Saturday, 3 August 2013

Rule Britannia


While were are on the subject of antiques, here is another of my latest purchases - a late 18th century pair of sugar-scissors.

I am going to treat you as if you have never heard of these things, so please don't be insulted if you have, but for me, they are every bit as evocative as that piece of scrimshaw (though a lot more common) and even have similar connotations with the sea, sea-farers and the slave-trade.

When us Brits began our tooth-rottingly enduring love affair with sugar in the 17th century, the stuff was cultivated by African slaves in the West Indies until slavery was abolished in 1807, by which time the Africans had been given the name of their previous owners along with a badly-paid job for life in a country they still could not call their own.

Anyway, vast fortunes were made from the sugar, which was refined on site, then cast into large, conical shaped 'loaves' before being loaded onto ships and sent to places like Bristol and London. Bristol was built on the slave, spices and sugar trades, and Britannia ruled the waves for a very long time.

Up until very recently, every sailor in the English Navy was allotted a daily tot of rum - they had more sugar than they knew what to do with, so they made a spirit out of it as well. The name 'Barcardi' was stolen from the Cubans by the USA after the mobsters were ejected by Castro, but they still hold on to the real thing and - because of the trade embargo by the US government - they still produce more sugar than they know what to do with to this day. Order a Moquito in Havana and you will see what I mean - they even coat the glasses with it before serving it up. We still buy it, but it's funny how sugar can produce such a bitter harvest.

Every household in England would keep a stock of sugar in the form of a loaf, and these shears would be used to snip bits off it when needed. In the 18th and 19th century, hot rum toddies were extremely popular, and special glasses called 'rummers' (like the one below) were made to hold them. You would snip a bit of sugar off into the rummer, put in a thick glass 'spoon' or stirring stick (which stopped the heat from cracking the glass), then pour the rum and hot water into it, stirring it up with the glass spoon. Toddies were as ubiquitous as tea, but less expensive.

When sugar became granulated, these shears were put into cupboards and forgotten about until they became antiques.

One dealer who made a fortune from sugar, managed to double his fortune by inventing the sugar cube. He made so much money from this simple patent that he could indulge himself in his greatest passion - collecting modern art - or at least it was modern when he began to collect it.

It was so modern that the National Gallery refused to accept it as a gift, so the dealer decided to spend a bit more on it by creating his own gallery to house it all, and named the new building after himself - Tate.

Ironically, the first Tate Gallery was built on the very spot where offenders were held before stepping onto boats in the Thames, from where they would be transported to work as slaves in Australia, or the sugar-plantations of the West Indies.

The next Tate Gallery was built on the same sea-front where the naive ship-painter and ex-sailor, Alfred Watkins, used to live, and where many sailors spent many hours making scrimshaw like the bit in the previous post.



Here's a surviving sugar loaf - conical, I suppose, because of the mould.

15 comments:

  1. Good you're over the one paragraph phase and back to giving us a good read. Just this week I saw a Virginia sugar chest on Antique Road show. Drawer to keep the scissors and everything.

    I wish I could visualize a block of sugar. Like a big sugar cube? I can only see the block crumbling as snipping occurred, making a mess in the bottom of the chest. Why wasn't the block just smashed to begin with and stored in a locked crock or such.

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    1. That sugar chest sounds good. Re the shape, I don't really know. I'll try to find a picture of one and put it up now.

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    2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugarloaf

      Interesting, right down to the bastards. Apparently the loaf was more crystalline, like a hard candy. That explains much.

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  2. Interesting blog Tom. I never realised that the Tate Gallery was linked to Tate sugar.

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    1. I don't know what Lyle did with his money.

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  3. I love sugar, so such a snipper would come handy. The sugar cone sticks very, very badly in my memory: a new year party when I was 18 - with flaming fire tongs punch - beautiful to look at, very quaffable - OMG was I ill afterwards - can't touch that drink till nowadays. Hot rum toddy still is OK.
    In Germany, when sugar was very expensive, the rich kept the sugar in little chests of brass - with a lock. Good idea for nowadays, when the sugar industry is so mighty, that they managed to lock the mouth of Michelle Obama - in the beginning she ranted against sugar - not any more...

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    1. I never heard the sugar rants. We had spice chests for the same reason - only the lady of the house had the key.

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  4. ........ are you sure that's a sugar cone ? !!!! XXXX

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    1. A giant's suppository is what you're think I suppose?

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    2. Tell John then. He'll pass the whispered information on to me.

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  5. I remember buying salt in a large rectangular block wrapped in blue paper. I must be ancient!

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    1. I remember the little blue paper wraps of salt in crisps, but we didn't have vast blocks of it. You must be ancient.

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  6. I love your scissors....what might you be using them for? They could come in handy for disciplining naughty welsh bloggers.....

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    1. They would hurt a lot, but I don't think they would take them right off. I have other equipment for that.

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