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That Old Sweet Story: Antique & Vintage Collectible Sugar Accoutrements

Updated on October 3, 2013

The Elizabethan Appetite

The Tudor period saw the introduction of many new foods into the diet of wealthier Elizabethans, who enjoyed such novelties as as the love-apple and the potato. Court banquets were lavish affairs with especial emphasis on desserts. Although sugar was not unknown in Europe in the Dark and Middle Ages, and there are various references to it in surviving records at the time of the Crusades, the sweet tooth of the Elizabethan era could be fully indulged with the increasing availability of imported cane sugar from the New World in the 16th century. Complicated confections were constructed from marzipan and sugar-plate, a paste baked from a recipe using sugar and a small proportion of flour, butter and eggs, with the addition of spices and rosewater.

Picture: Ruby Lane

Portrait of Elizabeth I, Queen of England
Portrait of Elizabeth I, Queen of England

The Fashion for Black

Such unbridled indulgence brought the inevitable consequences and Gloriana's teeth, blackened and decayed, forged a fashion at court for

similarly blackened teeth, both as a symbol of wealth and in canny, diplomatic conformity with the Queen. Only the very rich could afford this costly luxury commodity. For those unfortunates still with perfect white teeth, the only resource was to artificially blacken them, if one was not to be thought just too poor to afford of any sweetener but honey.

Though nutritionists may frown upon it today, beet and cane sugar continues to play a major part in the Western diet today, average consumption per person being estimated at the equivalent in body weight per year. As Marie Lloyd sang in Edwardian music halls, 'A little of what you fancy does you good.'

Chip and Snip

Until the early C20th, sugar was provided in blocks, loaves or cone-shaped, to be cut off as required. This was hard work and required heavy-duty implements, often using mallet, chisel and a sturdy knife. The lumps thus broken off the sugar loaf were suitable for use in the kitchen but for the dining or tea table, the broken chunks were 'nipped' into finer, more elegant pieces. Where a recipe called for sugar in a powdered form, the cook would grind the lumps with a pestle and mortar. Granulated sugar, ready to use in the kitchen and at the table, was introduced by the Victorians but most household sugar continued to be supplied in loaves well into the Edwardian period.

Antique Iron Sugar Nips - 18th C
Antique Iron Sugar Nips - 18th C

Antique Iron Sugar Nips - 18thC

For the collector of early iron or kitchen tools, and certain to be a starting point for a discussion of the 'old days' and how different our modern lives have become, here's a remarkable early pair of antique Sugar Nips. With that fantastic sculptural form, we love the way the jaws describe a nearly perfect heart when closed... must be all the sweet stuff that's passed through them. Beauty of form following function.

Sifting for Dusting

In addition to those intended as functional practical wares, manufacturers have ever been ready to provide luxury and decorative pieces designed to complement and enhance the rituals which society might devise around the use of any commodity. In the kitchen, the cook might use an earthenware spoon, with a pierced bowl, to apply a light dusting of powdered sugar to surface of a confection before its presentation at the table. In the dining room, a much grander utensil would be expected to perform the same function and the sugar sifter spoon became a standard component of a household's dessert flatware from c1770. For the collector, sifting spoons is a field rich with possibility and variety, from the calm and quiet simplicity of the Georgian pieces, whether in silver or Wedgwood's light-as-a-feather creamware body, or the richly ornate silver spoons of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Chrysanthemum Sugar Sifter - Durgin Sterling Silver 1893

Chrysanthemum Sugar Sifter
Chrysanthemum Sugar Sifter

This beautiful sifter is in American sterling silver in the Chrysanthemum pattern by Durgin 1893.

Antique Figural Sterling Silver Sugar Sifter Spoon - Chariot & Horses

Antique Figural Sterling Silver Sugar Sifter Spoon
Antique Figural Sterling Silver Sugar Sifter Spoon

Another example of an antique sifter spoon with an added ornament of a warrior atop a chariot drawn by three horses. The piece bears English hallmarks on the front along with anther set on the back. It bears import marks for London 1899 and is complete with a fitted case.

Shaking all Over

Sugar casters first appeared in the C17th and a smaller version, known as a muffineer, was used to sprinkle powdered sugar or cinnamon on the breakfast muffin in the late C18th. There is some dispute whether the original purpose of the smaller muffineer was purely as a spice dispenser and there is certainly little to distinguish between them, other than size. Either will effectively dispense the fine ground castor, or super fine, sugar but it is not unreasonable to suppose the muffineer was designed to accompany the muffin dish, increasingly fashionable on the Regency and Victorian breakfast table.

