Domino Sugar, with its iconic neon sign, has been a Baltimore institution for over 90 years. The plant was built in 1922, but Baltimore’s sugar history extends back to the late eighteenth century. After becoming a major port of entry for raw sugar during the Revolutionary War, Baltimore took its place as a regional center for sugar production, with eleven refineries in operation by around 1825 (Williams et al. 2000; Magid 2005). Similar refineries in Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia were all established in the early nineteenth century in reaction to international trade restrictions imposed by the Napoleonic Wars (Williams et al. 2000:279).
Among the archaeological collections curated at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab is an assemblage from the sugar processing plant owned by Augustus Shutt and John Tool, in operation between 1804 and 1829 on Green (now Exeter) Street in Baltimore (Magid 2005).
Humans have long had a taste for sugar—be it in the form of fructose (fruit sugar) or sucrose (table sugar—the form of sugar produced from sugar cane and sugar beets). Sugar, a simple carbohydrate, provides a quick hit of energy to the body. Some evolutionary biologists hypothesize that our early human ancestors evolved to crave sugar because it provided a much needed buffer against starvation (Lieberman 2013). What was once a beneficial trait has become a liability in a time when products containing sugar are readily and inexpensively available and diabetes is on the rise.
Sugar cane was first domesticated in New Guinea as long ago as 8000 B.C. and spread from there through parts of Southeast Asia (Mintz 1985). Its use did not spread into northern Europe until around 1000A.D. and it remained a luxury item in western Europe for many centuries past that date (Mintz 1985). The establishment of sugar plantations in the Caribbean began shortly after the voyages of Christopher Columbus, who was said to have carried sugar cane plants with him on his 1493 trip (Cohen 2013). Thus was set in motion what Elizabeth Abbott (2008) calls sugar’s “bittersweet history”, as sugar became a crop dependent upon the labor of enslaved Africans. As sugar prices began to drop during the mid-seventeenth century, it began to change from a luxury substance to a staple for the middle class and then for the poor.
Refining sugar was a multi-step process of boiling to remove impurities and molasses, clarifying, filtering, evaporating and cooling to achieve the correct viscosity and crystallization (Magid 2005). After crystallization, the sugar was packed into earthenware cones, which were inverted over syrup jars. A slip of water and kaolin clay, poured over the sugar, helped separate out molasses, which collected in the earthenware jars after dripping from the small opening at the pointed end of the sugar mold. The archaeological excavation of the Shutt and Tool refinery (18BC135) yielded a large number of fragmented earthenware cones and jars used in the refining process.
It is unknown whether the Shutt and Tool refinery closed due to the death of Augustus Shutt in 1829, or if the company suffered a financial failure (Williams et al. 2002:279).
The United States ranks among the world’s largest sugar producers, with well-developed sugar cane and sugar beet industries. Sugar produced from beets surpassed products made from sugar cane in the mid-1990s and accounts for about 55 percent of sugar production today (USDA 2015). Beets have taken the lead in the sugar industry, since they can be grown successfully in a wider range of climates and are less expensive to process, as they require only one refining, rather than the two needed for sugar cane (Morgan 1999). Today, Baltimore’s Domino Sugars plant produces over 6 million pounds of sugar every day; enough to take care of fourteen percent of commercial and consumer needs in the United States (Zeissler 2015).
Elizabeth Abbott. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. Penguin Books, Westminster, 2008.
Rich Cohen. Sugar Love; A Not so Sweet Story. National Geographic. August 2013.
Daniel E. Lieberman. The Story of the Human Body; Evolution, Health and Disease. Knopf Doubleday, New York, 2013.
Barbara H. Magid. Sugar Refining Pottery from Alexandria and Baltimore. Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter. Chipstone Foundation, University Press of New England, London, 2005, 223-229.
Sidney W. Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, New York. 1985.
Miriam Morgan. Sugar, Sugar; Cane and Beet Share the Same Chemistry But Act Differently in the Kitchen, March 31, 1999. SF Gate. Website accessed October 21, 2015. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/SUGAR-SUGAR-Cane-and-beet-share-the-same-2939081.php
USDA. Sugar Production. United States Department of Agriculture. Website accessed Cotber 21,2 015. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/sugar-sweeteners/background.aspx
Martha Williams, Nora Sheehan and Suzanne Sanders. Phase I, II, and III Archaeological Investigations at the Juvenile Justice Center, Baltimore, Maryland. R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates for the Maryland Department of General Services, 2000.
Mitch Zeissler. A Tour of the Domino Sugar Plant in Baltimore. Exploratorius April 19, 2015. http://exploratorius.us/2015/04/19/a-tour-of-the-domino-sugar-plant-in-baltimore/