United States they were prohibiting coolie or slaves, whereas legitimate immigrants came from Europe and they were white.


BRIAN: Moon-Ho Jung is a historian at the University of Washington. His book is Coolie and Cane, Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. It’s time for another quick break. When we get back, an illicit trade in molasses fuels colonial New England’s economy and its revolutionary furor.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory story. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re considering the American history of sugar. Now it turns out that that history isn’t particularly sweet, but it is consequential. Let’s consider the case of the American Revolution.

We’re used to thinking about that war as a revolt against taxes on tea and stamps. But Brown University scholar Peter Andreas says there was another lesser known factor in the lead-up to war.

PETER ANDREAS: The smuggling of molasses to the New England colonies.

ED: Yeah. You have heard that right, molasses smuggling. At the time, New England’s number one export was rum. And in order to make that rum, you need molasses. The problem was the British Caribbean didn’t produce anywhere near enough molasses to keep New England’s distilleries busy. So colonists struggled to bring in enough barrels of molasses.

PETER ANDREAS: They needed tens of thousands of hog’s heads per year to run the region’s 63 distilleries. They were importing less than 400.

ED: In case you’re wondering, a hog’s head is the equivalent of 240 liters. Now there was plenty of sugar being produced in the French West Indies, and so enterprising colonists turned to the black market. Andreas told me that the smugglers included some of the colonies most powerful men.

PETER ANDREAS: We’re talking about major American Founding Families, the Hancocks in Boston for example. Or I should point out the Brown brothers in Providence, the founders of the university that employs me. I mean they were–

ED: Whoa.

PETER ANDREAS: –deeply complicit in the molasses smuggling trade.

ED: What was the legal regime? What were the statutes that the colonists were not adhering to?

PETER ANDREAS: Right. It was smuggling because they were technically in violation of the Molasses Act, which was first imposed in 1733. And it imposed a prohibitive tariff on importing molasses and sugar products from non-British West Indies. So if you import it from the French West Indies, you’re supposed to pay this extraordinary tax.

So what happened is this act, the Molasses Act, the reason it existed in the first place was to protect British subjects in the British West Indies. But in fact what it led to I would call it a de facto invitation to smuggle. It was so poorly enforced and so widely violated that it is essentially treated as a dead letter.

ED: And it’s clear the British officials, customs officials, have to be winking at this, actually falling asleep and completely OK with it. It’s obvious to everybody what’s going on in these places.

PETER ANDREAS: And they were getting paid off. In the sense, one could argue the corruption had a pacifying effect.

ED: Uh-huh.

PETER ANDREAS: Everybody got something out of it. The customs agents were getting their take, and the merchants were getting what they wished. There was a positive balance of trade and so on. So this was a sustainable status quo for decades.

ED: Peter, when did the good old days give way to the imperial crisis and there’s a crackdown?

PETER ANDREAS: The turning point was really the Seven Years’ War, 1756 to 1763, between the British and the French. And the British won the war, but the war lasted much longer than they expected, and they ended that war broke. And partly the reason it lasted so long is because the otherwise loyal British subjects in the colonies were actually supplying the French, making a lot of money trading with the enemy, treasonous trade if you, while also supplying the British.

So they were making a lot of money on both sides so much so that when that war ended there was actually an economic downturn in the colonies. And coinciding with that downturn in the colonies, The British decided, we’re going to now tighten their grip.

So when the British actually tried to crack down on the smuggling trade and actually extract revenue, that’s when the merchants in the colonies, especially in New England obviously, balked essentially–

ED: Right.

PETER ANDREAS: And not only complained loudly but ultimately contributed to them taking up arms. I don’t want to overstate the case, but I think it’s pretty clear that was an essential ingredient in galvanizing merchant outrage. It’s no surprise that the outrage directed at the Crown wasn’t just the Crown in general but actually very much targeted customs officials. The whole tar and feathering, the people who were tarred and feathered tended to be informants or actual customs officials for the Crown. And what were they doing? They were cracking down often on New England smuggling. And there were other sorts of smuggling going on. It wasn’t just molasses, but arguably it was the molasses trade which was most important.

