Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness

Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness

Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness

Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness

Synopsis

In the weeks and months after the end of the Spanish-American War, Americans celebrated their nation's triumph by eating sugar. Each of the nation's new imperial possessions, from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, had the potential for vastly expanding sugar production. As victory parties and commemorations prominently featured candy and other sweets, Americans saw sugar as the reward for their global ambitions.

April Merleaux demonstrates that trade policies and consumer cultures are as crucial to understanding U.S. empire as military or diplomatic interventions. As the nation's sweet tooth grew, people debated tariffs, immigration, and empire, all of which hastened the nation's rise as an international power. These dynamics played out in the bureaucracies of Washington, D.C., in the pages of local newspapers, and at local candy counters. Merleaux argues that ideas about race and civilization shaped sugar markets since government policies and business practices hinged on the racial characteristics of the people who worked the land and consumed its products. Connecting the history of sugar to its producers, consumers, and policy makers, Merleaux shows that the modern American sugar habit took shape in the shadow of a growing empire.

Excerpt

In August 1898, mere weeks after the conclusion of the Spanish American War, people across the United States celebrated victories in Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico and rallied to support wounded soldiers. One such event near Denver, Colorado, featured, among other attractions, a “candy battleship,” a replica of the destroyed battleship Maine. Young women nurses sold candy “over the sides of this ship” to the nearly 15,000 people gathered at the event. People staged similar tableaux over the next decade. For example, one candy store in Iowa used candies to build a “large candy battleship, a replica of the Maine,” for its Christmas display. When prominent citizens in Oakland, California, feted the new secretary of the Navy, they decorated the banquet tables with “candy battleships [which] floated on a blue sea of sweets, surrounded by hills of pastry.” the battleships on display were likely glass candy dishes modeled after the uss Maine, a novelty that people displayed in their homes and shops in the decade after the war. Through such events and objects, U.S. Americans memorialized the war but also revealed that they understood sugar to be one of the key spoils of victory, since each of the new island possessions was poised to expand its sugar production. As the United States made sense of its new role overseas, the commodity had a starring role in the ongoing spectacle of empire, which played out in newspaper headlines, on dining room tables, in the sugar barrels and candy counters of neighborhood stores, and on the political stage of Washington, D.C.

Sugar and Civilization tells the story of sugar from the Spanish American War through the New Deal of the 1930s. Along the way, the book describes workers and consumers in multiple locations in order to uncover how people in the United States came to eat so much sugar, and what it meant for them. the book argues that the cultural logic connecting imperial, trade, and immigration policies was the same one that facilitated new habits of sugar consumption within the United States and its territories. Categories of race, articulated through discourses of civilization and nationalism, provided a vocabulary through which people . . .

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