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Posts tagged ‘Great Depression’

Not in my trolley

This has not been a particularly edifying week for white South Africans. After an angry blog post about Woolworths’s hiring policies went viral, a surprisingly large group of white people have threatened to boycott the supermarket. Woolies – an upmarket food-and-clothing store similar to Marks and Spencer in the UK – notes in some of its job advertisements that certain positions are available only to black candidates.

Pierre de Vos, Professor of constitutional law, points out that this is ‘neither illegal nor unconstitutional.’ The purpose of the measure is to address the absence of black South Africans in particular categories of jobs. The company has not introduced a moratorium on hiring whites, and whites may still apply for jobs advertised as being aimed specifically at black candidates.

In a magnificent riposte to the white loons threatening never to shop again at Woolworths – in the strange belief that other supermarkets don’t have similar hiring policies (they do) – Ferial Haffajee, editor of the City Press, explained:

Without affirmative action, I would likely be a retrenched clothing factory worker or a low-level banking clerk. That was the expected, the planned outcome for people like me. The system was called apartheid. We needed help to escape our destiny and millions of South Africans still need that help.

It is not reverse racism, but a Constitutional imperative to fix our society. …those of you who spammed the Woolies CEO for applying the law are wrong. You discount, completely, the role of inter-generational privilege in your life.

To make a good future society demands we have make-right policies for the old one. It doesn’t fix itself.

I doubt that the boycott will have any effect on Woolies’ sales this year. The satirical site Hayibo summed up middle-class South Africans’ relationship with the store particularly well:

‘I will never shop at Woolies again, until later this afternoon when I will go and get salmon and malva pudding,’ said one irate shopper.

Indeed.

As this was a lost opportunity to have a constructive discussion about affirmative action and economic empowerment in post-apartheid South Africa – two issues always worth thinking about – this also represents a moment to think about the nature and effects of consumer boycotts.

I was particularly amused by this threatened whites-only boycott because of the impact that international boycotts had on apartheid South Africa. The country’s economy was brought to its knees after the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act became law in the US, preventing American businesses and banks from exporting and importing some commodities to and from South Africa, and investing in, and extending loans to, the country. Sport and cultural boycotts accompanied these sanctions.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain originated as a boycott campaign against South African produce in 1959. It organised boycotts of Cape Fruit, Outspan oranges, and a range of other products, as well as of businesses like Barclays and Total which operated in South Africa. Even if this campaign – and others around the world – didn’t pose as much as a threat to the apartheid state as the sanctions of the 1980s, what they achieved was to make ordinary people aware of apartheid by appealing to them not to support the South African economy.

There seems to have been an increase in this kind of political consumer boycott since the 1980s, and probably as a result of a heightened awareness of the connection between the exercise of political power and the emergence of global corporations. One of the best – and most successful – examples of these was the Nestle Boycott organised by War on Want and other groups in 1977, to draw attention to the link between the marketing of infant formula and high rates of child mortality in the developing world.

But political consumerism and consumer boycotts have existed long before then. In fact, the abolitionist movement has been described as one of the first examples of concerted consumer activism in support of a political cause. Not only could early opponents to slavery buy abolitionist-themed crockery from Wedgwood, but, particularly during the nineteenth century, abolitionists all over the world refused to buy American sugar or cotton.

Lawrence B. Glickman writes:

consumer activism – the attempt to mobilise consumers for political purposes – has been important to American political culture at least since the Boston Tea Party. Indeed…American national identity was forged in no small part through collective acts of consumption. Central to African American claims for political and economic inclusion have been demands for…‘consumer entitlement,’ ranging from boycotting Jim Crow street cars to taking advantage of the ‘autonomy and anonymity’ of catalogue shopping as a way of avoiding mistreatment by merchants, to boycotting tourism in South Carolina as a way of protesting the Confederate flag that until recently flew over the state house. Similarly…among many women in the Progressive Era ‘consumer consciousness built political consciousness’ as they boycotted unsafe and costly food and campaigned for minimum wages and decent labour standards for those who produced what they bought.

It’s striking how frequently consumer boycotts have been used by those who are politically and socially marginalised, to demand equal treatment and an end to discrimination. They were a key strategy in the American Civil Rights movement, and featured to some extent in the Defiance Campaign against apartheid legislation in the early 1950s, and, later, during the township rebellion in the 1980s.

Some of the earliest consumer boycotts in the United States and Britain were organised by women, and usually in response to sudden increases in the price of staple foods. For instance, in 1902, immigrant Jewish women in New York organised a boycott after the price of Kosher beef increased by half. By withdrawing their support from local butchers – and, admittedly, rioting in lower Manhattan – they managed to reduce prices.

In 1924 and 1933, Jewish women in Toronto – many of them members of communist groups – also organised boycotts of Kosher butchers to protest rising prices of meat. On both occasions, significant numbers of women were mobilised not only to stop shopping for meat, but to picket butchers.

Indeed, there were widespread boycotts organised by women during the Great Depression. These ‘housewives’ protests’ were part of a broader movement in which women sought to mitigate the effects of the Depression by lobbying government, planting community gardens, establishing bartering systems for food and other goods, and even engaging in acts of civil disobedience. In Cleveland, for instance, black mothers protested a power company’s decision to switch off electricity as a result of non-payment of bills, by hanging wet washing over the power lines. The electricity was switched on the next day.

In 1946, the Washington Committee for Consumer Protection was formed by a group of women – including some who had been active in union politics during the 1930s – to organise boycotts of red meat and other products to protest the increase in food prices at the end of the Second World War. (The American government had kept them artificially low during the conflict.) Other committees organised boycotts of milk and dairy products for similar reasons.

Boycotts demonstrate particularly well that buying power – and the exercise or withholding of this power – seems to function as a replacement of real access to political power for those who are socially marginalised.

I don’t want to suggest for a moment that there’s an equivalence between the heroic housewives of 1930s America and the white nitwits who are trying – and probably failing – to organise a boycott of Woolworths. But I do think that the rage which has propelled this boycott suggests that there is a section of South Africa’s white population which feels – with some justification – that its interests are not being represented by mainstream political parties. And this is worth taking seriously.

Further Reading

Monroe Friedman, ‘American Consumer Boycotts in Response to Rising Food Prices: Housewives’ Protests at the Grassroots Level,’ Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 18 (1995), pp. 55-72.

Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘“Buy for the Sake of the Slave”: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism,’ American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 889-912.

Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘The Strike in the Temple of Consumption: Consumer Activism and Twentieth-Century American Political Culture,’ The Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 1 (Jun., 2001), pp. 99-128.

Matthew Hilton, ‘The Female Consumer and the Politics of Consumption in Twentieth-Century Britain,’ The Historical Journal, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 103-128.

Stacy Kinlock Sewell, ‘The “Not-Buying Power” of the Black Community: Urban Boycotts and Equal Employment Opportunity, 1960-1964,’ The Journal of African American History, vol. 89, no. 2, African Americans and the Urban Landscape (Spring, 2004), pp. 135-151.

Annelise Orleck, ‘“We Are That Mythical Thing Called the Public”: Militant Housewives during the Great Depression,’ Feminist Studies, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 147-172.

Kathleen C. Schwartzman, ‘Can International Boycotts Transform Political Systems? The Cases of Cuba and South Africa,’ Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 43, no. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 115-146.

Andor Skotnes, ‘“Buy Where You Can Work”: Boycotting for Jobs in African-American Baltimore, 1933-1934,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 27, no. 4 (Summer, 1994), pp. 735-761.

Dietlind Stolle, Marc Hooghe, and Michele Micheletti, ‘Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political Participation,’ International Political Science Review, vol. 26, no. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 245-269.