Daffodil Sugar Shaker - William Kerr 1900 Sterling

Daffodil Sugar Shaker William Kerr 1900 Sterling
Daffodil Sugar Shaker William Kerr 1900 Sterling

Sweetness and floral combined, this stunning shaker would grace and ornament any table. In American Sterling Silver, made by William Kerr of Newark New Jersey, c.1890 - 1910.

Early 19th Century Austrian 800 Fine Silver Sugar Tongs
Early 19th Century Austrian 800 Fine Silver Sugar Tongs

Daintily Does It

The innovation of ready-made cube sugar, known as Vienna tea sugar, was invented in Moravia in the 1840s, eliminating the need to chip small chunks from an unyielding loaf. The innovation had reached across Europe and into North America by C1875: small, perfectly uniform cubes of sugar to be daintily transferred by tongs to the society tea cup. It has been observed that the Victorians designed an item for every purpose and, while the sugar tongs was not a new invention, being an evolution of the 18thC scissor-shape tea tongs, or nips, the introduction of the manufactured sugar cube provided the perfect incentive to expand on the design and decoration. Sugar tongs in every design can be found, often exuberantly ornate, and gradually changing from the scissor to the bow form, familiar still today.

Antique Middletown Silver Quadruple Silverplate Claw Foot Sugar Basket Cranberry
Antique Middletown Silver Quadruple Silverplate Claw Foot Sugar Basket Cranberry

Antique Middletown Silver Quadruple Silverplate Claw Foot Sugar Basket Cranberry

Four ornate detailed claw feet which extend into ornate scroll and leaf detail on the frame of this sugar basket. The swing handle has a flower motif along its length.

An exact replica of this antique silver sugar basket, manufactured by Hall, Elton & Co. of Wallingford, in triple silverplate and numbered 8 is found on page 279 of the authoritative book, American Silverplate by Dorothy Rainwater.

The touchmark on the base reads: 'MIDDLETOWN PLATE CO', "MIDDLETOWN, CONN", with Middletown Silver Plate logo of the scales with a cross, "QUADRUPLE PLATE", HARD WHITE METAL and the pattern number "8".

Photo Gallery - A Carousel of Sugar Shakers

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Lustreware Art Deco Berry Sugar Shaker SetHand Painted Paris Porcelain Sugar ShakerVictorian Meridan Silver Plate Sugar ShakerNoritake Art Deco Creamer and Sugar ShakerAntique Figural Sterling Silver Sugar Sifter Spoon Chariot & HorsesArt Deco Sugar Shaker 1930s Luster WarePorcelain Muffineer with Hand Painted PansiesFenton Cranberry Opalescent Spiral Optic Sugar ShakerOwl Sugar Shaker - Glass & Silver - c1910Nippon cinnamon or sugar shaker gold beading roses
Lustreware Art Deco Berry Sugar Shaker Set
Lustreware Art Deco Berry Sugar Shaker Set
Hand Painted Paris Porcelain Sugar Shaker
Hand Painted Paris Porcelain Sugar Shaker
Victorian Meridan Silver Plate Sugar Shaker
Victorian Meridan Silver Plate Sugar Shaker
Noritake Art Deco Creamer and Sugar Shaker
Noritake Art Deco Creamer and Sugar Shaker
Antique Figural Sterling Silver Sugar Sifter Spoon Chariot & Horses
Antique Figural Sterling Silver Sugar Sifter Spoon Chariot & Horses
Art Deco Sugar Shaker 1930s Luster Ware
Art Deco Sugar Shaker 1930s Luster Ware
Porcelain Muffineer with Hand Painted Pansies
Porcelain Muffineer with Hand Painted Pansies
Fenton Cranberry Opalescent Spiral Optic Sugar Shaker
Fenton Cranberry Opalescent Spiral Optic Sugar Shaker
Owl Sugar Shaker - Glass & Silver - c1910
Owl Sugar Shaker - Glass & Silver - c1910
Nippon cinnamon or sugar shaker gold beading roses
Nippon cinnamon or sugar shaker gold beading roses

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is a very beautiful and interesting lens. I learned something new. Blessed by the sugar angel.

    • dwnovacek profile image

      dwnovacek 6 years ago

      Very interesting and beautifully presented lens! I knew very little of the history of European sugar use and learned a lot here. Blessed by a Squid Angel!