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The origin of the sugar cube & why they matter

The sugar cube may seem like a small and insignificant part of our daily lives, but have you ever stopped to think about their origin and why they matter?

In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating history behind sugar cubes and the role they played in making tea a more accessible and enjoyable beverage for everyone. From the high cost of sugar in the 1700s to the large sugar bowls of the Victorian era, let’s dive into the story of the sugar cube.

The humble cup of tea

“Hell, it is well known, has no fury like a woman who wants her tea and can’t get it.” ― P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves! 

Image if … your favourite thing, your most treasured beverage, your daily lifeblood, was beyond reach. And no, I am not talking about coffee. It is tea, that has ruled the world since the 1700s!

Back then the high cost of both tea and sugar meant our most popular beverage was once well out of reach of the common man. Luckily for us, tea has become markedly less expensive since arriving in England in the early 1700s. For example, the price dropped from 614 pence per pound to 54 pence per pound by 1850. Thank goodness! Tea had suddenly become more affordable.  

At this time the average Briton would have sacrificed 15 per cent of their income so as not to go without tea and sugar! 

Fun Fact: Tea actually aided the industrial revolution in Britain; tea sweetened with sugar meant workers had more energy with less effort and could put in longer hours! 

It is fascinating how the humble cup of tea became accessible to everyday people and you can read a great history about that here (and while you’re there check out their amazing selection of teas!) 

Now that have your affordable steaming cuppa in front of you, imagine that you are transported back in time to the Victorian era, dressed in those gorgeous massive hooped skirts, sipping your tea and the maid brings in a massive sugar bowl … 

So, why were sugar bowls so insanely large? It’s not only because sugar was so well-liked, or because tea and sugar always went together “like peas and carrots” to quote Forest Gump. To find out why we need to look at how sugar was actually sold. 

Fun fact: Due to the high taxes imposed upon it, tea was routinely smuggled! 

The butler did it

Welcome the “sugar loaf”, consisting of hard-packed sugar crystals which needed to be prised off or nipped using a scissor-like gadget, called what else but a pair of sugar nips! In the great houses of England, this job was performed by the butler. 

The resulting jagged fragments were nothing like the regular cube sugar we know today. They were irregular in size and shape were transferred to the teacup using a pair of sugar tongs. These uneven pieces did not pack well into a small bowl, there being more empty space in the bowl than sugar! And that is why Victorian sugar bowls were very large. 

Fun fact: Tea is also slang for gossip. So go out there and have some … “tea”.  

As the curator of Elegant Vintage Hire, I just adore antique shops you can expect to find some fine examples of this Victoriana in the Elegant Vintage Hire collection. Fill them with sugar cubes if you wish, or fill with sugar for a crowd, as part of our Tea Station package.


We at Elegant Vintage Hire are thrilled to be partnered with Monkey Business Catering! Contact us at catering@mkbusiness.com.au for all catering requirements and/or standalone hire. 

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