Waste Not Want Not: Molasses in Colonial America – More than a Waste Product?

By Mimi Goodall

Molasses is the dark brown, sweet, sticky goo that is known today for its robust flavour. It gives a depth of taste to gingerbreads, toffees and fruitcakes. It does not have the immediate tongue-numbing sweetness of powder sugar; rather, it has a denser, fruitier mouthfeel. However, sugar and molasses are related foodstuffs. When sugar cane juice is refined to make powder sugar, it is boiled repeatedly and it crystallises as it cools. The more times the juice goes through this process, the whiter the resulting crystals appear. Molasses is the viscous residue that is the ‘waste product’ of refining.[1] Yet it has historically been left out of the story of the rise of sugar consumption across the Atlantic world.

This story is well-known. Sugar begins life as a rare luxury but with the rise of slavery and the slave trade, the increase in production enables prices to fall and consumption to rise, reaching mass levels sometime towards the end of the 18th century. Before this point, it’s thought that ordinary consumers did not have much access to sugar.

However, there was, in fact, a strong base layer of consumer demand much earlier on. This demand served as encouragement for the industry’s take-off and the concomitant exploitation of thousands of human beings. Molasses is at the heart of it. Understanding the consumption of molasses puts agency back into the hands – or rather the mouths – of ordinary consumers. Molasses wasn’t a waste product, it was a driving force in sugar’s rise to ubiquity.

Molasses. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Molasses as Commodity Money:

Molasses wasn’t expensive. It features often in account books documenting the spending habits of non-elites. Looking at these account books reveals that molasses was often used as a form of payment. Colonial America was dramatically short of coinage and therefore outside of the port, exchange was enacted through a system similar to barter, known as commodity money. Records documenting these instances of barter are what enable us to understand more about who was actually consuming molasses.

Take for example the Clarke Family of New Jersey. The Clarkes emigrated from England to New Jersey in the 1680s. Ann Clarke created a recipe book that her husband and son subsequently repurposed as an account book and diary relating to farm practices, which is now in Princeton University Library. It shows that the Clarkes paid their labourers in commodity money. The most detailed accounts range from 1701-1720, during which time we see payments in sugar, molasses and in a variety of what I call ‘sugar products’ – this included beer, cider and rum. All of these alcoholic drinks were brewed using molasses or sugar. To give one example, in 1714 Benjamin Maple was paid for his weaving – work worth 2 pounds 5 shillings in monetary terms – with 2 gallons of molasses, 2 gallons of cider, hogs fat, turnips, and rye. 

There are more account books in the American Antiquarian Association, including that kept by Robert Gibbs in the 1680s. Gibbs was a Boston merchant and grocery store owner, who had longstanding arrangements with the local people who supplied his shop. The most interesting is Goody Gavate, a cake maker. Gibbs gave her molasses, ginger, sugar and flour in exchange for the cakes that she made out of these ingredients. Gibbs then sold these cakes in his shop and thus molasses continued to circulate within the economic system.

Cakes are especially interesting when we think about people’s proclivity for sweet things. Recently, I spoke to New York Times journalist Anahad O’Connor who writes about contemporary sugar consumption. He explained to me that the current scientific consensus is that sugar is not addictive on its own, but that the combination of sugar and fat create feelings of physical dependency. Human beings seem particularly susceptible to this combination. Breast milk, for instance, contains a uniquely high proportion of fat and sugar. When molasses was combined with fats to make cakes, puddings, biscuits, and breads it created an especially palatable end result – one which consumers sought out.


These examples show that molasses was a form of sugar that was readily available to consumers across the socio-economic spectrum. Sugar products weren’t only goods to be aspired to; rather, they were component parts of many consumers’ diets. Ordinary colonial American men and women developed a taste for sweetness and their reliance on the calories found in sugar early on. Molasses encouraged ordinary consumers’ proclivity for sweetness. By the time tea and coffee arrived and white sugar became cheaper, their palate was already a sweet one.

In detailing this, I’m pushing the story of consumption backwards in time. Sugar and molasses were far more widely available far earlier than has been recognised. There was a strong demand for sugar in the 17th century, which would have served as encouragement for the development of the industry and the rise of slavery in the following one.

William Clark, ‘Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane’, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (London, 1823). Plate IV.

[1] Molasses is vital to the production of rum, which took off after 1720 but elsewhere, and for an earlier time period it has been considered to be a waste product.

