Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History
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Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

3.78 of 5 stars 3.78  ·  rating details  ·  910 ratings  ·  81 reviews
Traces the history of sugar production and consumption, examines its relationship with slavery, class ambitions, and industrialization, and describes sugar's impact on modern diet and eating habits.
Paperback, 320 pages
Published August 5th 1986 by Penguin Books (first published 1985)
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Jessica
Jan 03, 2008 Jessica rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: ginnie!
A great history book in the wonderful myopic vein Ginnie mentioned. I am also planning to read Rats at some point, which seems like one too.

I am baffled by some changes since the last time I was on here. "Private notes??" What the heck is that supposed to be for??? I honestly can't even begin to imagine. I'm just baffled in general by the concept of writing something that's just for your own private information on the Internet. Shouldn't you keep that written in a real life notebook stuffed to t...more
John
Sidney Mintz's "Sweetness and Power" is a global history by an anthropologist, so lay readers may find parts of it a little hard to get into, and even historians may have some issues with the way he structures his argument. Adopting a global approach was a necessity - there is no way to tell the story of production and consumption of sugar, even just within the British Empire, without the global perspective.
According to Mintz, in the world of sugar "production and consumption were so closely bo...more
Malcolm
Histories and sociologies of food stuffs have become fashionable in recent years - we've had histories of Cod, of Nutmeg, of Salt, of the Potato and others. But before all of them came this book, Sidney Mintz's excellent (1985) exploration of the place of sugar history. To us today sugar may seem a common-place (and in many case we eat far too much of it) but it has not so for more than a couple of hundred years, and sugar played a major part in shaping the modern world. For instance, is account...more
Abby
Dec 20, 2007 Abby rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people interested in food, colonialism, slavery
Shelves: non-fiction
Mintz traces the rise of sugar from all angles: the growing, refining, and shipping processes; colonialism and the slaves that grew (grow?) the cane; the physiological effects of sugar; the tastes for sugar and its uses; and the class implications of sugar for its European users. My anthropologist best friend recommends this book as one of the top food anthropology books, and I agree with Dr. Lewis that it is a good book, but I think it could've been shorter as it begins to feel a bit redundant....more
Annie Koh
Nov 14, 2007 Annie Koh rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: history nerds with a sweet tooth
a fun read on how what had been an elite condiment in the middle ages became a staple of the working class diet by the 19th century.

From page 170: It is to their [planters, bankers, slavers, shippers, refiners, grocers, etc] efforts that England owed the institutionalization of a rum ration in the navy (begun 'unofficially' after the capture of Jamaica in 1655): half a pint per day from 1731 on. In the late 18th century it was increased to a pint a day for adult sailors -- much-needed creeping...more
Josh Maddox
In Sweetness and Power, a 1985 text by anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, the author sets out to uncover the meaning and place of sugar in the modern world (specifically England) and how it came to be. For this task, Mintz is more qualified than most; he is an anthropologist and has personal experience working in and around Caribbean sugar plantations. Unluckily, Mintz’s communication abilities are not as great as his academic strength. The book is broken into five chapters of greatly varying quali...more
Greg
This history of sugar started a trend of histories of foodstuffs (cod, salt, etc.) and it is easy to see why. This book, while not likely to grab you from the name of it, is actually very good. Mintz is a cultural anthropologist, and his knowledge of the history of the Caribbean people comes through quite clearly and, sadly, in his narrative. Sugar provided an economic reason for enslavement – it is this exploration of the sweetness and ugliness of sugar that provides the backbone of the book.