Lynne Taylor, ‘Food Riots Revisited,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 30, no. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 483-496.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Feed the Children

There has been some fuss recently around the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray, who co-authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in 1994, has a reputation for annoying left-leaning academics and public policy makers. His description of the Bell Curve was accused of being blind to cultural and social influences on learning and childhood development, and his most recent polemic has been criticised for its rose-tinted view of the American white working class during the mid-twentieth century.

One of the best criticisms of the book which I’ve come across is Nell Irvin Painter’s article for the New York Times, ‘When Poverty was White.’ Painter, whose History of White People (2010) I urge you to read, makes the point that America has a well-hidden and very recent history of white poverty. She accuses Murray of ‘historical blindness’ caused by his

narrow focus on the cultural and policy changes of the 1960s as the root of white America’s decline. The story of white poverty…is much longer and more complex than he and his admirers realise or want to admit.

Her point is that to understand the nature of poverty – why some families seem incapable of escaping it, why certain members of society seem to be particularly susceptible to it – we need to historicise it.

There is a similar argument to be made about white poverty in South Africa. One of the reasons why photographs of poor whites in South Africa draw such attention is because South Africans tend to think of poverty as being black. Poor whites are a strange anomaly in the economic and racial politics of post-1994 South Africa.

But ‘poor whiteism’ as a social and political phenomenon only disappeared during the economic boom of the early 1960s. Since at least the 1920s, South African governments were preoccupied by the ‘poor white problem’ – by the existence of a substantial group of people who, as the popular author Sarah Gertrude Millin wrote in 1926, could not support themselves ‘according to a European standard of civilisation’ and who could not ‘keep clear the line of demarcation between black and white.’

South Africa’s earliest soup kitchens were not for black, but, rather, for white children. The first child welfare organisations aimed their work not at black families, but, rather, at white families who were poor. South Africa’s attempts to introduce compulsory elementary education in the 1910s and 1920s pertained only to white, not to black, children. This isn’t to suggest that black poverty was somehow less acute or widespread than white poverty. Far from it. State concern about poor whiteism was borne out of a eugenicist belief that, as Millin suggested, white poverty signalled a decline in white power.

The first attempts to eradicate white poverty were directed at families and children. Although we tend to associate the poor white problem with the 1920s and 1930s, there had been a large group of impoverished white farmers in the country’s rural interior since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s and 1890s, colonial politicians, and particularly those in the Cape, were increasingly anxious about this class of whites. This was partly because the numbers of impoverished whites – both in rural and urban areas – had increased during the region’s industrialisation after the discovery of diamonds and gold, but it was also the result of decades of poor education which had produced at least two generations of unemployable whites.

Both in South Africa and in the rest of the world, poverty was racialised during the 1880s and 1890s. The existence of unemployed and unemployable poor whites challenged the association of ‘natural’ supremacy and the exercise of power with whiteness. The term ‘poor white’ no longer simply referred to white people who lived in poverty, but, rather, invoked a set of fears around racial mixing and white superiority.

Impoverished white adults were believed to be beyond saving, as one Cape industrialist argued in 1895: ‘the adults are irreclaimable. You must let them die off, and teach the young ones to work.’ The Cape government poured money into schools for poor white children. In 1905, education became compulsory for all white children in the Cape between the ages of seven and fourteen. Politicians also passed legislation to allow these children to be removed from parents deemed to be unable to care for them appropriately. After the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910, government spending on education grew from 14 per cent of the national budget to 28 per cent in 1930.

But the problem did not go away. Industrialisation and economic expansion, as well as the effects of the Great War, two depressions, and urbanisation in the 1920s and 1930s increased the numbers of impoverished whites. By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.

In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.

There was also a shift in emphasis in how child welfare societies – the numbers of which had mushroomed during the 1920s – dealt with poor white children. No longer did they only work to ensure that white children were sent to school and adequately cared for by their parents, but they began to focus on how these children were fed.

