Five Senses in the Georgian Era: A Sugar Trip
Sugar is one of the most widely consumed ingredients in the modern-day Western diet. Recent scientific and dietary research has indicated that the overconsumption of sugar has led to a wide array of health problems, and can be even more addictive than cocaine. It is easy to forget what a luxury sugar once was; a symbol of opulence, wealth, and economy, yet also a driving force behind hundreds of years of intercontinental human trafficking. What did sugar mean to people of the Georgian era, when it was still a rare and unusual commodity? This proposed exhibition at the Fairfax House in York, UK seeks to engage visitors in a multi-sensory trip through the world of sugar in the eighteenth century.
Keeping in mind Fairfax House’s upcoming exhibit: “Made in York: Enlightening the Georgian City,” this exhibition aims to explore York’s paramount role in creating an industry of confectionary luxuries and the redefinition of its stake in the slave-driven industries of the Americas. Although the history of chocolate in the context of York has been widely explored, less frequently investigated are the early years of the production of sweets in the city of York. We aim to promote this significant part of York’s heritage and provoke a deeper curiosity about the interrelationship between micro-histories, such as the relationship with York sweets and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Fairfax House’s existing exhibition strategy is focused on creative and innovative interpretation, and visitor engagement through oral history, told through stories from committed and knowledgeable volunteers. Keeping this in mind, we aim to honor this philosophy in our proposal. As Fairfax House aims to promote the wider history of the Fairfax family, as well as the story of the house itself, through events such as “Silver Screen Cinema,” recalling the years the building operated as a cinema, this exhibit will illustrate the world of sugar through a multi-faceted experience, in which visitors are able to immerse themselves into the experience of sugar consumption in the long eighteenth century.
Women were seldom at the forefront of booming new economies in the Georgian era; however, in 1725 Quaker Mary Tuke opened a grocery store on Walmgate in York. As well as stocking her shop with “exotic consumables” such as tea, spices, and tobacco, she also began selling chocolate, sourced from Bristol, which was made into cakes and boiled with milk or water and consumed at breakfast by the elite. It was her small and humble shop which blossomed into the famous Rowntree Empire, catapulting York into the spotlight as the British epicentre for chocolate and confectionary goods. Mary’s nephew, William worked as her apprentice for many years, before taking over the business in 1752, when he began producing various confections such as sugared sweets, candied peels, and marmalade. By 1785, a large portion of their trade was in cocoa and chocolate and the shop moved to Castlegate, very close in proximity to the Fairfax House. It is possible that the Fairfax’s purchased goods from Tukes’ Grocery.
In 1767, Robert Berry opened a shop near Bootham Bar which sold lozenges, lemon and orange candied peel and other confectionary sweets. He became partners with William Bayldon, and formed the company Bayldon and Berry Confectionery. This company later was taken over by Joseph Terry and became known as Terry’s of York.
The confectionery companies of York during the Georgian era would have produced and sold sweets such as, boiled sweets, liquorice, sugared fruit peel and Marzipan sweets. Marzipan sweets were a popular sugary treat, during the Georgian period in Britain. Marzipan is made from ground almonds, sugar and in most cases rose water. These were a very common choice of sweet as sugar was imported from the Americas, as they were a relatively easy recipe and not unaffordable to the townspeople. Marzipan sweets were often served at the end of a meal, or as a sweet treat. These sweets would have also represented a certain amount of creativity and imagination, as the marzipan was regularly sculpted into animals, people, castles or any other achievable shape. After their creation, these marzipan sweets were put on display as a centrepiece to a diner party, or on a desert table.
Through the exhibition visitors will experience the five senses, sound, smell, touch, taste and sight. The experience of sound will include background noise from ships, dinner parties and sweet production. The senses of smell, touch, taste and sight will be engaged through the interaction with sweets, sugar, lighting and artificial smells.
This exhibit will take visitors on a journey through the history of Fairfax House’s association with sugar. Visitors will begin the tour by entering the dining room to view the sugar sculpture on display. There will be a room steward who will provide guests with a brief summary of the exhibition and the history behind the sugar sculpture. Guests will be informed that many Georgian aristocrats used sugar sculptures as a sign of wealth. In the case of Viscount Fairfax, he would occasionally commission William Baker to create spectacular sugar centrepieces (Brown 1989, 20). On one occasion, Fairfax spent £15 15s.0d on five large pyramids of wet and dry sweetmeats and other things for two tables for a combined house warming and the Viscount’s birthday party for over 200 guests in April 1763 (Brown 1989, 20). To create an atmosphere of a Georgian House and party, the room will be lit by candlelight and softly played music.
From the dining room, visitors will enter the hallway where they will hear the faint sounds of a creaking ship, rattling chains and groans of the slaves. The hallway will also have lighting displays, which will look like portholes and dim lighting of the inside of a ship. The sound and lighting effects will hopefully create an atmosphere of a ship and shine a light on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade on sugar industry. Visitors will be able to read about the sugar industry from standing panels placed along the hallway presenting information about the connections between York and the Caribbean sugar industry. To further illustrate the sugar connection, there will be the different stages of sugar on display, such as raw sugar cane, which the visitors will be able to touch and taste, unrefined sugar and refined sugar.
Visitors will be guided from the hallway into the kitchen where they can watch volunteers dressed in servant costumes making traditional Georgian sweets. Volunteers will give an oral history of the role of sweets in York and the kinds of sweets popular with the Fairfax’s. Visitors will learn that Anne Baker, wife of William Baker commissioned to make the sugar sculptures, provided sweets from her shop on Petergate to Fairfax House (Brown 1989, 20). Volunteers will recreate the sweets provided by the shop: glazed macarons sugar candy, Morrells and Truffles. While the volunteers are making sweets, there will be sounds of a confectioner’s shop and we will use an infuser to give the room a distinct smell of a confectionary shop. This can make visitors feel that they are not only in a Georgian Kitchen but they have also stepped into a Georgian confectionary shop. Once the sweets are made, visitors will have the opportunity to participate through the decoration of the sweets to have a tactile experience. Through the shaping of marzipan, the decorating of various sweets, visitors will have the opportunity to use touch as a means of engaging with the exhibition.
To prevent congestion, once visitors have decorated their sweets they will be guided to the drawing room to eat them and to taste a variety of other sweets. In a similar manner to the Dining Room, the Drawing Room will be set up with ambient lighting, flickering candles, sounds of Georgian entertainment will be playing in the background for guests to listen, such as music, guests talking, and clinking glasses. There will be room stewards within this room who will tell the history behind Georgian parties, and describe what a party would be like in Fairfax House, such as the Viscount’s birthday party with 200 guests in the Drawing Room. The lighting, sound effects, and history of Georgian parties will hopefully give the visitors a sensation of being at a Georgian party.
Authors: Kirsty Wilson, Pardis Zahedi, Dion Rice, Jennifer Cooke & Greg Judges.
Brown, P (1989), Fairfax House, York: an illustrated history and a guide. York: York Civic Trust.
List of Figures
Figure 1: Ardelie, S. (2017). Hot Chocolate in the 18th Century. [online] Making History Tart & Titillating. Available at: https://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/hot-chocolate-in-the-18th-century/ [Accessed 14 Feb. 2017].
Figure 2: Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: https://uk.pinterest.com/source/fineartamerica.com/ [Accessed 14 Feb. 2017].
Figure 3: Pinterest. (2017). citrus. [online] Available at: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/409686897333582382/ [Accessed 14 Feb. 2017].