Making candy at home in the late 19th century
Posted by JJ Jacobson on August 29, 2010
In preparation for an exhibit on sugar, I’ve been looking at a set of home candy making manuals from that 1880′s and 90′s. Cookbooks had, of course, been giving recipes for making confectionery at home for more than 100 years, when these were published, so what sets them apart?
First, a little sugar history…
Sugar was originally known to Europe as a rare and costly spice, but the growth of sugarcane production, first in the Mediterranean and then in the Atlantic regions, made it ever more available. Between the middle of the 17th and the middle of the 19th century, sugar was transformed from a luxury to a widely consumed commodity. Grain, livestock, lumber and salt cod from America were crucial to the maintenance of the sugar colonies in the West Indies in the 18th century, and by the mid 19th Americans had access to plentiful cane sugar from the East and West Indies, plus its own cane sugar from Louisiana and beet sugar from the broad “beet belt” across the continent. As production and consumption chased each other upwards, prices fell, and by the mid 19th century it was a thoroughly common article of diet in the US.
Now, back to cookbooks…
The first cookbooks in English that relied on sugar were addressed to those who cooked for great households, for instance François Massialot’s Court and Country Cook of 1702, which included a translation of his Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures from 1692. But sugar was rapidly ceasing to be the province of the wealthy, and sometime around 1760 Hannah Glasse published her Complete Confectioner OR, THE Whole Art of Confectionary Made Plain and Easy, and in 1789 Frederick Nutt (who had apprenticed with Domenico Negri, the reigning confectioner of his age) published his Complete confectioner or, The whole art of confectionary: forming a ready assistant to all genteel families, both directed at households of the middling sort.
Nutt’s work was reprinted in America by 1807, and in 1828 Eliza Leslie published her Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, of which she has this to say…
“The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American; but the writer flatters herself that (if exactly followed) the articles produced from them will not be found inferior to any of a similar description made in the European manner.”
Browsing through any of these works, what one is struck by is just how finicking and laborious the making of sweets by hand was. But, in the middle years if the 19th century, technology was not standing still, and neither was the confectionery trade. When sugar was a luxury, professional confectioners catered to the well-to-do, providing sweetmeats, ice creams, and elaborate sugar and pastry sculptures to grace the table at grand meals, but as sugar dropped in price, confectioners’ goodies came within reach of more and more consumers. And then, as I say, there was technology. Confectioners and inventors developed specialized machines to handle the many intricate and painstaking processes the confectionery art involved. Henry Weatherly, in his Treatise on the Art of Boiling Sugar, Crystallizing, Lozenge-making, Comfits, Gum Goods, and Other Processes for Confectionery (1865) puts it neatly
“Twenty years since it was considered rather a clever thing (with a pair of scissors, the principal tool a sugar boiler used) to cut a seven pound boil of acid drops to size, and, with the help of a practised boy, make them round and press them flat, with the hands, in half-an-hour. The same quantity may now, with the machine, be made into drops, by the boy alone, in five minutes.”
Mechanization and cheap sugar ushered in the age of penny candy, arguably the original modern consumer good aimed specifically at children. This brings us back to our 1880s and 90s home candy manuals, published at a time when candy was becoming ever more abundant and cheap, as this was also the era of pure food scandals.
The four candy manuals I’ve been looking at all betray a distinct anxiety about adulterated, commercially produced candy and send the message that making candy at home keeps the family safe from the unwholesome commercial article. In an era when reformers tried to persuade parents to restrict children’s purchase and consumption of candy, warning that it would lead to adult vices like tobacco and alcohol, these books seem to seek to make candy safe by bringing it under control in the home sphere. They promote candy making as a wholesome domestic pastime, as well as a defense against adulterated food , and indeed this era saw the rise of candy-making as a genteel leisure activity.
Candy Making at Home: Containing Full Directions for Making in Your Own Kitchen About Two Hundred and Fifty Different Kinds … by One Who Has Tried It published in 1884 begins by quoting in full a scare article republished from The Household of Brattleboro, Vermont, June 1879 , which gives the tenor of the conversation about pure and impure candy.
“Adulterated Confectionery — In raising adulteration
to the dignity of a science, says the Boston Commercial
Bulletin, the manufacturers of confectionery have done
their part. Properly, there are only three component
parts in pure confectionery — the sugar, or body of the
matter; the extract, or flavoring quahty of the same, and
the coloring property. To such a degree of ingenuity have
candy-makers arrived, that some kinds of their wares are
put up fur the market wnth only a very slight proportion
of the first, and with the coloring and flavoring of so cheap
a quality, that their ‘manufactured articles can be bought
at the same price per pound as the plain sugar itself.
It is not to be supposed that there is no pure confection
ery. Those who purchase at our best and old-established
places are morally sure of getting a genuine article.
But children do not always go to these places. They
strike for the nearest shop or store and where they can
get the most for their pennies. The cheaper candies, of
which hundreds of tons are sold every year, contain some
of the most deadly poisons known, among them red lead,
gamboge, vermillion, chromate of lead, Prussian blue,
verditer or carbonate of copper, arsenite of copper, Brunswick
green, the various oxides of iron, white lead, etc
Terra alba, a kind of clay or white earth is very largely
used, in some qualities it forming from 50 to 60 per cent.
of the manufactured article. “
“The worst eftects of the use of terra alba are, that the
terrible diseases of stone and gravel are caused by the in-
troduction of earth into the system, and the large increase
of patients suffering from these diseases is attributed by
high medical authorities to the introduction of this terri-
ble ingredient into the confectionery and similar arti-
cles consumed in this country.
Glucose, or “grape sugar,” is the name of another dan-
gerous article extensively used in the adulteration of can-
dies. It is not, as its name would imply, made from grapes,
but from potatoes, and its effect is to produce paralysis of
various portions of the system, especially the kidneys,
where the effect is not only to paralize them, but to turn
them into a sugary substance; in other words^ to produce
Bright’s disease, a malady for which physicians have found
as yet no remedy.”
Certainly good reason to make candy at home, instead.
The other books, while less thorough, all manifest the same fears, explicitly or implicitly. The Housewife’s Practical Candy Maker …Especially Adapted for Manufacture in the American Kitchen by G.V. Frye. (1889) also harps on purity:
“There is scarcely a mother in the land who does not feel proud in having a choice supply of pure candies on Christmas, New Year’s or the birthday for the ‘little ones’ but it is often difficult to procure goods that are fresh and pure in our smaller cities and towns…”
Sarah Tyson Rorer, in her Home Candy Making of the same year, does likewise
“This little book is the result of careful practice in teaching beginners how to make attractive, wholesome, and palatable varieties of home-made candies…The aim has been to meet the wants of the masses, who, from various causes, cannot obtain the best confections…”
And finally, The Correct Art of Candy-making (1894), part of Butterick’s Metropolitan Series, flatly admits that it’s fighting a rearguard action against penny candy:
“Children will have candy, but the confectionery offered in many of the shops is adulterated to such an extent, and often with such injurious substances, that it is very unwholesome. Therefore mothers will find it both to their own and their children’s interest to make for the little ones wholesome and delicious candies…”
We also, possibly, see a whisper of the Colonial Revival in these manuals: most contain recipes for “Old-fashioned Molasses Candy” – the only recipes in which refined sugar does not predominate. The Colonial Revival’s focus on the home, and its nostalgia for a virtuously homespun past may be manifested here as it was in architecture, art, and landscaping. In any event, the safety and innocence of the domestic sphere is vividly contrasted with the heartless hurly-burly of the marketplace.