Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Sugar - It’s not so sweet story

When we think of February we often think about Valentine's Day and the sweet treats that are readily available to share with our loved ones.  Those sweet treats are often high in sugar, which brings us to our discussion of sugar and its role in Pennsylvania’s archaeological record. 

Philadelphia was an important seaport with access to the sugar trade from large plantations in the Caribbean.  The popularity of sweets in 18th century Philadelphia saw a demand throughout the colonies for refined sugar.  Sugar Cane grown in the West Indies was brought to Philadelphia by ships loaded with vast quantities of raw sugar and molasses. These trade ships returned to their points of origin with flour, wood, and salted meats.  Enslaved Africans labored in deplorable conditions to cut the sugar cane and process it for shipment.  Laborers suffered from hideous cruelties and often died during the dangerous processing of the cane into raw sugar. The economies of France, Britain and the American colonies benefited from the hardships endured by these laborers. In England and Wales, from 1663 to 1775 consumption of sugar increased twentyfold and rose more rapidly than bread, meat, and dairy products in the eighteenth century.

Raw sugar arriving in Philadelphia required additional processing to create a finer, whiter sugar. This labor-intensive process of cooling and heating the sugar repeatedly, produced various stages of sugar products. Philadelphia sugar refiners were primarily located on the waterfront with access to the wharves where the weighty barrels of raw sugar were unloaded.  European immigrants, free Blacks and enslaved people provided the labor force necessary to develop Philadelphia as an important location for sugar refining. 

Diderot's Encyclopédie, 1762, Reference affinerie_des_sucres. Industrial. Ceramics used in sugar processing. Diderot Vol 18. 

Early refining processes utilized large cauldrons for boiling the cane syrup and molds and jars for crystalizing the sugar. After boiling, the sugar was packed into conical earthenware molds with drainage holes in their tips. The molds were fitted into jars so that the molasses could drain off the hardening sugar. This by-product was the coarsest and least refined form, sold as raw brown muscovado.  The crystalized sugar remaining in the earthenware vessels, became rock hard and was sold as “loaf sugar”. This rock-hard sugar required hammers to reduce it into chunks. The refined white granulated sugars for sugar bowls, required additional effort to crush the chunks of sugar with a mortar and pestle to the desired coarseness, then separated by sifting to the required degree of refinement. An immense amount of manual labor was necessary to produce the refined sugar to which we are now accustomed. 

The conical earthenware molds could break during the processing stage and due to their large size, were ideal discards for filling in low-lying areas of the landscape. Archaeology conducted in 1995-96 in advance of the construction of the Metropolitan Detention Center in the area of North 7th and Arch streets in Philadelphia uncovered over 3,000 pieces(sherds) of broken sugar molds and a few of the jars which collected the molasses. 


Sugar Mold from Metropolitan Detention Center site (36PH0091). Collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania 

The reconstructed sugar cone shown here was recovered at 710 Arch Street in a buried land surface below the layers of modern development. It was found with other artifacts such as white salt-glazed stoneware, oriental porcelain, wine bottles, kaolin pipe stems and bowls, and a military button. Based on analysis of these artifacts, the deposit was dated to 1768. To the rear of lot 710 was the pottery of Abraham Miller (TWIPA 4/26/2019)  and his son Andrew.  Miller was  an early redware potter in the craft industry before experimenting with other forms of earthenware pottery.  No records indicate he was manufacturing sugar mold vessels, but the period of his pottery and the date of the deposit introduces the possibility.  

The abundance of recovered sugar molds and jugs at the Metropolitan Detention Center site(36PH0091) is likely associated with built landscapes along the Philadelphia waterfront and the desire to further develop the area in the 19th century. Built landscapes were the intentional filling of low-lying areas with debris, enabling construction on previously inaccessible land surfaces. By the 1830’s pro-abolitionists in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties had sought alternatives to cane sugar due to the harsh conditions of enslaved laborers.  Sugar beets soon replaced cane sugar and rural areas utilized more maple sugar products.  

View of the back of the Pennsylvania Sugar company refinery from the Delaware River, Fishtown area of Philadelphia, ca 1883-1896. Image Historical Society of Pennsylvania 

The Penn Sugar Refining Company was founded in 1868 at Fifth and Girard Streets, later moving to the Fishtown section of the city. The company grew to the point that in the 1950’s it employed more than 1500 people and was a complex of eighteen buildings.  The company was purchased by New York based National Sugar Refining Company (Jack Frost) and operated until 1981, when the company went bankrupt.  The Penn Sugar site lay dormant until it was reborn through adaptive reuse as the SugarHouse Casino which opened in 2010 (renamed Rivers Casino Philadelphia in 2019).  Archaeology conducted at this site by A.D. Marble yielded evidence of craft industries, social and economic change over time and further understanding of consumer behavior in 18th century Philadelphia. 

We hope you have enjoyed this look back at the origins of sugar and can take a moment to reflect upon the toils of the many enslaved laborers for which we benefited. Visit the on-line collections of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to see examples of sugar bowls and shakers, there’s even a Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company sugar sack.  Remember, a little sugar goes a long way so share that sweet treat with your sweetheart. 


A.D. Marble & Company

2015           Phase III Archaeological Data Recovery Report, Sugarhouse Casino Site (36PH137) 941-1025 

                     North Delaware Avenue, City of Philadelphia. Prepared for SugarHouse HSP Gaming, L.P.

Kelly, Kenneth G., Mark W. Hauser, Christophe Descantes, Michael D. Glascock.

January 2008    Compositional Analysis of French Colonial Ceramics: Implications for Understanding 

                            Trade and Exchange, Journal of Caribbean Archaeology. Special Publication #2,85-107 

Louis Berger & Associates, Inc. 

1997      Archaeological and Historical Investigation Metropolitan Detention Center Site (36PH91).

               Report to the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Washington, D.C.

Robbins, Richard H.  

1999   Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism. Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA

Accessed 2/2/2022






For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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