I’m still trying to account for this new concern about the effects of malnutrition on white children. I think that it was due largely to an international scientific debate about the significance of nutrition in raising both physically and intellectually strong children. Louis Leipoldt – Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal, food writer, Buddhist, poet, and Afrikaner culture broker – was particularly aware of this new thinking about childhood development and nutrition, and wrote about it extensively in publications on child health and welfare in South Africa.

In a report of a survey of the health of children in the Cape published in 1922, the province’s Medical Inspector of Schools, Elsie Chubb, argued that malnutrition was widespread in the Cape’s schools for white children. In most schools, around 10% of the pupils were malnourished. In one school in the rural Karoo, 79% of children were found to be severely malnourished.

Chubb recognised that malnutrition was not purely the result of an inadequate supply of food – although it was certainly the case that many poor parents simply couldn’t afford to buy enough food to feed their children – but of poor diet. Some child welfare volunteers wrote of children sent to school on coffee and biltong, and who returned home at the end of the day for a basic supper of maize meal and cheap meat. Chubb wrote that far too many children were fed on a diet heavy in carbohydrates and animal protein. Children did not eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and milk. She recommended that feeding schemes be established to supplement children’s diets with these foodstuffs.

Helen Murray, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Graaff Reinet and active member of the town’s child welfare society explained the contemporary understanding of the link between malnutrition and poor whiteism particularly well in 1925:

In the winter of 1918 our schools had regular medical inspection for the first time. The doctor who inspected told some of us that he had found some fifty children in our poor school suffering from malnutrition and spoke strongly of the results of such a condition. The children were not in danger of dying of starvation, they had dry bread and black coffee enough to prevent that, but they were in danger of growing up to be ‘poor whites’ of the most hopeless type. The body insufficiently nourished during the years of growth would develop physically weak, and the brain as a result would be unfit for real mental effort. The child suffering from years of wrong feeding could not be expected to grow into the strong, healthy, clearheaded man or woman our country needs today, and will need ten and twenty years hence. To see that the underfed child is well fed is not a matter of charity, but must be undertaken in self-defence.

As a result of the inspection, the child welfare society found a room in the town where between fifty and ninety children could be provided with ‘a good, hot meal’ on every school day:

We had been told that these children could be saved from growing up weaklings if they could have one good meal of fat meat, vegetables or fruit, on every school day of the year….

We have the satisfaction of knowing that there has been a marked improvement in the health of the children and of hearing from a Medical Inspector that she has found the condition of the children here better than in many other schools of the same class.

Murray’s experience in Graaff Reinet was not unique. As child welfare societies were established in the towns and villages of South Africa’s vast interior, their first work was usually to establish soup kitchens, either in schools or in a central locations where schoolchildren could be sent before the school day – for porridge and milk – and at lunchtime, for soup or a more substantial meal, depending on the resources of the local society.

In Pietersburg (now Polokwane), to eliminate the stigma of free meals for poor children, all white children were provided with a mug of soup at lunchtime. Better-off parents paid for the soup, thus subsidising those children whose parents could not contribute. In Reitz, local farmers, butchers, and grocers donated meat and vegetables to the soup kitchen, and in Oudtshoorn children were encouraged to bring a contribution – onions, carrots, or cabbage – to their daily meal.

The National Council for Child Welfare, the umbrella body established in 1924 which oversaw the activities of local child welfare societies, liked to emphasise the fact that it was concerned for the welfare of all children, regardless of class or race. Some welfare societies, and particularly those in areas which had large ‘locations’ for black residents, did establish clinics and crèches for black children. But most of the NCCW’s work was aimed at white children in the 1920s and 1930s, and the same was true of the South African state. By the 1920s, most municipalities in towns and cities made free milk available to poor white mothers with babies and very young children.

