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Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America.

Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America. By Wendy A. Woloson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xii plus 277 pp. $46.00).

Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America is an examination of how the meaning of sugar and confections changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Refined sugar, ice cream, bonbons, and other sweet delicacies were once so expensive that they carried with them connotations of luxury and conferred prestige on those elites who could afford to consume them. They were a clear signal of male economic power and privilege. As sugar, ice, and chocolate became less expensive, and as food production became more mechanized, however, sweets were both democratized and feminized.

In this carefully researched work, Wendy Woloson traces the history of sugar, chocolate, and ice, and explores how these key ingredients were combined to create hard candies, ice cream, bonbons, fudge, wedding cakes, and numerous other confections. Woloson explores the changing meaning, presentation, and availability of these goods. She also brings to light the frequent debates over who was entitled to consume such treats and in what venues, for sweets were a source of some controversy in the nineteenth century. For example, dietary and moral reformers harbored fears that those who indulged their appetites for sugary treats might subsequently develop far more dangerous appetites--for cigarettes, alcohol, or sexual pleasure. As a result, they railed against those who consumed too many confections or who did so in inappropriate places. Similarly, as they watched ice cream become more widely available, many elite commentators described the dangers of buying the delicacy from street vendors. As for bonboneating women, they too posed a threat to moral and social order. While it was acceptable for women to receive chocolates from men, it was inappropriate for them to purchase the candies for themselves. Women overly fond of chocolate were portrayed as decadent, self-indulgent, and incapable of controlling their desires.

As she reconstructs reformers' various attempts to restrain children from eating hard candies, working-class men and women from buying ice cream from street vendors, and women from eating chocolates, Woloson ably demonstrates the anxieties about class and gender which often undergirded such campaigns. In the eyes of reformers, those who over-indulged their taste for sweets or who did so in inappropriate circumstances not only risked their health; they flouted important social conventions as well. Rules governing the buying and eating of sweets regulated not just diet but social relations between men and women, rich and poor, old and young.

Refined Tastes also offers interesting insights into the different meanings sugar took on in different locations. Eating ice cream on a street was different from eating it in a middle-class ice cream parlor. Similarly, children who ate candy that their mothers had made suffered far less criticism than those who bought it at the candy store. In the eyes of some, penny candy stores and ice cream vendors made sugary goods--once a luxury of the upper classes--all too common. When, at the end of the nineteenth century, sugar, chocolate, and ice became so inexpensive and dessert recipes so accessible that housewives of almost every class no longer had to rely on commercial confectioners but were able to produce fancy desserts in their own homes, the democratization of sugar was complete, as was its domestication.

Refined Tastes is particularly strong in its analysis of how sugar gradually trickled down to all economic levels of the American consuming public, in its discussion of the different ways it was marketed, in its painstaking recovery of how reformers and marketers viewed the changing meaning of this commodity, and its insightful analysis of the connections between ideas of sweetness and femininity. Where the book could be strengthened is in its coverage of consumers' perceptions of sugar. Refined Tastes claims to be about "how new commodities made their way into American culture and how people found meaning in them." (p. 3). The book admirably succeeds in its first goal, but falls short in its attempt to understand what sugar actually meant to people. Refined Tastes does an excellent job of presenting prescriptive literature about sugar, but does not provide enough first-hand accounts of what sugar represented to the average consumer. There are statements from trade journals, from advertisers, but very few from the men and women who bought the ice cream and chocolates. For instance, Woloson maintains that in addition to its taste, ice cream appealed to people because it "signified human ingenuity and power" (p. 69). Likewise she maintains that to children, candy represented "freedom and pleasure" (p. 34). In many other places throughout the book, she makes additional claims about sugar's meanings to people, but only occasionally does she supply first-hand testimony to support such claims. What sugar really meant in daily life to children, to middle-class women, and to their gentlemen suitors, and how this meaning changed over time, remains a mystery. Admittedly, testimony of this sort may be hard to find, but more of it would certainly enrich the book. The few non-prescriptive first-hand accounts that Woloson does include prove very interesting.

Overall, however, Refined Tastes presents a new and innovative way of looking at consumer appetites and culture. Well-written, well-researched, and thought-fully presented, the book will be of interest to historians of consumer society and material culture, food and foodways, and gender relations.

Susan Matt

Weber State University
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Matt, Susan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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