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. 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 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.
 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.