Early coffee drinkers were liable to take lumps

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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Early coffee drinkers were liable to take lumps

December 8, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Silver sugar basket made by Adam Lynn, circa 1796, was donated to the Lyceum by May and Howard Joynt and can be seen during the current exhibit through January 1995. Photo/courtesy The Lyceum Company.
Regardless of how much Alexandria changes, I am reminded as I walk around town about the consistencies of life here. Walking into Starbuck's Coffee House on the 500 block of King Street is such an experience that transcends time.

Would you have seen gentlemen and ladies sipping coffee 199 years ago at this corner? We do not have any documentation that shows a tavern or coffee house at this address. The link across time at this spot is sugar, the much maligned substance in today's world which still magically draws young and old. Rather than the little packets of granulated sugar or a substitute product supplied today for hot beverages, elite Alexandrians partaking of their tea would have served their sugar from a variety of imported ceramic or silver containers.

From 1795 to 1820, one of Alexandria's finest silversmiths worked at the corner of St. Asaph and King streets as well as a few doors to the west. Adam Lynn made a variety of silver serving pieces, such as teapots, creamers, tureens, ladles, and objects related to sugar consumption.

One of these pieces, a "sugar basket" made about 1796, lets us examine the role of sugar in society. This basket is currently on view at the Lyceum as part of a major exhibition of Alexandria silver. Guest curator Catherine B. Hollan also has authored a catalogue in conjunction with the exhibit, which has been produced by the Lyceum Company. The Lynn sugar basket was one of several Alexandria silver pieces donated to the Lyceum by May and Howard Joynt.

The basket is nearly 7 inches in length, clearly a larger size of sugar container for the table than most of us use today. Rather than hold granulated sugar we consume, this basket would have once contained irregularly-shaped "lumps." The large lumps were sliced, hammered, or nipped off of crystalline sugar "loaves." The loaves were cone-shape and produced at two sugar refineries in Alexandria. Lynn also made sugar tongs for grasping the lumps and conveying them to the cup.

Today few of us savor our morning coffee in this elegant style. But our taste for sugar in hot, bitter stimulant drinks on a daily basis has continued over the centuries. Originally sugar came to Europe about 1100 A.D. as a rare trade commodity used as a spice and medicine. As sugar was produced in European colonies the price dropped, quantities increased, and its role expanded as a food sweetener.

Sugar was paired with three bitter stimulant drinks (chocolate, coffee and tea), and sugar pastries replaced bread as the preferred hot beverage accompaniment. As Sidney Mintz writes: "The drinking of tea, coffee, or chocolate with meals, in moments of repose snatched form work, at rising, and at bedtime spread widely." As you enjoy that sweet muffin or donut with your morning coffee, think of yourself as carrying on a cultural tradition! Visit the Lyceum, 201 S. Washington Street, 703-838-4994.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist