What is That?

When in the Visitor’s Center at Allaire State Park, you may notice in the Row House exhibit’s downstairs kitchen what looks something like a set of circular pliers with a spring geared handle sitting on the table. What you see is a pair of sugar nippers, which were a common household tool until roughly the 1890’s. As you may guess from their name, these large pincer tools were used in the consumption of sugar. Before the 1890’s, sugar was produced for mass consumption in a solid conical, crystalized form called a sugarloaf which was very different from the granular form we’re familiar with today. This occurred because raw sugar was often sent to refinement factories back in Europe (mostly Britain as they controlled much of the sugar trade from the early 1600’s from the West Indies) and then consolidated into crystal cones instead of granular form as it travelled more safely in cones on the high seas. Also, both the humid air of the Caribbean which could not support the refinement methods of the time and the demand of English companies to refine sugar in Europe for personal profit all led to the evolution of sugar loaves.
Due to the form in which the sugar was refined and packaged for consumption, pairs of sugar nippers were common in kitchens and tea rooms throughout the world wherever sugar was enjoyed. When consumers brought home a sugarloaf, the nippers were used to break off chunks of the cone which could be added as a sweetener to drinks or ground down to fine grains with a mortar and pestle to be used in baking. As was common in previous centuries, the quality and design of household tools including sugar nippers were indicative of a family’s wealth and status. As a result, many pairs of nippers had elegant filings on the handles and joint of the tool, while other pairs were more humble and robust for a working family’s use. Sometimes, as in the case of the wealthy, their sugar loaves were often stored in boxes designed to keep moisture out as much as possible. In it was also a pair of crank powered nippers and collecting screen at the bottom of the box to cut and collect their sugar in a cleaner and safer process (sometimes the sharp cleavers or spring lever on nippers could cause injury). The pair which we have in the Row House exhibit are more utilitarian sugar nippers which would have been used by a village family. Simple tools such as these demonstrate everyday needs in the 19th century as well as a glimpse of daily life at the Howell Iron Works.

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