Teaching guide
Covered sugar bowl

Covered sugar bowl, c. 1745  will be useful in the study of:

  • International systems of trade in the eighteenth century
  • Slavery in the United States
  • Slavery in the western world
  • The Triangle Trade
  • American food traditions

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:       

  • Discuss the covered sugar bowl as a primary document that links to its specific historical context during the mid-eighteenth century
  • Understand the economic systems that led to the exploitation of enslaved labor
  • Identify and elaborate on certain key issues related to work, exchange, and technology, prompted by an example of American art
Covered sugar bowl, c. 1745, silver, 11.5 x 9.1 cm (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

Covered sugar bowl, c. 1745, silver, 11.5 x 9.1 cm (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

1. Look closely at the bowl

Look closely at the Covered sugar bowl, c. 1745  (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)

Questions to ask:

  • Describe the bowl, including its surface appearance, form, and decoration.
  • How is this bowl similar to other types of bowls you have seen? How is it different?
  • How does the way the bowl looks convey that it is a status object?

2. Watch the video

The video “The triangle trade and the colonial table, sugar, tea, and slavery” is only five and a half minutes long. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of the sugar bowl are provided to support the video.

3. Read about the sugar bowl and its historical context

“White gold”

Sugarcane comes from Southeast Asia, but its cultivation spread to India and the Middle East by the 8th century. It then moved into Europe, and the Portuguese began to grow it in their island colonies of Madeira and the Azores. Columbus brought sugarcane to Hispaniola on his second voyage in 1493, and the Portuguese would later expand their sugar production to their colony of Brazil. Other warm, fertile areas of the Americas were also cultivated with sugarcane.

Sugarcane is a labor-intensive plant to grow, harvest, and process into refined sugar and sugar by-products. This made it an expensive luxury item. Humans have always enjoyed and sought out sweet foods, and this concentrated sweetness was highly desired for the tables of the wealthy. The high price that sugar and its by-products (especially rum) commanded motivated Europeans to start large sugar plantations in a bid to become wealthy (or wealthier).

Enslaved labor

The difficult processes of sugar cultivation, harvest, and processing combined with the availability of Africans who had been abducted and enslaved, and colonial governments and individuals being comfortable with enslaving people, led to a large increase in enslaved African populations in the Americas. While enslaved labor was not a necessity for profitable production of sugar, it allowed the plantation owners to greatly increase their profits.  Millions of people, mostly West Africans, were abducted, brought to the Americas, and forced to labor on the plantations. The work was so arduous that the average working life of an enslaved person on one of these plantations was only 7 years.

A global trade

Enslaved people and the sugar they were forced to produce were enmeshed in a global trade network that exchanged humans, sugar, rum, spices, and many other goods in a system referred to as the Triangle Trade, as the routes of exchange formed a triangle between Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Many people in all three places  profited from the trade network, while at the same time either ignoring or accepting its foundation on the forced labor of enslaved people. The global economy that the sugar bowl was a part of had begun in the 1500s, spurred in part by European “discovery” and colonization of the Americas.

On the table

The silver sugar bowl would have held the sweet “white gold” used to enhance the drinking of beverages like coffee, tea, chocolate, and punch. Tea was imported from Asia, primarily China, and was also such a luxury item that it was sometimes kept locked up so that servants wouldn’t steal it. The sugar bowl reflects the associations of tea with China, and is in fact patterned on a Chinese vessel form used for a completely different food – rice. The precious metal made to make the bowl, the luxury sugar inside it, and the costly beverages (chocolate and coffee were also expensive) it was associated with all would have been obvious to the people who would see this sugar bowl.

A fine art

Making an object like the silver sugar bowl would have required highly skilled craftsmen to complete. Workshops would have been led by a master craftsman, with journeymen and apprentices working under him. The silver was made into a sheet, which was then hammered (referred to as “raising”) into its rounded bowl shape. At intervals, the metal would need to be annealed (heated so that the metal would regain its malleability) or it would begin to split. Once finished, the silver was pickled (put in an acid bath) to remove discoloration from oxidation, and polished to a high finish.

4. Discussion questions

  1. Global trade is still a system that can rely on the exploitation of workers. What might encourage this exploitation? What might be a way to stop it? Can you think of a kind of item that exemplifies these kinds of trade networks and exploitation today the way that the silver sugar bowl does for the 18th century?
  2. The historical images in the video that show sugar production have the caption “this illustration minimizes the brutality of slavery”. Discuss why you think these illustrations didn’t show the reality of slavery. Do you think that most elites, such as the people who would have used the sugar bowl, were aware of the conditions on the plantations their sugar came from?
  3. This sugar bowl was handmade. In the 21st century, most of the objects in our world are mass produced. Do we look at handmade objects differently now than we did in the preindustrial era?

5. Research questions

  1. Artist Kara Walker’s sculpture installation, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” deals with the legacy of slavery and the sugar trade in America. Find interviews with the artist and write about the following: What imagery does she use to communicate her ideas? What aspects of slavery does she address? How does she present the legacy of slavery and sugar as being a part of modern America?
  2. The voyage imposed on enslaved Africans from Africa to the Americas is referred to as the Middle Passage. Many artists have made works about the Middle Passage, including J.M.W. Turner,  Radcliffe Bailey, Keith Morrison, Tom Feelings, Isaac Julien, and Willie Cole. Compare and contrast two works by different artists. How are they similar? How are they different?

6. Bibliography

See this object on view at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Use primary sources to learn about the slave trade

Read about the slave trade and African society

Learn more about slavery and the sugar industry

Read about the popularity of tea, coffee, and chocolate in the colonial United States

Learn more about silversmithing in the colonial period

Learn about the use of silver in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries

Watch a video about the making of a Roman silver cup

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.