Considered the grandest of all World’s Fairs, the 1904 St. Louis Exposition celebrated America’s progress over the previous century. It marked the public debut of early automobiles and processed sugar in packaged foods, establishing American fast food culture. And that greatly contributed to making a wider world in the century to come.
Sugar is the story of overlapping networks shaping appetites as well as cultures. In ancient times, sweeteners were rare. Honey was used, serving as a metaphor for God’s Word (“sweeter than honey” – Ps. 19:10). In Bet Sefer, the rabbi used honey to cover the student’s plates. Student licked the honey off while the rabbi said, “May the words of God be sweet to your taste, sweeter than honey to your mouth” (Psalm 119:103).
Honey was rare, but sugar was rarer. In her sprawling book, Sugar: A Bittersweet History, Elizabeth Abbott writes how the “royal and noble courts were the first to indulge in excessive sugar consumption.”1 Sugar was used to sculpt expensive statues and ornaments. However, the age of exploration (between 1350 and 1500) created new sources. The cost of ten pounds of sugar dropped from a very high 35 percent of an ounce of gold to a mere 8.7 percent. The joys of sugar, Abbott writes were soon “to percolate downward to the working classes, who were beginning to clamor for it.”
The percolation took about 150 years. Christopher Columbus’ second voyage (1493) included sugarcane from the Canary Islands. It grew faster and sweeter in the New World. A few years later, Cortés introduced Spaniards to an acrid Aztek drink, chocolatl. Europeans disliked it until they discovered how sugar transformed this bitter dessert into a heavenly delight. It worked wonders with tea and coffee. When the first coffeehouse opened in London in 1652, sugar sweetened the coffee and tea. By this time appetites were hooked on sugar and the triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and North America was established to serve up yummy delights day in and day out.
Ice cream was added to the sugary list in 1671, when Charles II enjoyed it for the first time on the Feast of St. George. In 1718, a recipe for ice cream was published, propelling it into the popular consciousness. Two decades later, the nature of work began to change. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the “cottage industry,” in which family members produced goods at home, declined. Workers began eating away from home and enjoying access to foodstuffs previously restricted to the privileged, including chocolate, sugar, and tobacco. The English diet underwent a “great change in consumption levels and eating habits,” writes economic historian Carole Shammas.
The number of daily meals also increased. Three meals a day replaced the medieval habit of two, increasing sugar consumption. This contributed to sugar imports to England quadrupling between 1700 and 1740, and more than doubling again in the period 1741 and 1775. By the late 1700s, Christians were working to abolish the slave trade. Many urged a boycott of sugar, persuading 400,000 Brits to forgo sugary delights.2 Through their arduous labors, the English Slave Trade was abolished in 1833. This however did not squelch the English appetite for sugar. Britain began importing sugar grown by foreign slaves. In an 1845 parliamentary debate, Thomas Babington Macaulay, son of abolitionist Zachary Macaulay, mocked the hypocrisy: “We import the accursed thing; we bond it; we employ our skill and machinery to render it more alluring…”
Macaulay could hardly have imagined what came next. The year before his speech, in 1844, Paris hosted the French Industrial Exposition. It was a beginning of what would become World’s Fairs. In 1851 London hosted the fair at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. World’s Fairs were designed to celebrate industrialization and urbanization.3 The 1904 St. Louis Exposition celebrated America’s progress in the century since the Louisiana Purchase. It featured early automobiles while introducing air conditioning and processed sugar in packaged foods. It also pushed the hamburger into widespread popularity.4 Americans began eating on the run, a behavior long considered vulgar.
The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis “established what we consider fast food or pop-culture food as a part of the mainstay of the American culture,” explains food historian Suzanne Corbett. The hot dog was created, served with an array of sugar-sweetened drinks including Dr. Pepper, Coke, ginger ale and Hires Root Beer. “By fair’s end,” Abbott concludes, “sugared soft drinks were firmly established in the growing lexicon of fast food.” Ice cream became portable fast food, sold at 50 fair stands but making history by being served in cones. Another newcomer was Fairy Floss Candy, pure granulated sugar spun in an electric machine and so resembling cotton that it took the name cotton candy. Fairgoers bought 68,655 cardboard boxes of it.
The best way to slay the beast is to first understand the nature of the beast. World-changing movements, for better or worse, operate by overlapping networks of institutions, images, key individuals, ideas, and items. The ubiquitous presence of processed sugar in most packaged foods is Exhibit A. We’re witnessing what Yuval Levin has called a “gluttonous feast upon the flesh of the future.” The challenge is daunting and solutions will be difficult. They will require collaboration between various institutions understanding the nature of the beast. Faith communities with a mission of making culture and a mindset of thinking institutionally are most likely to make the cut. They could assist in establishing a healthier, leaner world in the century to come.
1 Elizabeth Abbott, Sugar: A Bittersweet History (London: Penguin Books, 2008), p. 21.
2 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 193.
3 Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Thomas L. Purvis, Harvard Sitkoff, Nancy Woloch, The Enduring Vision (U.S.A. and Canada: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990), chps. 17-21.
4 Dorothy Daniels Birk, The World Came to St. Louis (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1979).