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Refined Tastes

, 296 pages

35 halftones, 1 line drawing

March 2002


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Refined Tastes

Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America

American consumers today regard sugar as a mundane and sometimes even troublesome substance linked to hyperactivity in children and other health concerns. Yet two hundred years ago American consumers treasured sugar as a rare commodity and consumed it only in small amounts. In Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America, Wendy A. Woloson demonstrates how the cultural role of sugar changed from being a precious luxury good to a ubiquitous necessity. Sugar became a social marker that established and reinforced class and gender differences.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Woloson explains, the social elite saw expensive sugar and sweet confections as symbols of their wealth. As refined sugar became more affordable and accessible, new confections—children's candy, ice cream, and wedding cakes—made their way into American culture, acquiring a broad array of social meanings. Originally signifying male economic prowess, sugar eventually became associated with femininity and women's consumerism. Woloson's work offers a vivid account of this social transformation—along with the emergence of consumer culture in America.

Wendy A. Woloson is bibliographer for the program in Early American Economy and Society and acting curator of printed books at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

"Examing the multivocal sources of advertising and prescriptive literature, the author pieces together the complex messages to nineteenth-century women in particular about the acceptable consumption of sweets."

"A unique exploration of the influences of sugar on the cultural and societal norms and mores of the 19th-century U.S.... Despite the inherent levity of the subject matter, Refined Tastes is a scholarly work with an extensive bibiography that will appeal to scholars of American history as well as those interested in family and consumer studies from a historical aspect."

"It is a mine of information that will appeal as much to the historian as to the 'foodie', to the social anthropologist as to the pastry chef... While the book is clearly a fine document of social history, much of it feels as relevant and pertinent today as ever."

"Elegantly structured and beautifully written... As simply an explanation of how Americans became such avid consumers of sugar, this book is superb and can be recommended highly."

"Wonderful evidence... Woloson's book shows us just how indispensable the history of material culture is to any understanding of consumer culture."

"Woloson provides an enlightening tale about the social identity of sweets, how they contain not just chewy centers but rich meanings about gender, about the natural world, and about consumerism."

"A fascinating dissection of themes relating to the democratization of sugar and confectionery in American culture from about 1790 to 1910."

" Refined Tastes provides us with a better understanding of the ambivalent attitude we have today toward sweets and sweetness."

"[Woloson] does a fine job tracing the development of sugar both as an industrial as well as a cultural commodity. Her account is deftly peppered with details."

"A thoroughly researched, exceptionally well-written, and very accessible account of the incorporation and transformation of sugar within American food and foodways in the nineteenth century."

"A new and innovative way of looking at consumer appetites and culture."

"This is an intriguing, highly original history of the democratization of sugar marketing in 19th-century America. Separate chapters narrate the evolution of children's candy, ice cream parlors, fine chocolates, ornamental sugar works, and homemade sweets. In tracing the various ways that sugar became more widely accessible and more widely used, this book stands within the growing literature that deals with the origins and evolution of modern consumer culture."