ED: I’m wondering if you could say that the cause of the American Revolution might be the failure of the British state to enforce its regulations, a demonstration of state incapacity, the British state had attempted to impose a trade regime and did so with only fitful and occasional success?

PETER ANDREAS: That’s a fair reading. Another reading would be that it was actually much more successful when it wasn’t enforcing.

ED: Yes.

PETER ANDREAS: That in fact–

ED: Exactly.

PETER ANDREAS: –the very incapacity to enforce, which actually served lots of interest on all sides, it was the blunder of over stretch to think that you could suddenly change your mind and change the status quo virtually overnight without all kinds of negative repercussions often unintended and unanticipated.

ED: So, Peter, we see that there are escalating grievances that are alienating New England merchants and New England communities from the British Crown as it enforces these acts. How do we get to the point of revolution itself?

PETER ANDREAS: Basically, you had a perfect storm situation where you had onerous trade restrictions, high incentives to engage in evasion of those restrictions, and actual in practice very little capacity to in fact enforce those restrictions. And you add that all up, and it’s going to produce a formidable smuggling problem.

And then if you suddenly change your mind and say, you know what, we’re going to actually quite suddenly and dramatically not just extend our policing reach but actually squeeze our hand in the colonies, it’s perhaps in retrospect not surprising that there was such a backlash against that because for decades it was this sort of overlooked, winked at, tolerated activity, and things changed rather dramatically.

So that has to be part of the story of our founding. It sometimes perhaps provocative to put it front and center in explaining the origins of our country. But frankly, John Adams himself after the American Revolution he put it, quote, “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence,” unquote. But for whatever reason, those observations, shall we say, haven’t gotten the attention I think it deserves.


ED: Peter Andreas is the author of Smuggler Nation, How Ilicit Trade Made America.


BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. Today on the show, a history of sugar in America.

PETER: backstoryradio.org is where we’ve been soliciting your comments on today’s topic. And we’ve got one of those commentators on the line with us today. Brittany, where are you calling us from?

BRITTANY: I’m calling from South Dakota.

PETER: Hey, welcome. So sugar is a big issue in South Dakota?

BRITTANY: Well, I actually did my studies in Vermont, and–

PETER: Oh, so you’re a maple sugar person.

BRITTANY: Well, my research was is on a book that’s called America Eats. It was a the book that was ever published, but it was written by the Federal Writers Project.

PETER: Oh, great.

BRITTANY: And in there was a recipe for Apple Pan Dowdy, which is basically an apple pie where you crush up some crust halfway through baking it, and it kind of melts together. And it’s really good.

PETER: Wow. So you’ve made this have you?

BRITTANY: Yeah, I did. Actually, it was very delicious research. I found it really interesting because it has some sugar in the recipe. It says a scant half cup of sugar.

PETER: Yeah.

BRITTANY: But in addition to that, there was a fourth of a cup of molasses. And I had never used molasses before. And I really didn’t even know what it tasted like. And I tried it, and like I said, the recipe was amazing. It tasted different than what I was used to in apple pie.

But I just curious as to kind of the role of molasses as a sweetener because that’s kind of what it was acting like. I think more recipes use brown sugar now.

PETER: Well, sugar is part of our great big family isn’t it, Ed? You got sugar. You molasses. You got rum.

ED: Yeah. Molasses is sort of an indigenous form of sweetener that is more portable and durable then refined sugar. Molasses will keep forever. I remember in graduate school molasses was something that my wife and I ate that we brought with us from Tennessee.

And we had a new friend from Darien, Connecticut, who’d never had molasses. We had him for breakfast. You open up these biscuits and put a lot butter on them. Then pour molasses all over. It looks a lot like pouring 40 weight all over a biscuit.

And this guy was a good sport, and he eat them. And he swore that he felt like he had a bowling ball stomach in his stomach for the next three day. And I can also remember way up in the mountains of North Carolina you could make molasses from growing sugar cane along the creeks and riverbeds.

And they’d have a mule walking in a circle, tearing up the sugar cane, and boiling it down into molasses. So it’s a sort of poor person’s form of sugar. And of course, as Peter was suggesting, this molasses is really the key ingredient in rum and as part of the Triangular Trade. Isn’t that right, Peter?

PETER: Well, yeah. We’re talking about the movement of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean then sugar products moving north and these northern merchants in turn going to the coast of Africa and participating in the slave trade. It’s a way of thinking about the broad movements within the Atlantic of slaves, sugar products, and other commodities.

ED: But molasses was good because I remember sugar is really hard to transport once it’s refined. We all know what sugar does when it gets wet and so forth. So molasses was really important for a really long time.

And my sense is that it’s coming back at health food stores and all that because if you want unrefined molasses is it. And it’s easy to melt, and it’s kind of gooey, and it sticks to everything. And, god, does it make me hungry just thinking it. Have you used molasses in other baking enterprises?

BRITTANY: I haven’t. I’d be open to it. I acquired a taste for maple syrup while I was there, and I’ve used that quite a bit as a sweetener. And there were some other recipes that did include maple syrup or Apple cider as a sweetener. They do cider donuts are really common–

ED: Yeah, absolutely.

BRITTANY: –and delicious out there. This recipe came from– it says actually in the document I’m looking at it right now– from Aunt Hedey’s cookbook or from her– probably just from her head I suppose when the person interviewed her. But as this is from the 1930s, so I think what you said makes sense because being the Depression they would’ve looked for alternatives sweeteners at that time as well.

PETER: And it’s a sweetener you could make yourself. You can’t really make refined sugar yourself. But if you have just a small farm, you can make your own molasses.

ED: All you need is a mule.

PETER: I think what’s interesting is that this is a part of a recovery of a loss kind of sweetness that in the middle of the 20th century we did our best to eradicate, and sweeteners just became ubiquitous but not visible. But now you can go to chichi restaurants and oh, look, they have the unrefined brown sugar, which would have struck our ancestors as stupid. Why would you want that when you can get to sweet, white–

BRIAN: Distilled.

PETER: snowy kind of– yeah, exactly.

BRIAN: Intense.

PETER: It’s like so many other parts of our life we sort of felt like we’ve been too refine, and now ready to get crunchy.

BRIAN: Think of what happened to white bread.

ED: Yeah.

PETER: So I think you’re a part of history. You’re recovering lost traditions.

BRITTANY: Well, I did notice when I first tasted it I actually thought it was not that good. And that was the kind of the first bite, and then I tried it again, and I realized that it was actually– it was a very different–

ED: Addictive.

BRITTANY: –taste from–

PETER: That’s how people think about history, Brittany, you know?


PETER: They recoil initially.


PETER: But when they come back for that second bite, we’ve got them.

ED: Yeah, tastes so good.

PETER: They can get enough.

ED: All right. So we expect to call regularly now that you’ve checked in once, and you’ll be addicted to BackStory and–

BRITTANY: Oh, I’m already addicted.

ED: Oh, wonderful.

PETER: Oh, wonderful.


BRITTANY: I listen whenever it come on the radio.

BRIAN: Thank you very much.

PETER: Thank.

BRITTANY: Bye-bye.


PETER: We’d love to have you join us too on the line here at BackStory. Just hop on over to our website and see the topics we’re working on. For example, later this month, we’ll be taken on the history of money, currency, cash.

We’ll also be reflecting on the way that history is presented in some of this year’s Oscar nominees. We’d love to hear your thoughts, your stories, your questions.


PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. Remember that you can also share your thoughts about any of our shows past, present, or future via Facebook and Twitter. @backstroked is our handle. Don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parson, and Jesse Dukes. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. Our intern is Eb Shank.

BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.


PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, and History Channel, “History made every day.”

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


FEMALE SPEAKER: Hi, there podcaster. Have you ever wished you could take a class with one of the Backstory hosts? Well, now it’s your turn. Our 18th Century Guy, Peter Onuf, is teaching a massive open online course, a MOOC, exploring the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

The six-weeks long course is cosponsored by the University of Virginia and Monticello, and enrollment is completely free. It begins on February 17th, Presidents’ Day. And you can find out how to enroll on our website, backstoryradio.org. Just look for the MOOC link at the at the bottom of our home page.