Increasing state involvement in child welfare, alongside the work of independent societies, had a significant impact on the health of white children in South Africa during the early twentieth century. But it was only because of the growing prosperity and better education of the majority of white South Africans after World War II that white poverty and malnutrition were gradually eradicated in the 1950s and 1960s.

By historicising poverty – by understanding that white prosperity in South Africa is a relatively recent phenomenon – we can understand it as a phenomenon which is not only eradicable, but which is also the product of a range of social, economic, and political forces. As South African governments and welfare organisations were able to reduce white poverty and malnutrition dramatically during the early twentieth century, so it is possible for contemporary governments to do the same.

But charity and soup kitchens were not the sole cause of the disappearance of white poverty and malnutrition. Jobs, education, and better living conditions were as – if not more – significant in ensuring that white children no longer went hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

SE Duff, ‘“Education for Every Son and Daughter of South Africa”: Race, Class, and the Compulsory Education Debate in the Cape Colony,’ in Citizenship, Modernisation, and Nationhood: The Cultural Role of Mass Education, 1870-1930, eds. Lawrence Brockliss and Nicola Sheldon (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. I (Cape Town: Juta, 1925).

E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. II (Cape Town: Juta, 1977).

E.G. Malherbe, Report of the Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa, vol. III (Stellenbosch: Pro Ecclesia-Drukkery, 1932).

Sarah Gertrude Millin, The South Africans (London: Constable, 1926).

Jennifer Muirhead, ‘“The children of today make the nation of tomorrow”: A Social History of Child Welfare in Twentieth Century South Africa’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2012).

Other sources:

Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic Pride and Racial Prejudice in Victorian Cape Town (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 1995).

Colin Bundy, ‘Vagabond Hollanders and Runaway Englishmen: White Poverty in the Cape Before Poor Whitesim,’ in Putting a Plough to the Ground: Accumulation and Dispossession in Rural South Africa 1880-1930, eds. William Beinart, Peter Delius, and Stanley Trapido (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1986).

J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

Saul Dubow, A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility and White South Africa 1820-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Marijke du Toit, ‘Women, Welfare and the Nurturing of Afrikaner Nationalism: A Social History of the Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereniging, c.1870-1939’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Cape Town, 1996).

Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003).

Isabel Hofmeyr, ‘Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature and Ethnic Identity, 1902-1924,’ in The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (London: Longman, 1987).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 28.03.2012

I’m enjoying Grist’s series on protein angst.

What to eat while watching Mad Men.

The rise of a food-centred youth culture.

A month spent only eating food advertised on television.

An urban, indoor farm feeding a community.

Raj Patel on feeding the ten billion.

Fuchsia Dunlop on eating in Sichuan.

Egg sandwiches are under threat.

A super-efficient Japanese kitchen. And three recipes for sea vegetables. (Thanks Mum!)

The future of food.

On ghostwriting cookbooks.

Meet Izzy: the official trained to sniff out contraband food products at JFK airport.

Could lab-grown meat feed the world?

How a vegan became a butcher.

Depression-era treats.

Alice Waters on her Edible Schoolyard Project.

How to recreate Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.

What would dinosaur meat taste like?

The anatomy of a Twinkie.

An interesting analysis of Guinness’s new ad campaign in Nigeria.

Italians eat as much ice cream as ever, despite the recession.

A food revolution in New Mexico.

Modern art on sandwiches.

Elizabeth Taylor’s diet.

Why Australians switched from Chinese to Indian tea.

Sushi rolls in space.

Why do we give food meaning?

Retro food.

Are there fundamental laws of cooking? (With thanks to Dan Kemp.)

The bohemian butcher.

Food Links, 28.09.2011

On the hallucinogenic qualities of some kinds of food.

Restaurants in the UK waste 400,000 tonnes of food every year.

The inventor of Doritos has died. He will be buried in chips.

Waitrose revamps its branch in Canary Wharf. I know, I know, but this is in the middle of a recession, so it’s interesting.

I really like this thoughtful post about food stamps and fast food by Tom Laskawy.

