In the 1700s, Europeans bought their sugar in brown loafs that had to be hacked, pounded and smashed into smaller pieces.
“People just accepted that in order to use sugar, you had to go through all this physical trouble,” says Elizabeth Abbott, the author of Sugar: A Bittersweet History. “The big surprise is that there wasn’t a sugar cube invented much earlier.”
By the 1800s, stores sold sugar already broken up into random-size pieces. But these chunks could be inconvenient at teatime. They often had to dunked doughnut-style, because they wouldn’t fit in the cup. When the tea was finished, you were left with a sticky clump to dry out for future use.
Tolstoy described the process in a short story: “Stepanich drank his glass, turned it upside down and set the leftover bit of sugar on it.”
In the 1840s, progress was made when Juliana Rad, who was married to the head of a sugar refinery in Moravia, cut a finger while chopping sugar. She complained to her husband, perhaps while waving her bandaged hand: why not make units of sugar that would come perfectly sized for one cup of tea? Jakub Krystof Rad’s innovation was to use a press to make the cubes, and he soon presented a box of them to his wife. He patented this specialised press in 1843.
The Rads might well be the Pierre and Marie Curie of beverage-sweetening, but it took decades before the sugar cube became widespread in Europe. A German named Eugen Langen reinvented the cube for the factory of the 1870s — the molten sugar was spun in a centrifuge and then sawed into small pieces. In the late 1800s, “processed food and refined food all became in vogue,” Abbott says.
Victorians, Abbott notes, loved how clean and neat — how manufactured — the sugar cube was. “It’s only today that we’re trying to make everything look homemade, natural,” she adds. “The pendulum is swinging back again.”