Brandy S Culp, Wadsworth Atheneum
Silver Tea and Sugar Service
Sugar is a sweet part of our everyday lives but it has a bitter history.
First processed in India and the Middle East, sugar only emerged in the New World in the 15th century, the result of expanding trade between the regions. Production increased in the 16th century as Europe began importing sugar from the Americas. Despite this increase, sugar remained a rare and expensive luxury, reserved solely for the elite.
The global trade that developed around sugar between the 15th and 16th centuries was bolstered by the growing popularity in Europe of tea, coffee, chocolate and punch. Yet, objects necessary for the preparation and serving of these beverages did not exist in the west, so artisans used Eastern forms for inspiration: teapots were copied directly from Chinese forms and sugar bowls mimicked the shape of porcelain rice bowls. The use of silver for these accouterments reflects the expensive nature of sugar and the elite status of the owners.
Sugar was considered one of the three “legs” of a triangular trans-Atlantic trading system in operation from the 16th through the 19th centuries. This system carried slaves from Africa to the Americas to work the sugar plantations; sugar and molasses to the north to be traded for manufactured goods; and manufactured goods back to Africa where they were exchanged for the enslaved people so necessary in the labor-intensive sugar plantations.
Brandy Culp is the Richard Koopman Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Before joining the Atheneum she served as the curator of Historic Charleston Foundation, as the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Department of American Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and held positions at the Bard Graduate Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Ms Culp graduated from Hollins University and received her master of arts degree with an emphasis on American Decorative Arts from the Bard Graduate Center. In December 2010 she spoke to the Forum about “A Great Variety of Gold and Silver: Charleston’s Silver Trade.”