Spanish American War: Spectacles of Sweetness

Spectacles of Sweetness: Internalizing Empire after the Spanish American War
April Merleaux

In August 1898, mere weeks after the conclusion of the Spanish American War, people across the United States celebrated victories in Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the acquisition of Hawaii through public events and private displays. One such event in Colorado featured, among other attractions, a model “candy battleship,” a replica of the destroyed Battleship Maine. Young women dressed as nurses sold candy from the ship to the nearly 15,000 people gathered at the event. Over the next decade people continued to stage similar tableaux. For example, one candy store used actual candies to build a “large candy battleship, a replica of the Maine” for their display window. And when prominent citizens in California hosted a banquet for the new Secretary of the Navy, they decorated the tables with “candy battleships [which] floated on a blue sea of sweets, surrounded by hills of pastry.” The battleships were likely some of the many glass candy dishes modeled after the USS Maine, which were sold and displayed in homes and shops across the country. Through such events and objects U.S. Americans memorialized and celebrated the war, and in doing so revealed that they understood that sugar was one of the key spoils of victory since each of the new island possessions had the potential for vastly expanded sugar production. Indeed, sugar played a starring role in the ongoing spectacle of empire as the United States struggled to make sense of its new imperial role over the next decades.

Drawing on both material culture studies and commodity studies methodologies, this paper focuses on consumption of sugar and candy, along with the glass and tableware produced to serve and display them in the early twentieth century. I argue that by displaying and tasting sugar and candy, people in the United States understood the victories during the war in part through the visual and visceral experiences of sweetness. Sugar bowls and tongs, candy dishes, and lavish candy displays were organized around a cultural logic that categorized consumers according to their degree of civilization. Visual display of the objects used to produce and consume sugar registered the racialized relations of power in the imperial context. At the broadest level, this paper argues that quotidian experiences with sugar facilitated broader, national narratives about political economy, narratives which had power to shape material outcomes within the United States and abroad. Indeed, the same logic at work in organizing the imaginative spaces of consumption was at work in organizing the production and flow of commodities in a global capitalist geography.

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3 Responses to “Spanish American War: Spectacles of Sweetness”
  1. David Brody says:

    The most recent issue of the American Quarterly focuses on sound. Expanding the field to include the history of the senses has enriched our interdisciplinary discipline. We now try and understand the past, and the present, through experiences that involve taste, touch, sight, and smell. Merleaux’s provocative work on sugar and empire sheds light on this new approach. She convincingly argues that the ritual and discourse about sugar helps us understand “social hierarchies” and “racial difference” in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.

    One aspect of sugar that she discusses extensively is the ritual around sugar consumption and how the manner in which sugar was eaten signified race, class, and civilization. I would like to know of other instances where the consumption of food led to larger conversations and debates about empire.

  2. April Merleaux says:

    Thanks David for getting the conversation started. I look forward to reading more. In addition to the new issue of American Quarterly on sound, I’d also mention that the most recent issue of Radical History Review focuses on food and taste.

  3. Marta Zarzycka says:

    Thank you April for this inspiring article. For more links between gender, race, class and sensorial experience transgressing the primacy of vision, some feminist literature might be useful. See for instance Vivan Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts or Laura Marks Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media

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