Sugar Loaf Myth Revised

Let’s start the New Year with a correction and a revision. Thanks to Beth Chamberlain, who pointed me toward an 1835 household management book that mentions dying fabric with blue wrapping paper, I have revised Myth #49 about using (or not using) the paper to dye fabric.

While there is no evidence of this practice in early America (the 17th & 18th centuries), Beth noted that Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife of 1835 mentions using “the purple paper which comes on loaf sugar, boiled in cider or vinegar with a small bit of alum, makes a fine purple slate color.” 

I immediately went to other mid-19th-century household management books and found another reference, Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s House-Book; a Manual of Domestic Economy (1850) that contained a chapter on domestic dyes and told how to make “a slate color” with “the thick purple paper that comes round sugar-loaves.” No doubt there are other mid-19th-century references. 

The question that immediately comes to mind: Why then and not earlier? What had changed? Research revealed a steep drop in the cost of sugar from the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth due to the expansion of Caribbean sugar plantations. The market was flooded with sugar. Prices plunged, bringing sugarloaves, wrapped in their traditional purplish-blue paper, within reach of most housewives for the first time. Domestic economy books aimed at the middle class homemaker often pointed out economical ways to do things, and making homemade dyes would have been a useful skill, especially on the expanding frontier where access to stores was limited. 

So this myth turns out to be false when heard at early American sites and true for later, nineteenth-century sites. I’ve modified Myth #49 accordingly. Another detail: those websites and museums that mention this myth usually say that the blue paper was used to dye fabric blue, when in actual references, the blue (or purplish-blue) paper resulted in a slate color. And many say that the blue paper was dyed with indigo, but Colonial Williamsburg’s expert on dyes, Max Hamrick, says it was most likely logwood.

As good luck would have it, Beth Chamberlain’s note arrived in the nick of time. A few more days and it would have been too late for me to modify this myth for Death by Petticoat, which has now gone to the printers. Readers like Beth are the strength of this blog–it’s given me the chance to preview things and make changes before going into the unforgiving medium of a printed book. I am grateful to all have chimed in with corrections and comments on various myths.

Wishing everyone a year full of good health and happiness! 


6 Responses to Sugar Loaf Myth Revised

  1. Good Day! Thanks for using the images of sugar loaves from my web site! For those who don’t know me, I am Deborah Peterson of Deborah Peterson’s Pantry, I carry all sorts of hard-to-find cooking supplies for culinary historians. I offer a 45 minute PowerPoint program called “From Harvested Cane to the Table” that makes it very clear just how sugar was processed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Long live research!

    • marymiley says:

      Well, thank you, Deborah–I know firsthand how hard it is to get sugar loaves and I’d love to help promote your site. Thirty years ago, I was in charge of finding such items for Colonial Williamsburg and that was one of the most difficult. I saw thousands on a trip to Morocco, lining the shelves in grocery stores, but never could work out the details to buy them from North Africa. Where do yours come from?

  2. marymiley says:

    You make your own? Wow!! Hooray for you! Keep doing it. I can’t tell you how hard I used to try (mostly unsuccessfully) to find the large size cones. The 8 oz were available commercially, but that small size is not authentic, as you well know.

  3. Nathan Craig says:

    By the way, I did find a site online that sells sugar loaves; they are a German importer. A whole sugar loaf is used for feuerzangenbowle (fire tong punch).

    It is more fun to make them, though, because then you can flavor them and color them. 🙂

    • Mary Miley says:

      I saw those. Thanks for the link. BUt they are only 8 ounces in size. I remember back 30 years ago I used to buy them for COlonial Williamsburg in the 5-pound size. Or maybe it was 3 pound, I can’t remember. But it was pretty large. Those are the ones I’d like to find again.

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