The best street food in New York.

Tina Joemat-Pettersson, South Africa’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, argues that food security and agriculture should be on the COP17 agenda.

The history of MSG. (Thanks Milli!)

Kitchen gadgets and the Great Depression.

What are the meanings of staff meals at restaurants?

Acorn cupcakes.

Oh the perils of accepting freebies.

How well do you know cheese?

We need a more concerted international response to the world’s food crisis.

Is there any point to providing information about the calorie content of McDonald’s meals? (No. There isn’t.)

Why it’s worth reviving the home economics movement.

Roman vs Neopolitan pizza.

Affordable Luxury

I had a powerful sense of déjà vu yesterday as I read this weekend’s Financial Times. As the news section described the world economy’s recent nose-dive and entry into Phase Five of the early twenty-first century’s Great Depression, the FT’s monthly magazine How to spend it blithely informed its readers that ‘Homes are constantly borrowing bright ideas from luxury hotels.’ And went on to recommend the installation of architect-designed pool houses – which tend to go for around £3,000 per square metre.

Have you read How to spend it? If ever there was a cultural artefact which encapsulated the excess and arrogance of the boom time before the near-collapse of the British and American financial systems in 2008, then this is it. It’s a magazine aimed at the super-rich – at the sort of people who have so much money that they need advice on how they should spend it. I read it – or, at least, I read as much of it as I can before I’m engulfed with rage – because it offers an insight into a bizarre, yet incredibly powerful, world to which I will never have access. (And, frankly, life’s far too short to spend months in search of the perfect example of summer cashmere.)

Printed on glossy, A3-sized sheets of paper, it describes trends in the art market and fashion world; which yacht is de rigeur this season; where best to order bespoke jewellery; and whether or not it’s worth hiring a private chef. How to spend it is a celebration not of money – that would be vulgar – but, rather, of luxury.

In this week’s edition, Terence Conran comments in an article about his perfect weekend (which features his routine in his Georgian manor, designing furniture, and resting by his specially-altered river), that ‘luxury usually means simplicity, or easy living, rather than things that cost a lot of money.’ That Conran’s description of luxury as costing nothing is in a magazine which devotes itself to the top-end, exclusive, and incredibly expensive, is a pleasing irony. But it did make me think about how we define luxury, and particularly as regards food.

In his landmark study Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), the anthropologist Sidney Mintz traces how in Britain, sugar shifted from being a luxury available only to the very wealthy, to being an affordable commodity for most people by the early nineteenth century. Yet despite this –  despite the fact that sugar was cheap and consumed in large quantities by the British population, and particularly by the poor – it was still seen as a treat. It became an affordable or everyday luxury.

It was the increasing popularity and cheapness of sugar – and it gradually replaced honey as the world’s sweetener of choice – which caused the democratisation of a range of other products, and chiefly chocolate, tea, and coffee. Chocolate, once associated with ritual and celebration in pre-Columbian Mexico, was introduced as a beverage to Spain in 1527, but only took off In Europe once sugar was added to it. It became popular among the aristocracy, partly because it tasted delicious but also as a result of its supposed medicinal qualities. It became widely available at the end of the eighteenth century when imports increased and the production of solid chocolate was industrialised.

Similarly, coffee arrived in Europe via Turkey – cafes were opened in Constantinople from 1554, and the first coffee house in Paris was established in 1672 – and more efficient production, bigger imports, and the relatively new idea of sweetening coffee with sugar meant that it was popular throughout the continent by the 1700s. Tea was introduced to Britain by Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s Portuguese wife, but it was only when someone discovered that stirring sugar into it made it less bitter, that it gained a bigger audience among the middle and upper classes. It was heavily promoted by the financially shaky East India Company, and also by the British government in the mid-eighteenth century as an alternative to alcohol. A drop in the tea price in 1784 caused the spike in British tea drinking: between 1801 and 1810, 12,000 tons of tea was drunk annually in Britain. By 1890, that soared to almost 90,000 tons.

