Review: “Sugar & Spice”

Kimi Ceridon

Jon Stobart. Sugar & Spice: Grocers and Groceries in Provincial England, 1650-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012. 304 pp.

Jon Stobart persuasively shows that daily purchasing habits, procurement techniques, and modern retailing practices date as far back as long seventeenth century in Sugar & Spice: Grocers and Groceries in Provincial England. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, he examines systems of flexible procurement and selling practices that led to adaptive retailing techniques for acquiring and selling newly available products such as spices, sugar, tea, coffee, and tobacco. Widespread availability meant these new goods were enjoyed not only by the gentry and elite: the middling and lower classes could purchase these specialty items at a variety of shopkeepers, such as apothecaries, drapers and metalsmiths. Sugar & Spice shows that by developing a complex supply network and by cultivating their personalized selling practices, grocers differentiated themselves from other retailers to become the most trusted sellers of these items. Through the examination of particular grocers’ sales records and the purchasing habits of corresponding consumers, Stobart takes a localized view to discuss the everyday consumption habits of individuals. By focusing on the practices of individuals within global trade, Stobart effectively reminds us the global is constituted and influenced by individual consumers and sellers.

Stobart uses a social history approach to examine individuals within the global system. He draws on geographical trends, descriptions, and illustrations of selling spaces, advertising and handbill materials, estate inventories, tax accounts, store receipts, grocer credit records and correspondences, and recipe books to examine day-to-day shopping interactions. Unlike Mui and Mui who, in Shops and Shopkeepers of Eighteenth-Century England, argue new products suddenly revolutionized retailing, Stobart pieces together a more nuanced picture in which shopkeepers used customized and flexible techniques to hone their trade over time.

Sellers and consumers cultivated relationships through trust, quality, authenticity, and personal reputation. Advertising media and trade-cards used provenance and imagery to further enforce these qualities. Such imagery from the eighteenth century endures in contemporary tea packaging through graphics of pagodas and Chinese figures. To establish trust, grocers created welcoming environments, with parlors for polite socialization and displays of goods for ready inspection.

Unlike historian Jan de Vries’s market-based economic perspective in The Industrious Revolution, Stobart zooms in and examines habits of grocers and households. He argues that treating eighteenth-century purchasing behaviors as driven by novelty and imitation results in a caricature of the consumer as a mindless, homogeneous group with no agency. He dismisses this caricature by creating a portrait of the consumer as a person making daily consumptive decisions based on his or her individual needs, desires, and ability to define identity. As such, Stobart treats consumers and grocers as individuals and recognizes the importance of individual actions in building a global economy. Stobart does not dismiss the notions of novelty and imitation but rather argues they are only part of more complex motivations behind consumer behavior.

Stobart uses store records and advertising to support the assertion that individuals made grocery-shopping decisions based on day-to-day circumstances rather than due to a constant pursuit of novelty and imitation. Sometimes and for some individuals, this meant habitual purchasing. For others, purchases were made in response to the state of household supplies. Yet others made erratic and often chaotic purchases likely based on instantaneous needs. People did not purchase groceries on a whim, swayed by fashion. Rather, most consumers visited their grocer with intent, planning purchases prior to shopping. Grocery shopping emerged as a process of addressing needs, comfort, individual preference, economy, and availability rather than as a process for creating and cultivating market distinction.

Stobart recognizes that the novelty of new groceries (tea, for example) eventually wore off, and new consumer patterns and habits emerged to maintain the demand. From a close examination of credit records, he shows that lower-class customers regularly purchased lower grades of tea and infrequently purchased higher grades of tea, indicating not purchasing patterns driven by imitation but rather purchases expressing preference, affordability, and occasion. The most telling piece of evidence Stobart discusses is an overseer’s accounts of the St. John’s workhouse. Here supposed luxuries such as treacle, tea, and tobacco are purchased for inmates. Since most inmates were not in the position to imitate the elite, purchases indicate these goods were part of ordinary day-to-day life and offered as comforts.

While Stobart demonstrates grocers and consumers exerted agency in defining their trade and consumption according to individual preferences, he does so with evidence from small geographic areas of England. He draws conclusions from evidence that is disparate in both time and location. For example, he compares the purchasing habits of one grocer in the early eighteenth century to those of a grocer in the late eighteenth century to show two grocers acting according to needs specific to a time and location. Such limited comparisons could constitute either a trend or an anomaly.

The same may be said of establishing temporal and spatial conclusions about consumption based on the limited availability of recipe books and estate inventories. The close examination of print advertising and the credit accounts of multiple grocers provides cohesion in the narrative, but it is unclear how larger socioeconomic forces exerted pressure on the behaviors of grocers and consumers. In this sense, Stobart struggles to balance the local perspective with the global perspectives. An analysis encompassing all of England may not be sufficiently local to sharpen this contrast. Despite the limitations of available evidence, however, Stobart does effectively show that eighteenth-century consumers were purchasing groceries due less to trendiness and more to individual circumstances. If anything, Sugar & Spice demonstrates the need for more localized social histories that examine the roles individuals play in global trade.

Overall, Stobart provides a compelling case for treating eighteenth-century grocery purchases as driven by individual and personal choices rather than solely emulation. As a social history tracing the development of eighteenth century retailing, Sugar & Spice successfully localizes and, thus, examines eighteenth-century global trade on an individual level. While global economics indicate increasing consumption of new goods like spices, sugar, tea, coffee, and tobacco, Stobart presents a compelling case for examining the local influences of individual consumers and sellers.


Kimi Ceridon received a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy from Boston University in May 2015. She is currently employed by the Trustees as the Kitchen Program Coordinator for the Boston Public Market. She focuses on culinary arts, food policy, food access, and sustainability. Kimi also holds a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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