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The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790–2015

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This paper analyzes “production stories,” a genre of information literature and media responsible for teaching children how everyday things are made. As nineteenth-century families increasingly consumed tropical commodities produced by slave labor, including sugar, tea, coffee, rum, and tobacco, the production story developed in Britain and the United States as a way to explain to children where everyday household goods originate, making global trade networks visible in the home. These “production stories” developed strategies for raising or eliding ethical questions posed by who makes things, under what conditions, and for whom. Focusing on stories of sugar production, I find that production stories reveal surprising details about technical processes for making things, but conceal the human cost of production. They also end with consumption, when children use the products, symbolically affirming the conditions under which they were made. Drawing on scholarship from the history of technology and the history of the Atlantic slave trade, I contend that problematic representations of manufacturing processes feed into and support whitewashed histories for children. I conclude by analyzing contemporary picturebooks that resist certain genre patterns and encourage positive identification with enslaved black characters, who like child readers, are at once makers, readers, and consumers.

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  1. Thanks to Irvin Hunt, Michelle Martinez, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Sara L. Schwebel, and journal readers for suggestions on drafts.

  2. “Production story” is my own term. I am not aware of other scholarship theorizing this genre.

  3. Online pages about sugar production also ignore slavery, see Sugar Knowledge International, an industry’s educational outreach, c.f. Liverpool’s International Slavery, which tracks the concurrent rise of sugar plantations and slavery.

  4. In post-slavery accounts, the worker who chews sugar while harvesting masks the grueling agricultural labor required for sugar planting and harvesting. This same figure, depicted with brown skin, appears on the dustjacket for Maud and Miska Petersham’s The Story Book of Foods from the Field (1936), next to other children who eat grain (see my Omeka resource: Hoiem, 2020, “Sugar”).

  5. For the reasons explained by Martha J. Cutter, I use the term “the enslaved” or “enslaved persons” where possible to recognize that subjugation is “a process,” not an “unchanging fact.” I use “slave” where the term is necessary to acknowledge the various othering discourses of the antebellum period and modes of resistance to those discourses. Some authors, Cutter argues, used the term “slave” in order “to challenge its explicit denial of personhood and agency” (2017, p. xvii-xviii).

  6. Catherine Sheldrick Ross examines two metaphors for reading used by late-nineteenth-century librarians, but pervasive in the previous century: “reading is a ladder” and “reading is eating” (1987, p. 147).

  7. Drawing on readers’ analysis, Thomas, Reese, and Horning (2016) explore what is left out of A Fine Dessert. They call attention to genre imperatives (the required happy ending for children’s literature) discourage representation of dark chapters in American history.

  8. Reproduced in Sugar Changed the World (Aronson & Budhos, 2010, pp. 46–47), The History of a Pound of Sugar was originally published both separately and in the series Rhymes and Pictures about Bread, Tea, Sugar, Coals, Cotton, Gold (1861-63).

  9. For analysis of British West Indies travel literature on sugar, see Sandiford, 2000; Sheller, 2003, pp. 36-70.

  10. Documenting the race and gender dimensions of moralized consumption in abolitionist literature, scholars highlight the unique place of sugar and cotton as commodities intimately connected with women’s bodies. See Tompkins, 2012; Sheller, 2003, pp. 71-104; Sheller, 2011; Sussman, 2000.

  11. Clara Hollos challenges the production narrative in a similar way as Sharpe, by personalizing workers, giving names, expertise, immigrant cultures, genders, education, and aspirations (Mickenberg, 2005, p. 197).

  12. For reader responses, I rely on accounts given of group conversations among local teachers and community members about Tobe from an April 2017 book club hosted at UNC Charlotte (Stokes, 2018, p. 53-59).

  13. Readers may recall “jars of clay” from the Bible, when Paul compares persecuted early Christians to “earthen vessels” strengthened by God: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians, 4:7–9, New King James Version).

  14. Dianne Johnson’s essay on Dave the Potter foregrounds the role of Darion McCloud in producing a cooperative artistic rendering of David Drake, making for a provocative contrast with the fraught labor context for Tobe (Chaney, 2018).


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Correspondence to Elizabeth Massa Hoiem.

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Elizabeth Massa Hoiem is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Information Sciences. Her current book project, The Education of Things: Mechanical Literacy in British Children’s Literature, 17601860 (supported by an NEH fellowship) uses children’s literature, toys, automata, and textbooks to investigate the history of class politics in experiential education. Her recent articles address the politics of translating children’s Robinsonades after the French Revolution, 1830s Radical texts written for child workers, and 19th C nonfiction.

Handling EIC name: Annette Wannamaker, Ph.D

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Hoiem, E.M. The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790–2015. Child Lit Educ 52, 162–182 (2021).

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