Waste Not, Want Not: Transforming Waste into Food – Skimmed Milk

By Lesley Steinitz

Fancy some pig’s wash with your granola? In the late nineteenth century, the ‘pig’s wash’ – a euphemism also for vomit – was skimmed milk. It was so-named because it had been the sour leftovers after the cream was skimmed off milk left out overnight in the dairy. Although some ‘skim’ was used to make cheese and feed poor agricultural workers, it was so disgusting that most of it was fed to pigs. Skimmed milk remained disgusting in the minds of consumers even after dairies were mechanised, from the 1880s, once it had changed materially into a fresh sweet liquid. It sold, at best, for a quarter of the price of whole milk, but philanthropists couldn’t even give it away to the poor.

From the perspective of nutritional chemists, this was a waste of a valuable source of protein at a time when dietary deficiency was a grave political concern, linked to worries about the fitness of the workforce and its implications for industrial productivity and military security. This waste therefore spurred innovation among commercially-oriented engineers and chemists at the turn of the twentieth century.

Chemists devised noxious industrial-scale chemical processes which transformed skimmed milk into near-identical protein powders. These contained around 90% milk protein and 5% phosphates, and were off-white, insubstantial, odourless and flavourless. They didn’t resemble food in the slightest. It’s instructive to compare how the two most advertised brands in Britain, Plasmon and Sanatogen, were advertised.

Plasmon’s adverts presented it as a cheap nutritious food, using numbers and pictures to signify its protein’s muscle building power. To persuade people to cook with it, they ran cookery competitions, published recipes, and persuaded famous people – notably the vegetarian health writer and sports champion Eustace Miles – to do so. However, these efforts backfired. Plasmon and Miles were lampooned regularly. The Evening Post derided Plasmon as an uninviting food made by ‘nutrient necromancers’, while the Daily Express declared that this ‘food of the future’ did not satisfy the social and cultural expectations of food as something to enjoy and share.[1] Only Plasmon Oats and Cocoa, where Plasmon was mixed with familiar foods, remained popular.

Although it was near-identical, Sanatogen was positioned primarily as a nerve nutrient thanks to its phosphates (which are present in high concentration in the nerves and brain). Sanatogen therefore addressed another dominant health concern, ‘nerve weakness’, often referred to as the new disease category of neurasthenia. It was therefore not simply a food, but a ‘food-drug’, something that was ‘taken’ like a medicine before meals, rather than as part of them. There were no recipes, simply instructions on how to prepare a dose. With advocates including MPs, doctors, respected writers and aristocrats, and adverts with inspiring quotes from Shakespeare and Goethe, this was an aspirational product which sold for twice the price of Plasmon. You can still buy Sanatogen today.

At much the same time, engineers devised mechanical preservation methods. Their machines sprayed milk, skimmed or whole, onto steam-heated spinning metal rollers where it condensed instantly, forming a powder.[2] (While dried milk had been produced during the nineteenth century, the slow heating methods tended to cook the milk and caramelise its sugars, so it could only be eaten if it was disguised mixed in other foods.) Manufacturers, competing on cost, largely could not afford to advertise their dried skimmed milk. Exceptionally, Cow & Gate published recipes using it, but I’ve yet to find any in ordinary cookbooks, though when fresh milk was scarce in wartime, newspapers suggested using dried instead. Consumers were largely oblivious to the nutritional benefits of this ingredient and to its abundance in industrially manufactured foods such as bread, biscuits and chocolate, and in canteens and institutions. There are few traces before 1920 of people using it domestically other than the full fat versions for infants.

These foods were not popular thanks to their intrinsic palatability, convenience or physiological effects, but instead reflected the cultural characteristics that advertisers linked to their nutritional claims. Expensive Sanatogen was aspirational because it was presented as a respectable medicine-like supplement used by the elites. Cheaper Plasmon was less successful because this peculiar food seemed ridiculous. For consumers, the even cheaper dried milk was an alternative infant food, but was thought to be unsuitable for adults. The positioning of these three similar products demonstrates that food choices are far more than a rational choice relating to nutrition and economy. Now protein powders and skimmed milk are popular commodities. The change in their popularity illustrates how food manufacturers wield considerable power over consumers by leveraging nutritional ‘facts’ alongside cultural values to suit their commercial aims.