In...more
Varad
One wouldn't expect a book about sugar to require a warning for salt, but that is exactly what this book requires. Readers must take Mintz's argument with the proverbial grain of salt, or perhaps even a tablespoon's worth. Mintz offers a compelling history of sugar's incorporation into the Western diet, particularly in England, from the twelfth century to the present day. He offers lots of neat anecdotes and date on how it was introduced to England, how it spread down the social ladder, the ways...more
David Bates
The conditioned nature of sensory perception is at the heart of Sidney W. Mitz’s thesis in Sweetness and Power. Mintz’s work came about as an anthropological investigation into the outsized dietary role of refined sugar in countries like Britain and the United States. Observing that the taste for sweetness is far too varied between societies to support the idea of an innate, biological disposition for desiring so much sugar, Mintz turned to the history of sugar itself. Tracing its role as one of...more
Cat
I enjoyed this book very much. Mintz is an engaging and persuasive writer, and this analysis is a classic in food studies. In fact, some of his points are *so* persuasive (that anthropologists should study the daily food habits within modern societies, that the taste for sugar is not merely inspired by a biological predisposition, but also by the economical and political circumstances that spread and promote and new commodity). Mintz moves from analyzing the rise of the sugar colonies and mercan...more
unperspicacious
As a commodity history this is somewhat dated, and as other GR reviewers have noted, in need of tighter editing, both stylistically and structurally. Remarkably uneven in quality. The last two chapters are problematic, IMO - far too much space has been devoted to theory, defending the earlier historical materialist approach against disciplinary battles with social anthropology, while the prior historical approach is ultimately jettisoned in favour of abstract speculation about contemporary food...more
Jennah
A very interesting analysis of the multiple facets of the history of sugar (production, consumption, power distribution, etc.) The book delves into the rise of sugar use and production mainly in England with a few comparisons to other countries developing at the same time and countries that appear to be developing in similar patterns as the UK with regard to sugar consumption. Much of the book examines the coinciding rise of sugar and the modernization of England during the Industrial Revolution...more
Jan
This was my first "the history of the world seen through X product" book. The high rating is therefore specific to my own experience: it introduced me to mechanisms that I have seen in other books and in real life, most notably how a luxury good democratizes over time. I remember my intro Anthro professor arguing that there were very few "cultural" notions that had demonstrated to hold up seemingly across all cultures: the incest taboo, raising eyebrows as a sign of recognition, and a preference...more
John Favini
A really interesting study on the place of sugar in the British diet, focusing on the ways in which the transition to an imperial and then capitalistic power shaped British eating habits and made a market for sugar. An anthropology of a commodity which applies idea of power relations to a novel subject of analysis.
Richard
This was an interesting read. An anthropological look at the cultivation and use of sugar by the British in particular. Well written and covering a wide range of sugars impacts and effects, historical, cultural, economic and gastronomic. Recommended for anyone interested in the web that the simplest things in our lives weave.
Anders
A thought-provoking and riveting social history of the discovery and incorporation of sugar into capitalist modernity. Mintz's approach straddles anthropology, history, and sociology to make sense of how sugar went from obscurity to necessity, and traces the restructurings of the global economy and consumptive patterns along the way. All that, and a really fun read!

