We take sugar for granted. We’re so used to getting a sugar fix whenever we want it that we see sugar as a commodity- not a luxury. But it wasn’t always that way. And in fact, in many parts of the world today, sugar still isn’t an everyday thing. Ever think about how there’s people out there who have never had chocolate? It sounds unbelievable in a society replete with M&Ms and Chocolate Cheerios, but such is the truth.
When I was younger I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books, the American Girl books, and any other historical fiction I could get my hands on. I was always really interested in what the characters in those books consumed. It seemed so bizarre that getting an orange for Christmas was something to be excited about. Penny candy was an unusual treat. Cakes were reserved for the most important occasions. I went to an elementary school where Little Debbie cakes were sold every single day at lunch- so it boggled my mind to think of sugar as an every-now-and-then treat rather than an everyday option.
The idea of sugar as a luxury is back on my mind recently thanks to a book I’m currently reading. In Consumerism in World History, Peter Stearns traces the formation of modern consumerism across a variety of cultures. He talks about the social, political and economic forces that contributed to consumerism as we know it today. According to Stearns, the world’s earliest societies weren’t set up for consumerism- most people were incredibly poor and were lucky enough to eat. They certainly weren’t chasing the “newest” technology or the best designer duds. Sterns then writes about the goods that started to signal signs of modern consumerism. Nothing like the Pradas and Guccis of today, folks: the earliest consumer goods were apparently tea-service objects… and sugar.
According to Sterns, sugar came onto the scene as early as the 1st century, when wealthy Chinese began pursuing sugar as a sign of affluence. Wealthy Europeans followed suit by the late Middle Ages. Stearns considers the growing market for sugar one of the signs that a consumerist culture was on its way because an entire market developed around its production. Consumption used to be much more focused on necessity and usage rather than desire and image- people traded for what they needed, rather than pursuing the accumulation of excessive goods. Something like a cake sweetened with sugar could hardly be called a necessity. And so, as the consumption of sugar spread, so did the idea that accumulating things was a pursuit in itself. An entire market sprung up to accommodate this new perspective, leading to the colonization of many Caribbean islands, among other things. Access to sugar could serve as a status marker. According to Wikipedia, Britain consumed 5 times as much sugar in 1770 as it did in 1710.
Now here’s the really interesting bit. By the French Revolution, sugar had become a “necessity,” to the extent that revolutionaries expected it as a guaranteed good. Which shows that what’s once framed as luxury can easily be reframed into an everyday good. Think about all the things you consider “necessities” today. How many of them truly are? Sugar may have prompted the growth of modern consumerism, but once people got hooked, it ceased to be the ultimate marker of affluence. As the world changed, other icons arose, creating a culture of needing the latest and greatest that simply wasn’t around mere centuries ago.
As someone with a serious sweet tooth, I’m glad I can get a cookie whenever I want it. But it makes you wonder: what will the “luxuries” of tomorrow be? Will things like Google Glass be taken for granted someday?