[1] Evening Post, 11 July 1900, p. 2; Daily Express, 11 July 1900, p. 4.

[2] A. W. Scott, The Engineering Aspects of the Condensing and Drying of Milk, Bulletin, no. 4 (Glasgow: The Hannah Dairy Research Institute, 1932).

Waste Not, Want Not: Interpreting Thrift through Victorian Food Writing

By Lindsay Middleton

When you use ‘thrift’ in conversations today, the word carries connotations of frugality and, perhaps, tightfistedness. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, however, the meaning of ‘thrift’ was being reinvigorated. Cookbooks and etiquette guides such as Samuel Smiles’s Thrift (1875) told their middle- and working-class readers to return to thriftier ways of living. By doing so, people would supposedly be morally superior, living without wastefulness and making society more efficient. Food was one of the ways readers could adopt thrift into their lifestyles, and as Smiles said: ‘[h]ealth, morals, and family enjoyments are all connected with the question of cookery. Above all, it is the handmaid of Thrift’ (Smiles 1876: 370). Speaking at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference, my paper explored how thrift and food preservation were framed within Victorian food texts. Looking at three recipes from cookbooks and three from periodicals – published between 1866 and 1895 – I structurally analysed recipes to examine how they use words, space on the page, different textual forms and food technologies. Changes between these characteristics can be compared to reach wider conclusions: for instance, the way innovations in food preservation influenced cooking times.

C19th silver soup tureen. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What my paper showed, was that recipes were engaging with thrift and preservation and attempting to bring them into the Victorian home. Furthermore, both of these topics were intertwined in the debates of the time. The recipe for ‘Gravy Soup’ found in Charles Buckmaster’s Buckmaster’s Cookery (1874) uses a tin of preserved meat, boiling it to make soup. Tinned meat circulated in Britain from 1813, when Donkin and Hall supplied it to the Navy, and it was slowly adopted as a domestic ingredient from that point. A scandal in 1852, however, concerning 264 rotten cans destined for the Navy, meant the public were suspicious of canned meat when Buckmaster was writing. Despite public concern, tinned meat was fast becoming a valuable food resource, as British livestock quantities were failing to feed an ever-growing population. Buckmaster’s way of convincing readers to try the soup is to appeal to the middle-classes, who could have afforded his book and were involved in setting trends. He declares that ‘prejudice against preserved meat can only be gradually overcome by the middle and upper classes eating it’ (1874: 106) and suggests serving the soup in a decorative tureen. This elevates ideas of thrift and preservation away from the notion that people who were thrifty had to be, because they were poor. By making thrift a fashionable thing that appeals to the middle-classes, Buckmaster implicates it in the class relations of the time as well as discussions of food supply, demonstrating that thrift and food preservation were integrated into Victorian current affairs.

Other recipes demonstrate that thrift was framed using nutrition, economy and self-sufficiency. A satirical story published in All the Year Round in 1874, the periodical edited by Charles Dickens and then Charles Dickens Jr., shows that thrifty foods were so ubiquitous they were being used for entertainment. In the story, the female narrator describes her cooking-school instructress making mutton croquettes from a leftover joint. The tutor misses the point, telling students to use the finest cut of mutton and expensive ingredients. The narrator scorns this approach, advocating that people should properly adopt thrift in their kitchens. I compared this recipe to one for croquettes in Eliza Warren Francis’s How I Managed my House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year (1864) which uses the last scraps of meat available. Though the recipes stand in opposition to one another, they each convey the same message: thrift was to be encouraged. These recipe authors address a range of people, different physical spaces, and use different textual spaces to demonstrate that thrift and preservation were issues that occupied a myriad of spaces within Victorian society.

Victorian reformer, Samuel Smiles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What delivering this paper at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference showed, was that the Victorian recipes I studied were revitalising ideas of thrift and economy that had been around for centuries past. The other papers determined that these ideas were in no way new, but were often refashioned at times of societal change. By making thrifty foods fashionable and a matter of morals, the Victorians were attempting to discourage wastefulness, so that Britain could adapt to changes such as increasing industrialisation and a still-growing population. Throughout history, then, an analysis of these ideologies through the lens of food can be a window into the realities of the past.


Buckmaster, Charles. Buckmaster’s Cookery. London: George, Routledge and Sons, 1874.

Dickens, Charles, Jr (ed.). ‘Learning to Cook.’ All the Year Round, 12.306 (1874): 611-617.

