How Sugar Loaf Mound Got Its Name
Some of the most interesting projects get their start when you’re looking for something else entirely. I recently learned about the history of sugar making while trying to locate historic images of Sugar Loaf Mound, right next to Interstate 55 in south St. Louis. It’s the only existing Native American mound within St. Louis’s city limits.
An online search turned up a bunch of Sugar Loaf mounds in various locations: Vincennes, Indiana; Del Rio, Texas; Winona, Minnesota; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Cleburne County, Arkansas; and several examples in Alaska. I also discovered that outside of the United States, the name Sugar Loaf is used for peaks, as in Nova Scotia, Canada; County Wicklow, Ireland; Christchurch, New Zealand; Okinawa, Japan; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Personally I don’t associate regular kitchen sugar with a peaklike shape. So how did the name Sugar Loaf become such a common one for hills and cliffs?
It turns out that what we think of as sugar—free-flowing, granulated, and snow white—wasn’t widely used until after the Civil War. Before that, the sugar-making process separated the molasses from the sugar by packing the boiled sugar cane into molds, which were usually made of terra cotta or wood. Wider at the base than the tip, the molds were packed with sugar and then turned tip down into a container. Excess molasses drained out through the bottom. A few days later, brown sugar concentrated in the tip, which was broken off and added to another batch for further refining. The stubby cone, or loaf, was wrapped in paper and sold.
Home cooks had to pry or saw off a lump of the loaf—sometimes by using special tools called sugar nippers—and pound or grate the lump before they could use it in their recipes. No wonder so many older recipes call for sifting sugar before using it!
As Lel Gretton, author of the website Old and Interesting, notes, “The cone-shaped sugar loaf was such a common sight until the later 19th century that everyone knew what it looked like. Mountains and hats were named after it.”
So when you measure out sugar for your holiday baking, take a moment to appreciate the convenience of being able to scoop or pour the amount you need without a lot of chopping, pounding, grating, and sifting. Also consider those early European immigrants to St. Louis who saw a mound on the landscape—and were reminded of sugar.
—Emily Jaycox, Head Librarian