All of these affordable luxuries – tea, sugar, coffee, and chocolate – were popularised because innovations in technology and higher yields abroad made it possible for prices to fall at home. What revolutionised the cultivation the crops was the fact that they could be grown successfully all over the world – tea was taken from south-east Asia to east Africa, coffee from Ethiopia to south-east Asia and Brazil, and chocolate from central America to west Africa and south-east Asia – and in vast plantations.

It’s little wonder that colonialism is so closely associated with the production of all of these commodities, and particularly with sugar. Not only were imperial powers, most notably the Dutch, Portuguese, and British, responsible for globalising the cultivation of these crops, but they put slaves to work on tea, coffee, and sugar plantations. The plantation system of farming – in which a single crop is farmed over a vast area – is labour intensive, and European colonisers worked their slaves, literally, to death.

In this way, slave labour allowed for the democratisation of chocolate, sugar, tea, and coffee. This is particularly ironic in the case of coffee. Coffee houses were connected to the rise of modernity in Europe. Anne E.C. McCants explains:

The expression ‘to break bread together’ now has an archaic feel to it. A proximate contemporary substitute, albeit devoid of the powerful religious significance of bread, is to ‘go out for a cup of coffee’, which is at least as much about conversation as it is about nourishment per se. Historians associate this total reorientation of the culture of food and drink with the substitution of coffeehouses for taverns; the wider dissemination of public news; trading on the stock exchange; … new arrangements of domestic and public space; [and] the ability to sustain new industrial work schedules despite their tedium….

Not only is there a connection between coffee drinking and the Enlightenment and democracy in Europe, but also between coffee, sugar, tea, and chocolate – and capitalism and consumerism. Joyce Appleby writes:

American slave-worked plantations and mechanical wizardry for pumping water, smelting metals, and powering textile factories…may seem unconnected. Certainly we have been loath to link slavery to the contributions of a free enterprise system, but they must be recognised as twin responses to the capitalist genie that had escaped the lamp of tradition during the seventeenth century. Both represented radical departures from previous practices.

Both factories and plantations took a significant capital investment to set up; both produced healthy profits which were reinvested; both relied on plentiful, cheap labour; and both introduced new work routines. Appleby describes sugar as ‘one of capitalism’s first great bonanzas’, arguing that ‘its successes also revealed the power of the profit motive to override any cultural inhibitions to gross exploitation.’

As sugar shaped the capitalist system of the eighteenth century, so it did consumerism. Demand for particular items had driven trade for hundreds of years, but it was only during the eighteenth century that widespread demand from all classes of people, and particularly in Britain where wages tended to be higher, began to fuel capitalist economies:

[A] large body of domestic consumers fuelled England’s commercial expansion and a richly elaborated material culture dependent upon the market. … New attachments to objects, a raging delight in novelties, and the pleasures of urban sociability bespoke a deep engagement with the material world that made spending seem more beneficial to the economy than did parsimony.

As Appleby implies, consumerism links a desire for things with the construction of identities. Sugar, coffee, chocolate, and tea were the first foodstuffs to be transformed into consumer goods. By no means essential to our diets, demand for them was driven by factors other than hunger: people bought them in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because, even though they were cheap, they represented luxury and comfort.

Food has always signified more than simply nutrition, but it’s been implicated in the rise of a consumerist society since the eighteenth century. This means that not only do consumers attach a range of new meanings to the food that we buy – we purchase food not only because we need to eat, but because of how we construct our identities as consumers of goods – but consumer demand drives the production of food. It’s for this reason that efforts to reform eating habits – either to combat lifestyle-related diseases or, indeed, to produce a more sustainable food system – have to deal with the fact that we approach food as consumers operating within a global food system.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Anne EC McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Other sources:

K.T. Achaya, The Food Industries of British India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

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