A History of the Use of Molasses vs. Sugar

Molasses Cookies Made with Aunt Lil's Recipe

Molasses Cookies Made with Aunt Lil's Recipe

This blog was going to be about the molasses cookies I made last week. Great cookies made from Aunt Lilly’s recipe. And as I was adding the photos I realized, whoops! I have already blogged about Aunt Lilly’s Molasses Cookie recipe in my second blog back in early June. So, I now have created a nice index for myself so I don’t do this again.

But unlike in my first blog I did research on the history of molasses vs sugar in America, so I thought I’d write about that here.

While I was not able to find much on the history of molasses cookies, I did find quite a bit of information on the internet- much of it wrong – about the history of molasses as a sweetener in America. There is both a good and a bad side to the internet for historical research. You can find great historical information, but it is oh so easy for sloppy research to be passed on over and over again as if its the gospel truth. And that’s what I found with molasses.

According to what you read on the Internet, sugar was very expensive in Colonial America because it was imported. As a consequence few people used it in cooking. Most used molasses. And that this continued up until the 1880s according to Internet sources and after World War I when the price of sugar finally dropped we Americans switched from molasses to sugar as our primary sweetener. These websites have no foot notes, but I believe the source of all the information is the product site for Grandma’s Molasses (which by the way I use for cooking). I’m afraid their company web copy is riddled with misinformation. Following is what I believe to be a more accurate version of the use of molasses vs sugar in America with a few of my sources and thoughts on the subject.

18th-Century Sugar Cones with Sugar Nippers from James Townsend & Sons

18th-Century Sugar Cones with Sugar Nippers from James Townsend & Sons

My favorite culinary history newsletter, Past Masters News (Fall, 2002), has an article entitled “Sugar.” In it the author cites many period journals, newspapers, inventories, and diaries to prove that in the 18th century sugar was often bought in very large quantities by all classes of people and that the prices were not high. For instance from 1770 – 1772 a part-time farmer and school teacher recorded in his diary purchases of sugar usually in amounts of twelve pounds at a time!

The second point I’d like to make is that anyone needs to just glance through my Victorian era cookbooks at the dessert recipes to note that the overwhelming majority call for sugar – often large quantities – rather than molasses. The few that call for molasses are gingerbread, Indian pudding, spice cookies, molasses cookies and the like. I defy anyone to try and make these recipes and substitute molasses for the sugar and get any kind of result. What nonsense! If Americans truly used molasses as their main sweetener why weren’t the recipes in our cookbooks using molasses?

If you want to see Aunt Lillian’s Molasses Cookie recipe you can go to it here. It’s good, even the second time around, but both times still didn’t have a big punch of molasses taste.

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