Smiles, Samuel. Thrift. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1875.

Warren Francis, Eliza. How I Managed My House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864.


Waste Not, Want Not: Physics and Fruitcakes

By Simon Werrett

In 1767, the Winchester writer Ann Shackleford gave a recipe for clear fruit cakes in her Modern Art of Cookery Improved (1767). A candied fruit juice should be placed ‘upon glass plates, or pieces of glass’ and dried in a stove or oven, ‘or by setting them in a window where the sun comes, keeping the window shut’.  In 1666 Isaac Newton bought a triangular glass prism and after darkening his room, he let in a beam of light through the window shutters and passed it through the prism. This created a spectrum of colours, and when Newton passed one coloured beam through another prism, with no change, he concluded that white light was made up of a series of fundamental colours.

Newton’s scientific experiment. Light dispersing through a triangular prism. Image credit: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons.

What is the difference between these two performances? In one sense the answer is quite obvious – one is a cookery recipe, and the other is a famous scientific experiment. One is not very interesting – unless you like fruitcakes – and the other is a profound moment of human discovery. As Alexander Pope famously wrote, ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light’. But there are many similarities. Both happened at home – Shackleford’s recipe would presumably be done in a kitchen and Newton did his experiment at home in Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and in Trinity College, Cambridge. Both made use of glass items that were ready to hand (prisms were a toy and Shackleford was probably using pieces of old bottles or glasses). Both used a window to manage light, either in terms of generating a beam of light or to dry out the fruitcakes. Both Newton and Shackleford wrote accounts of these events so that someone else could repeat them.

In fact recent research by historians is revealing how early modern householders might not have viewed these two episodes as differently as we do today. People in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries viewed both Newton and Shackleford’s activities as ‘experiments’. Experimenting was something expected at this time of all good householders. Books of advice on ‘oeconomy’, or household management, encouraged ‘thrift’, which meant not so much saving money as finding a balance between buying new and making good use of the things one already possessed. Thrifty householders should make a point of finding out new uses for things and looking after them to ensure they could be useful for as long as possible. So men and women recorded recipes for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and making medicines which might be carried out by all the family. Contemporaries called this an experimental enterprise, because it involved trying out recipes, testing cleaning methods, trialling medicaments, and figuring out what you could do with old and broken possessions. In 1662, for example, the writer on oeconomy Hannah Woolley published a recipe book called The Ladies Directory, in Choice Experiments & Curiosities of Preserving in Jellies And Candying both Fruit & Flowers. Newton and Shakleford were both householders, and from this perspective of thrifty household management they were both experimenters. They were both finding out new uses for things (prisms, broken glass, light, fruit juice), and they both ‘made use’ of their homes (windows, sunlight) as a kind of experimental apparatus.

Kitchen ‘experiments’. Gerrit Dou, Woman Pouring Water into a Jar (c. 1655). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course we don’t remember Newton and Shackleford today as doing the same thing: far from it! Why is that? It seems that in the seventeenth century, some male householders decided to take these family experiments outside the home to new places like universities and academies where they argued that domestic know-how should count as a form of scientific knowledge. Science already took in things like mathematics and astronomy, but it was controversial to say that mundane everyday knowledge of the kind found in household recipe books should count as science. The seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle, for example, explored the optics of eggwhite bubbles and experimented with eggs, coriander seeds, distilled liquors, wine, beer, vegetables, jars of oil, and vinegar. Contemporary wags lampooned him for investigating the phosphorescence seen in rotting fish and meat because this wasn’t the sort of thing normally associated with doing science. Nevertheless, over time, men like Boyle divorced elements of domestic knowledge from their original homely settings and ‘experiment’ came to be seen as an exclusively scientific, and male, enterprise.

While most experiments happened at home in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth this new profession of ‘scientists’ built specialised laboratories and insisted that kitchens, parlours and basements were no longer acceptable as spaces to investigate nature. Today we find it hard to imagine a time when cooking fruitcakes and studying light could be seen as a similar sort of inquiry. But for early moderns, household oeconomy encouraged making use of things to find out what they could do. That could mean exploring light or inventing new recipes for fruitcakes. Recognising this demands a new recipe for the history of science: if we want to understand experimenting, we’ll need to pay more attention to the home as a place where people studied nature, and we’ll need a bit more room for forgotten female writers like Shackleford.