Revisited Myth #49: Early Americans used the blue wrappers from their sugar cones to dye fabric.


A sweet story, but experts in historic crafts say that no actual instances of this practice are known in America’s colonial era. Apart from lack of evidence, it is illogical. Refined sugar was an expensive, imported luxury—think caviar—that only the wealthiest could afford. Not the sort who are scrimping and recycling their wrapping paper or dying their own fabric. (If the family budget couldn’t stretch to include sugar, what did folks back then use for sweeteners? Maple sugar, honey, molasses, or muscovado sugar. Or nothing.)

But lo and behold, several household management books published in the mid-nineteenth century do mention this practice. In one of them, The American Frugal Housewife (1835), author Lydia Childs tells how to make various cheap dyes, including “a fine purple slate color” by boiling sugar wrapping paper in vinegar with alum and boiling it in an iron kettle. In another, Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s Frugal House-Book; a Manual of Domestic Economy (1850), the chapter on domestic dyes tells how to make a slate color by boiling vinegar and alum in an iron kettle with some pieces of “the thick purple paper that comes round sugar-loaves.”

Why then and not earlier? Probably because that’s when sugar became cheap. The expansion of Caribbean sugar plantations flooded the market with sugar and prices dropped, bringing sugarloaves, wrapped in traditional purplish-blue paper, within reach of most housewives. And the average housewife is just the sort who might be interested in learning to dye her own fabric on the cheap. So this myth is false when heard at early American sites and true for later, nineteenth-century sites.

Where did the purplish-blue paper custom, as opposed to white or brown or another color, originate? Probably in the Middle East or North Africa, where sugarcane cultivation originated. In certain North African countries, sugar is still sold that way in grocery stores, as large cones wrapped in blue paper. I saw them in a Moroccan grocery store a few years ago, and also in a market in Jordan.


7 Responses to Revisited Myth #49: Early Americans used the blue wrappers from their sugar cones to dye fabric.

  1. Mary says:

    I have read that the blue paper repels insects. True…or a myth?

    • Mary Miley says:

      I can’t find out what was traditionally used to dye the blue paper, although the master dyer at Colonial Williamsburg once told me he would guess logwood rather than indigo. If I ever get back to the Middle East or North Africa and see those big sugar cones, I’ll ask someone, but for the time being, I have no answer.

  2. Hello Mary. Hold the phone. The tradition may have existed in North Africa, but so too did it exist in England, and one of the curious new applications of “blew” or “blue paper” was for paper-hangings…wallpaper. This has been immortalized in about a half-dozen well known ads and and handbills put out by the Blew (later Blue) Paper Company, which was founded on patents developed by William Bayly in 1691. It was also in 1691 that Nathaniel Gifford patented ‘A new, better and cheaper way of making all sorts of blew, purple and other coloured paper’.

    Richard Hills comments in his book on the history of paper that ‘traditionally sugar was always wrapped in blue paper and the earliest patent concerning paper was taken out by Charles Hildeyerd on 16 February 1665 for ‘the way and art of making blew paper used by sugar-bakers and others’.

    Blue paper made specifically for paper-hangings could have been made from beaten blue rags. On the other hand, the Blew Paper Warehouse claimed that its products were ‘dy’d through’. These dyes may have included woad, logwood and litmus, according to an article by a paper conservator:

    It seems that mordants such as verdigris and alum, and metallic compounds such as copper and zinc sulphate fixed dyes onto fibres. But however it was made, low-grade blue paper stock was used for wrapping sugar cones, needles and other household wares; ream wrappers (which protected the paper during storage and shipment) were made of blue paper as well. It seems likely that, at first, paper-hangings were just another use, albeit in a new and portentous direction: the decoration of homes.

  3. Another reason for using blue paper (instead of another color) to wrap sugar, originally, could have been to make it appear whiter. We still use bluing/blue dyes in laundry detergents to make our whites look whiter, and period recipe books recommend using browner sugar rather than white sugar for “family” use because it’s cheaper and more economical. Blue-wrapped white sugar might have been an attempt to make sure it looked white enough to command the higher prices at market.

  4. Noreen McCann says:

    I was doing some research on this topic a number of years ago, as I saw an article in the Winterthur magazine that stated the blue wrapping was used to make the sugar appear whiter. I called the author to find the source of this, and he said not to use that as it wasn’t documented, and gave me the number for a paper expert. That expert in the Netherlands then sent me to the leading paper expert at the time- who was located in New York, I think the group belonged to the International Ephemera Society (or something close to that). We had a nice discussion on blue paper, and he corroborated what I was finding in my independent research. Paper was made from recycled towels and such. At the end was a blue line woven in the fabric- the selvage. When making paper, one pile of fabric gathered would be the white towels, the other pile would be the parts cut off that would have the blue selvage. Separate vats were used to make the paper- one with shades of white paper being produced, the other with blue paper. The different shades of white paper being used was for printing, correspondence, court documents and etc. Blue paper was kept for utilitarian purposes: for grocers to wrap up merchandise (such as sugar), for use in the book binding process in the covers of books, for artists (Whistler’s Mother for example) to use for sketching, and etc. I called a company in France that said they, and others, still use blue paper to wrap their customer’s lingerie purchases in when they put them in the box. I hope this adds to the blue paper mystery and discussion.

  5. katknit says:

    Reblogged this on Dances with Wools and commented:
    This interesting article was posted a few months back and is of relevance to all fiber artists.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: