Cooking equipment to suit almost every task and pocketbook was available in 18th- and early 19th-century Virginia. Although deceptively simple, in the hands of experienced cooks these cast-iron pots, copper stew pans and basic utensils were able to produce very sophisticated meals that were the equal of any prepared by today’s celebrity chefs. Most of this equipment was intended for use over an open fire, and the long-handled predecessors of modern pots, pans and utensils are easily recognizable. But tools such as sugar nippers are unknown today. Sugar nippers were used like scissors to cut small pieces of white refined sugar from the cones in which it was sold. These small pieces were then put into the sugar bowls used when serving tea, or the sugar was ground with a mortar and pestle into the granulated form with which we’re more familiar today.
In general, the basic kitchen equipment of the 18th century was made in a small number of shapes. Cast-iron pots were round, with a narrower neck, and kettles were straight-sided, becoming wider at the top than at the bottom. Gridirons, used for broiling meats, were usually square and rested on four feet, although the circular version, on which the meat could be rotated, was also common. Skillets had long handles to use in the open hearth and three small feet – very different from today’s skillets – but Dutch ovens (also called “bake kettles” in the 18th century) have survived virtually unchanged in form from three centuries ago.
Sugar nippers especially illustrate how 18th-century consumers could choose from a variety of models for their kitchen equipment. English tool catalogues – a late 18th-century innovation on the part of manufacturers and distributors – illustrated a wide variety of equipment that could be purchased by a local storekeeper in Virginia, who would then resell it in his own store. Many of these tools, including sugar nippers, were available at a range of different price points. Although the blades and handles were for the most part the same, what caused the difference in price was the level of decoration on the joint: the point where the two parts of the sugar nippers came together. The least expensive sugar nippers had little or no filing on the joint; the most expensive were elaborately finished with decorative filing. If you were buying sugar nippers for use in the kitchen, where no guest would ever go, then a plain pair of sugar nippers might be what was needed. But if you wanted to make a statement about your family’s wealth and status, then an elaborately decorated pair would certainly show your guests that you had money to spend on what was basically a very utilitarian item.
Reproduction sugar nippers will be part of an exhibit at the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (replacing the Yorktown Victory Center in late 2016), and museum visitors will be able to examine the object closely. In addition, there will be a case devoted to kitchen equipment used in the 18th century, including a cast-iron pot, a peel, a copper tea kettle (for hot water), a trammel and skewers. Then, as now, having fashionable and expensive kitchen equipment said something about you and your status in the community!