I guess what I like best about it, and what makes it most accessible, is his supremely descriptive language about the intimate-to-al...more
Patty
Fascinating study by an anthropologist about sugar/sucrose- its cultivation, effect on the burgeoning capitalist economic system of England, and its role in society. A few parts dragged a bit but I confess to skimming those (useful tool skimming!). Makes an interesting partner to Sugar, Fat, Salt, published more than 20 years before that book.
Daniel
I liked this book a lot although at the time I read for a class on economic development in Latin America it was not my friend. The class was in Spanish and so we read a translated version that was probably not as accessible as the original. Sugar of course is a commodity of great value and importance in the development of the modern world. I was fascinated to learn how when it was still a novelty item of the rich and elite it was used solely for decorative purposes. It's ascendancy as a major gl...more
Katina
This is a cultural anthropological exploration of sugar and it is quite good. The book was first published back in mid-1980s and it mostly focuses on sugar and the slave trade, sugar, capitalism and markets for trade, and the development of a massive demand for sugar in industrial Britain. I loved reading about how sugar moved between upper and lower classes with different effects and found all the odd tidbits of curious history very fun and entertaining. I sort of wish that this book had been w...more
Jessica
Sep 08, 2009 Jessica rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Insomniacs
Shelves: read-in-2009
Once on a dare I ate a tablespoon of cornstarch at a party. The minute that powder hit my tongue it was a relentless battle to create enough saliva to get it down my gullet. I choked and coughed and when I did a plume of powder was emitted. It was all quite entertaining to the party goers. The reason I am relating this story is that after that incident I didn't think I could experience anything as dry as a tablespoon of cornstarch in my mouth. After reading this book I have been proven incorrect...more
Brandon Fryman
This was a great book on World Systems Theory in practice. Following the history of sugar from where it originated, to todays uses was a very useful tool. I can now look at how things like iPod, computers, coffees, teas etc work today. How over consumption really hurts people all over the world. I love learning how different parts of the world has contributed to various things we use today, specially when the West says that other cultures need to develop. My only negative comment and reason for...more
Joseph
Thorough and fascinating look at the history of sugar via the lens of Euro-dominance of the Caribbean, the ensuing Haitian Slave Rebellion, the way sugar has altered our bodies, society, culture, and more...
Writing is a little stiff and circular at times--not enough to kill the book, but just enough to stop and wonder if you're hearing the same thing over again because history is circular/repeated, or because a point is tirelessly trying to be hammered home, or what--sort of the way Jared Diamon...more
Rachel
Nov 10, 2007 Rachel rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anthro fans, eaters
Shelves: nonfiction
This book could have been more interestingly written but was a good read on the whole. My favorite part is that elaborate sugar sculptures in the 1400s or so at royal tables were called "subtleties." A close second: "disappearance figures" are the numbers of goods that disappear in a given time period, mostly consumed. Third place: "go-away" is the aspect of a food that lets you swallow it without leaving your mouth coated in fat. Peanut butter has bad go-away. Sugar can improve go-away.

It's a g...more
Scott
A bit thick and repetitive. Likes to return to economics...a lot. Good overview but would not assign for a class.
Kristen
Read this in the Dominican Republic while drinking rum, appropriately enough. It's definitely a skimmer rather than a devourer. It's too dry and academic for a true beach read, but it contains interesting facts you can use as an excuse to wake your fellow beachgoer: "Hey, did you know when sugary dishes were first popularized in European courts, they were generally served as interludes within a meal rather than as a dessert at the meal's end? Funny. Would you get me another Santo Libre since you...more
Tara
Apr 30, 2008 Tara rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: more
This book is awesome. Mintz is a food anthropologist. This book is about how sugar went from being the food of the gods for only a very few wealthy people to being the staple food of working class England. Mintz covers sugar production in the colonies and the capital accumulation made possible by slavery. This capital is what fuels the industrial revolution in England. Workers needed cheap food. Mintz notes that with the rise of sugar, coffee, tea and chocolate became more popular in Europe.
simon
I read this book for undergrad and have read it several times since. Its great and tells you a lot of things and writes from the perspective that greed, consumerism, addiction and power combined with scientific and religious racism is a really shitty combination. It does all this using maps, tables, statistics and historical events. I like when historians write books that show the development of something horrible by arguing that lots of little horrible things went into the making.
Dennis O'Brien
Mihir gave me this book after I told him of my tangent of books on slavery and the Caribbean. It's a great book for telling so many intertwined stories -- sugar, slavery, colonialism -- and doing justice to them all.

There are times when the book is in dear need of an editor, like his accounts of the contents of a shipping vessel, or what was in the pantry of an English aristocrat, but you learn to glance over these and get back to the story he is telling.
Meghan
Aug 14, 2007 Meghan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: world history fans
This book is interesting because it shows how powerful the introduction of a product (in this case sugar) can be to society. Mintz shows how the sugar plantation system is pre-capitalist. He talks about how the British hankering for sugar caused the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans. It's interesting and relevant to the capitalism of today. Mintz was an anthropologist so it's more anthropological at times than historical.
Edward
I had to read this book in order to contrast Smith's "Consumption and the making of Respectability," and though both agree that class was a major factor in the reason why the sugar trade began; Mintz argues that it was the increasing availability of sugar rather than the desire to be respectable that fueled the increased demand. I read this book as part of a historical discussion class and the book fits better in that context.
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