One Lump or Two?

Queen Elizabeth IForeign dignitaries visiting the court of Queen Elizabeth I often remarked upon the shocking condition of the monarch’s teeth. They were rotten, a deplorable condition aggravated by her addiction to sugar.

But don’t blame tea with sugar for her decaying teeth because she didn’t live long enough to taste the exotic new herb from China.

At the opening of the seventeenth century, sugar was a rare habit only rulers and rich merchants could afford. Cones of hard brown sugar were imported via Arab traders, and eventually from South American plantations owned by the Portuguese and Spanish. It was mainly used to sweeten herbs and medicines concocted by apothecaries. That scenario changed dramatically with the arrival of a new queen,  Catherine of Braganza, and her own peculiar habit of drinking tea.

It’s not clear who first advocated the addition of sugar to tea. It certainly wasn’t the Chinese because, to them, that combination would be revolting.

By mid-century, the habit of adding a spoonful of sugar to hot tea spread from Hampton Court to urban households and rural cottages. And the term teaspoon, first mentioned in an advertisement in an 1686 edition of the London Gazette, was born.

As tea and sugar became less expensive over time, it was the working class who stirred sugar consumption to record highs. Even if you couldn’t afford a meal, you could always make do with a thin slice of bread and a cup of hot tea, infused with a bit of color from a few precious tea leaves steeped multiple times and made sweet with a lump of sugar cut from a cone.

The English addiction to sugar spilled over as well to unending amounts of tarts, pastries, jams, sponges and puddings. Eventually, what was an annual consumption of four pounds per year in 1700 jumped to eighteen pounds in 1800!

Regency Tea Caddy with Sugar Bowl

Regency Tea Caddy with Sugar Bowl

Tea consumption kept pace as East India Company ships brought millions of pounds of Chinese teas – both black and green – into their London warehouses.

In 1800, 30 million pounds of tea and 300 million pounds of sugar were imported to England. By 1900, the amount of tea had grown ten-fold and the average Englishman consumed 90 pounds of sugar each year. Now that’s a sweet tooth!

Read more British and American tea history in A Social History of Tea.