In many areas of the globe, before there was sugar on the table there was honey and/or maple syrup. Sugarcane was only found in New Guinea and Southeast Asia. A clever chemist in India figured out how to boil the canes and evaporate the liquid until the sucrose crystallized. This made it easy to transport and sell. Sugar made its way to Europe around 700 AD. It was an expensive luxury. It wasn’t until Europeans took over the Caribbean region in the 1600s and turned it into sugarcane plantations with slave labor that it became widely used in the North–as a food and fuel commodity.
Sugar beets were made popular by Napoleon (early 1800s) but rapidly became more expensive than sugar from cane. In 1938, mechanical cane harvesters were developed in the United States, making sugar even cheaper to produce. Today, sugar is the world’s largest crop.
Molasses (called treacle in England) is the liquid left over after sugar cane is boiled and the sugar crystals and fiber removed, It’s the most nutritious part of the sugar plant, containing calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B6. It can even de-frizz hair.
All of this tasty goodness is not why I am writing about molasses. One hundred years ago on January 15, a Boston accident released 2.3 million gallons of molasses across the city’s north side, home to mostly Irish and Italian families. Shorty after noon, the locals heard a crash and a wave of molasses engulfed the neighborhood. Twenty-one people and countless horses were killed. Buildings and a train trestle were destroyed. The cause: a faulty molasses storage tank.
One hundred years ago, molasses was a popular sweeter. People bought it by the gallon. It was used in baked beans, barbecue sauces, and gingerbread as it is today. It was the sweetener of choice for coffee, pancakes, and cornbread. It was added to collards and carrots. It was THE sweetener. However, the molasses in this incident wasn’t for cooking and baking. The company which owned the tank, Purity Distilling Company, was in the rum and alcohol business. Yo-ho-ho as they sang in Treasure Island. Yes, rum is basically fermented molasses. It wasn’t a great business to be in at the time, considering that Prohibition was ratified on January 16, 1919. The company had supplied industrial alcohol to the military for the war but now the war was over. Thus, Purity Distilling Company wasn’t too keen to repair their leaking molasses tank, painted brown to hide the drips. They needed to make as much rum as they could before it became illegal.
A few days prior, they had a fresh batch of molasses delivered from Puerto Rico. It was still warm as it sat in the thin steel tank. Possibly, it was already fermenting and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Molasses is a non-Newtonian fluid. It flows more easily under pressure (as does chocolate.) The molasses burst forth at a speed of about 35 mph. It crashed through buildings and knocked people and animals over. Then, as it cooled, it got sticky, trapping them like flies on fly paper. The combination made for the deadly spread of the molasses. All in all, it covered two city blocks. Click here for photos.
The tragedy cost 100 million in today’s dollars. Although terrorism was blamed at first, the company was held responsible and fined. Residents of the neighborhood today claim they can smell the molasses on warm days. The tragedy is a reminder of why we need industrial safety regulations and is, in part, why we have them today.