Revised Myth # 49: Sugar Loaf Paper Used for Dying Fabric

 

One of the earliest myths I wrote about is included in my book, Death by Petticoat: Housewives used the blue/purple paper that wrapped their sugar loaves to make a dye. I had written on this blog that this was a myth. I had researched the subject and spoken to several 18th century dye authorities, none of whom had ever heard such a thing. White sugar loaves were only for the wealthy, and those people had no need to dye their own fabric. So I was confident about declaring it a myth. This is what I originally wrote for publication:

A sweet story, but experts in historic crafts say that no examples of dying yarn or fabric with blue paper are known. Apart from that, it’s downright illogical. Sugar was an expensive, imported luxury—think caviar—that only the wealthy could afford . . . not the sort of people who would be recycling packaging for dying their clothes. And given the amount of blue paper needed to soak before any color seeped into the water, someone would have to eat a mountain of sugar!

It is more likely that wrapping sugarloaves in blue paper, as opposed to white or brown or any other color, was simply a tradition that evolved in the Middle East. Sugar cultivation originated in Asia and spread through the Middle East to Europe. In certain North African and Middle Eastern countries, sugar is still sold today in grocery stores and marketplaces in large conical shapes wrapped in blue paper.

If they couldn’t afford sugar, what did average Americans use for sweeteners? Maple sugar, honey, molasses, or unrefined muscovado sugar. Or more likely, nothing.

Fortunately, thanks to Beth Chamberlain, I learned of my mistake and was able to rewrite the page just weeks before the book was published. Beth pointed me toward an 1835 household management book that mentions dying fabric with blue wrapping paper. 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.”  http://books.google.com/books?id=Fq_uAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA39 

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 came to mind: Why then and not earlier? What had changed? Further 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 white sugar loaves, wrapped in their traditional purplish-blue paper (which had been something only the wealthy few could afford), 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 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. 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.

 

3 Responses to Revised Myth # 49: Sugar Loaf Paper Used for Dying Fabric

  1. ceunangst says:

    I think the blue paper was used in the eighteenth century to wrap the not so white sugar. Putting the blue against it made the sugar look whiter. Sort of a marketing tool.

  2. Christine Roderick says:

    In an article I read from Woodville Plantation in Pennsylvania, the author also spoke with someone in Williamsburg VA who told them that the paper could not be used to dye since so much was needed. The author did go on to say that instead it was probably used in the rinse water for white laundry in order to brighten it. Is this possible?

    • Curtis Cook says:

      ‘Bluing’ a fabric to make it look whiter was common from WWI until maybe the 1970s. I suspect the chemical process used in the later period — which was different from just adding small quantities of blue ink — is what made it work, but I can’t swear that the idea you mention is false.

What do you think?

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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: