Main Content

Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Sugar, Slavery, and the Washington China

Material and Visual Culture at the White House

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

Left: Sugar bowl owned by First Lady Martha Washington

White House Historical Association

Upon stepping into the White House China Room, visitors encounter tableware from nearly every presidential administration or first family. Tucked into one of the impressive glass display cases is a small, porcelain sugar bowl. To many viewers, the bowl may seem like an ordinary piece of White House tableware. But what if a bowl could tell a bigger story? A closer look at this artifact illuminates many layers of history that span the Atlantic World and connect international merchants, enslaved laborers, American consumers, and a prominent first family.

Looking Inside: Sugar, Slavery and Empire

An object’s purpose is integral to its story. This bowl would have been filled with refined sugar and used at mealtimes to sweeten foods and beverages. Sugar consumption dates to ancient times, but for thousands of years, it was expensive and limited to affluent consumers. The prospect of profit from sugar and other cash crops was one motivation for European colonization in the Atlantic World from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.1 Indeed, the warm, tropical climate of the Caribbean provided ideal growing conditions for sugarcane and promised a lucrative return on investment. By the seventeenth century, the French, Dutch, Portuguese, English, and Spanish had all colonized areas in the Americas, displacing Indigenous groups from the land to create plantations for sugar and other crops.

This map of the Caribbean depicts European control of colonies in 1796.

British Library

The production of sugar in the Americas was incredibly labor intensive and oftentimes very dangerous. Europeans originally attempted to employ Indigenous groups alongside free and indentured laborers, but soon turned to enslaved Africans as an inexpensive, bountiful, and expendable workforce.2 From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, approximately 12.5 million Africans were forcibly captured and sold into bondage against their will to fuel the Transatlantic Slave Trade.3 The dangerous and inhumane voyage from the west coast of Africa to the Americas, often called the Middle Passage, led to the deaths of between ten and twenty percent of enslaved men, women and children from disease, malnutrition, and other causes.4

John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

These illustrations depict the harsh work conditions enslaved laborers faced while harvesting and refining sugar on Caribbean plantations.

John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

Enslaved laborers taken to work on sugar rich Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Saint-Domingue, Cuba, and Barbados toiled on plantations with extremely high mortality rates. Countless individuals died from tropical diseases, unsanitary living conditions, and sugar mill injuries. Enslaved individuals labored year-round, working in the fields during the planting and harvesting seasons and later in mills, boiling houses, and distilleries to create refined sugar, rum, and molasses for sale in Europe and its colonies.5 This exchange of goods, enslaved laborers, and profits between Africa, Europe, and the Americas is more commonly known as the Triangular Trade.

This 1802 advertisement in the Alexandria Gazette shows sugar, molasses, and other slave-made products for sale near Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress

These sugar products, made by enslaved people, became an essential part of colonial life. Sugar was not only a culinary preference; it also came to represent social status, taste, and worldliness.6 Thanks to increased production of sugar, it was no longer exclusive to the elite—average consumers could buy it at the market and add it to their morning tea or coffee, providing a taste of refinement each day. As a result, sugar bowls became a staple on Early American dining tables as part of a larger trend among consumers that connected everyday Americans to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The bowl itself also has a more personal history that is revealed by moving our analysis from the object’s contents to its design.

Looking Outside: Design, Identity, and the Washington Family

This sugar bowl was part of a set of porcelain gifted to First Lady Martha Washington from Dutch merchant Andreas van Braam Houckgeest in 1796.7 Van Braam represented the Dutch East India Company in China in the 1790s; he later moved to the United States in 1795 and brought many Chinese decorative and fine arts pieces with him, including “A Box of China for Lady Washington.”8

For wealthy consumers like Mrs. Washington, tableware was not only functional but also represented status, civility, and personal style.9 During the eighteenth century, affluent Americans displayed their wealth by acquiring luxury goods and exports from abroad, including Chinese porcelain tableware. While average Americans tended to purchase more affordable and durable pewter, stoneware, creamware, or earthenware dishes, Chinese porcelain was an upper-class luxury more akin to art.10 In addition, well-to-do Americans saw Chinese porcelain exports as “exotic,” worldly items that expressed their sophistication to dinner guests.

A closer look at Martha Washington's sugar bowl, 1796

Bruce White for White House Historical Association

The design of chinaware also took on symbolic meaning, and Mrs. Washington’s matching porcelain set, designed by Van Braam Houckgeest, is loaded with imagery. Each piece in the set features the monogram “MW” for Martha Washington, adding a personal touch. On the sugar bowl, her initials are placed atop a rising sun and set inside a laurel wreath, representative of the emerging, victorious American nation. Below, the Latin phrase “Decus et tutamen ab illo,” translates to “our union is our glory and our defense against him” – an insult to English King George III.11 Each piece also features the names of the fifteen U.S. states at the time of the set’s creation, interlinked with a chain to express national unity. Around the rim of the pieces, an ouroboros swallows its own tail. This serpentine figure symbolizes rebirth and unity. In all, the china set embodies American patriotism after the end of the Revolutionary War.

Patriotic motifs and symbols like these were frequently used on ceramics in this period—a testament to their owner’s national pride.12 This set, designed by a foreigner, thus embodies an outsider’s perceived notion of American values following the Revolutionary War. Moreover, Martha Washington’s acceptance and preservation of the set shows that she approved of the symbolism depicted on the pieces.

The Washingtons likely used this china service at the President’s House in Philadelphia and/or displayed it in public spaces alongside other fine tableware, exhibiting their wealth, worldliness, and patriotism to guests dining at their home.13 Moreover, historians Hannah Boettcher and Ron Fuchs write that the “gilding on many of the surviving pieces is badly worn, which shows that they were used, and washed, with some frequency.”14 As president and first lady, George and Martha Washington entertained influential individuals at levees, dinners, and receptions that included sweetened food and beverages such as ice cream, coffee, tea, and cakes.15 It is also important to remember that these sugary dishes were prepared and served by enslaved workers including Washington’s talented cook, Hercules.16 Enslaved servants also handled the tableware before and after each meal. Click here to read more about the enslaved household of President George Washington.

This painting of the Washington family at their Mount Vernon plantation also includes an unnamed enslaved servant; the Washingtons were also surrounded by enslaved laborers at the President's House in Philadelphia and New York.

Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art

George Washington was also keenly aware of the harsh conditions on sugar plantations, having first visited the Caribbean as a young man in 1751. Washington traveled to the sugar-rich island of Barbados to seek the curative properties of the island with his tuberculosis-stricken brother, Lawrence.17 In his diary, young Washington wrote that he was “perfectly enraptured with the beautiful prospects…the fields of cane, corn, fruit-trees...”18 During this trip, he also dined with Gedney Clarke, a Barbados sugar merchant and plantation owner, and caught smallpox from Clarke’s wife.19

As an adult, Washington sold several enslaved laborers to the Caribbean as punishment; in 1793, for example, he threatened to sell a fifteen-year old boy named Ben to the islands, writing: “I will ship him off (as I did Waggoner Jack) for the West Indias [sic], where he will have no opportunity of playing such pranks as he is at present engaged in.”20 A closer look at Washington’s sugar bowl therefore illuminates personal stories of consumption, style, slave ownership, and social status.

The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the early nineteenth century significantly reduced sugar production in the Caribbean, and America turned to Gulf Coast plantations as a domestic source of sugar; once again, enslaved laborers made up most of the workforce.21 By the time that American slavery was abolished in 1865, sugar had become a necessity, rather than a luxury, and had spread to nearly every corner of the globe.

Looking Beyond: National Memory and Preservation

Historical artifacts found in modern museum collections have a life beyond their original purpose, and the preservation and exhibition of the Washington tableware is no exception. Following the death of Martha Washington in 1802, this sugar bowl took on new meaning as an important artifact from the lives of the Washingtons. In her will, Martha Washington left “the set of tea china that was given me by Mr. VanBraam every piece having M W on it” to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.22 Custis kept the porcelain set at his Virginia home, Arlington House, along with many other George Washington-related artifacts, creating an informal museum and memorial that celebrated his step-grandfather’s legacy.23 After his death in 1857, Custis willed the mansion, as well as his “carriages, furniture, pictures, and plate” to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, and her husband, Robert E. Lee.24

Arlington House following the American Civil War, 1868

Library of Congress

During the American Civil War, the Union Army confiscated Lee’s estate. Union General Irvin McDowell found that Mrs. Lee had entrusted an enslaved woman to protect the Washington relics, and an inventory taken on January 7, 1862, listed that the “Martha Washington China” including “1 broken plate, 1 sugar bowl” had been found onsite.25 Later that month, The National Republican reported that these “pieces of a tea set…with the monogram ‘M.W.’ in each piece in a gold center” had been confiscated and placed on view for visitors at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C.26

The relics were later moved and displayed at the Smithsonian U.S. National Museum, before being returned to Mary Custis Lee, daughter of Mary Anna Randolph Custis and Robert E. Lee, in 1901 after years of political and legal battles over their rightful ownership. Mary Custis Lee then distributed the Martha Washington china set and other relics among important historic sites, including the Smithsonian Institution, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Arlington House, and Tudor Place—a legacy-building project that celebrated George and Martha Washington’s contributions to America’s founding.27

Washington relics, including the sugar bowl, on display at the Smithsonian National Museum in 1880.

Smithsonian Institution Archives

Lee also gifted pieces of Washington family china to the White House. In the early twentieth century, amateur historian Abby Gunn Baker worked with several first ladies, including Edith Kermit Roosevelt and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, to research, identify, and build a collection of presidential china for display at the White House. In 1915, Baker was delighted to receive a Society of the Cincinnati china plate from Mary Custis Lee to represent President Washington in the White House Collection.28 Two years later, Lee gifted two more pieces—Martha Washington’s sugar bowl and a coffee saucer—to the collection, which were displayed in the new White House China Room, a space dedicated to the exhibition of presidential tableware.29 The sugar bowl has been a part of the White House Collection ever since, on view for visitors during tours of the Executive Mansion.

This Virginia newspaper article documents Mrs. Lee’s gift to the White House.

Library of Congress

This sugar bowl tells several different but intertwined stories about slavery, cuisine, art, national memory, and historic preservation. Objects are not passive witnesses to history. They shape and reflect the economic, political, and cultural status of their owners, and embody ideas about race, class, and identity across time. By studying the economic ecosystem, cultural background, and provenance of an object, one quickly realizes that this bowl holds so much more than just sugar.

The Washington sugar bowl on display (top left) in the White House China Room, 2016.

White House Historical Association