Sugar was much more expensive in colonial America than it is today. Because of its high cost, sugar was not added to chocolate by chocolate makers of the 1700s. Instead, consumers would add a small amount of sugar to their drinking chocolate while it was being prepared. Individuals would have purchased their sugar in the form of a cone shaped loaf. When they were ready to use it, a portion would be broken off with sharp tongs called sugar nippers and then ground down in a mortar and pestle or melted in a hot beverage. Visitors to Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop often ask about our colonial style sugar cone. Sugar cones were the final product of the time and labor intensive process of refining sugar that remained largely the same from the 14th to the mid 19th centuries.
Sugar grows in the form of sugar cane, a large grass that can take up to a full year to reach maturity. Almost all of the sugar cane that was imported into the colonies was grown on plantations in the Caribbean. Once the canes were harvested and stripped of leaves, they were brought to mills where they were pressed between large grinding stones to extract the juice from the plant.
The cane juice was transported to a boiling house, where it was boiled down in a series of copper vessels. As the juice boiled, it would thicken, and impurities would rise to the surface where they could be removed. When the liquid had reached the proper consistency, it was cooled and poured into barrels with small holes in the bottom. These barrels were stored in a curing house for several weeks while the molasses drained away, leaving behind raw sugar that would be packed and shipped to refineries.
Sugar refineries were located throughout the northeastern colonies. In Boston, Ezechiel Cheever operated a refinery between 1721 and 1766. When raw sugar was received by the refinery, it was boiled again to remove any remaining impurities. Once cooled, the sugar was packed into cone shaped molds with a small hole at the tip. In the mold, the sugar was washed with a concentrated sugar solution, which was poured through the sugar to capture the remaining dark molasses residue and allow it drain out through the hole at the bottom of the mold.
Once washed, the sugar loaves were removed from their molds, heated in stove rooms to dry them completely, and sanded to remove discoloration, leaving the cones with rounded tips. The finished sugar cones were wrapped in an iconic blue paper to make the sugar appear whiter to consumers and were shipped from refineries to local merchants to be sold and enjoyed in sweetened food and drinks throughout the colonies.