Thursday, 26 July 2007

Sugar-coated collectables

Things We Take For Granted, Chapter 41: Sugar. No, I'm not writing a book but if I was, there would be at least 40 chapters of other things we take for granted and no doubt more. Fact is, in the 18th century, sugar was a great luxury and as such, it was awarded a prominent place both in the kitchens and the dining rooms of only the very wealthy.

Forget white, refined, granulated sugar, though. In the 1700s, sugar was bought in huge conical loaves weighing as much as 18lbs, although small loaves of about 3lbs were more common for domestic use.

In order to prepare the sugar for use, lumps were broken off the loaves and then cut into smaller pieces using the intimidating implement pictured here: a pair of sharp-bladed sugar nips, which were a common sight in kitchens wherever sugar was used.

None of this process was ever seen outside the kitchen, however. Only when the sugar was broken down into manageable pieces was it served in highly decorative and delicate sugar bowls, fashioned in either silver or porcelain in designs that matched the other objects on the tea tray.

And while drinks were served with accompanying silver spoons, they were far too delicate to do anything other than stir the liquid. This explains why the Georgians used tongs once the sugar reached the tea table.

But that's still not the end of the story. To help dissolve the little rocks of sugar in a hot drink, it was necessary to grind them against the inside of the glass or cup with a silver or glass sugar crusher, often mistaken today for the swizzle sticks so loved by the cocktail society of the 1930s.

All of the above means that anything to do with sugar has created a huge area of interest for today's antiques collectors.

Tea first arrived in England in 1657 and by 1718, the dawn of the Georgian period, it had taken over from silk as the most important imported trading commodity.

Sugarcane is thought to have originated in New Guinea, and was spread along routes to Southeast Asia and India, the latter country probably being responsible for the process of boiling the juice into crystals around 500 BC.
Sugar was discovered by the Brits when King Richard’s Crusaders returned home with news of this pleasant tasting “new spice” in the 11th century.

Sugar was introduced to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1493, while the Court of Elizabeth I sweetened almost everything they ate with sugar, perhaps because the Queen had a sweet tooth

Sugar beet was first identified as a source of sugar in 1747 and by 1750, there were 120 sugar refineries operating in Britain, but output was small and vast profits were made from the sale of this "white gold".

However, the vested interests in the cane plantations made sure that sugar beet stayed as no more than a curiosity, a situation that prevailed until the Napoleonic wars at the start of the 19th century when Britain blockaded sugar imports to continental Europe.

At this time unrefined sugar ranged from dark reddish-brown to white in colour and in addition to being served as proof of the wealth of its users, it also had a special status as a medicine, blended with other herbs and spices.

By 1850, sugar had been transformed from a luxury to a commodity in everyday use, but by then the mechanics of the ritual of taking tea were already set in stone.

At first, the only way to serve tea was using the family's best silver for everything from the teapot to the sugar tongs although Sheffield plate, which appeared in the late Georgian era, came in a close second particularly among those who liked to be seen to be rich, but actually weren't as well heeled as they pretended.

The style of silver sugar accoutrements followed the fashion of the day and reflected that of furniture and porcelain. A notable influence was the arrival in England of highly skilled Huguenots silversmiths who had fled France as a result of the persecution ordered by Louis XIV. By the 1730s, the influence of French decoration on English silver was at its height.

Sugar nips which acted on the scissor principal, and which appeared from around 1715, were among the first items to boast the new designs, featuring "rocaille" decoration of mythological monsters, sea gods and shells. They replaced the often plain and crudely made sugar tongs which resembled the tongs used by blacksmiths or at the fireside.

As the period drew to a close, decoration became increasingly more florid and the ornate little sugar nips suffered accordingly. Instead of being decorated by hand, they were made from cast silver and were often accompanied matching spoons. Beware of Victorian reproductions of such examples which were rarely hallmarked and therefore difficult to date.

The U-shaped sugar tongs first appeared in the 1770s and were much more plain and functional. Because they more closely resembled spoons, they adopted similar patterns such as fiddle and thread and shell, following the restraint shown by the style of Robert Adams designs.

Expect to pay £80 to £120 for a tidy pair of sugar tongs and perhaps a quarter of that for a pair made in silverplate from either Birmingham or Sheffield where the industry flourished.

Again the novice buyer must beware later reproductions and be able to read silver hallmarks - don't be fooled by the pseudo marks on more modern electroplated nickel silver which might look the business but aren't.

Sugar cutters, on the other hand, made from steel, have no decoration whatsoever, and look like they mean business. For £200 to 300, you could buy a pair such as those illustrated which a set an oblong wooden base for stability in safety.

Less than half that price would buy you a pair not unlike a pair of pliers, set with a steel leaf spring which was often prone to being snapped off.

In either case, the jaws of the cutters are fan-shaped and very sharp, so take care when you handled them. Their function is obvious and they are collected purely for their quirkiness as long since defunct household gadgets.

Sugar crushers, on the other hand, are almost always charmingly decorated. The earliest were made from clear glass and date from the mid-18th century. By the 1780s, fine quality twisted crushers were made from silver and Sheffield plate, although these are now rare.

Today's collectors are most likely to find glass examples dating from the mid-Victorian era. In all cases sugar crushers measure between five and six inches and all have basically the same design: a clear rod with one end flattened like a paddle and the other end terminating in a loop or a disc.

They cost but a few pounds, although rare examples in green or Bristol blue glass, or those with spiral air or colour twists running through their stems fetch a premium. Expect to pay £100 plus for good examples of the latter.

With the price of colour twists wine glasses spiralling out of reach for all but the well-heeled collector, such Victorian glass sugar crushers make a charming collection. Place half a dozen of them in a good Georgian rummer next to the silver tea tray strategically placed on your Adam-style sideboard and you have the perfect conversation piece next time you have friends round for . . . coffee!

Picture shows: A good pair of brass and steel Georgian sugar cutters, worth £200-300, pictured with a modern representation of a sugar loaf.



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