In days of yore, a good cup of tea was brewed from the finest Ceylon (Sri Lankan) leaves in a ceramic pot. It was served up with the best china cups and saucers, a small jug of fresh-from-the-udder milk and some delightful cubes of white sugar, which you delicately placed in your tea with a pair of silver serving tongs.
Now, when dining out, tea often comes in a stainless steel teapot in which a forlorn-looking teabag floats dejectedly, with a styrofoam cup (or, if you're extra lucky, an actual real teacup and saucer), a jigger of UHT milk and a small plastic stick to stir it all.
And if you’re the sort who requires a little extra something sweet in their tea, the elegant sugar cube is today perhaps something of a rarity (unless you're a horse). Your sweetener1 is now provided in a small paper sachet that’s about the size and shape of either a badly rolled French cigarette or a large postage stamp.
A Spoonful of Sugar
The first ever small packets of sugar can be traced to Partridge's Dining Rooms of North 8th Street, Philadelphia, US. The owner, Mr Partridge, produced the small packets from 1862 onwards. But it wasn't until New Yorker Benjamin Eisenstadt had them mass produced in 1945 that they came into popular use.
Eisenstadt and his wife, Betty, ran a diner called the Cumberland Cafeteria in Brooklyn and wanted a way to serve up single teaspoon-sized portions of sugar. His invention was stolen by a firm he approached, due to him not patenting the idea, but Eisenstadt subsequently became successful in the 1950s by producing sachets of the low-calorie sweetener Sweet'N Low instead.
The popularity of sugar sachets is quite a phenomenon. They can be found in anything from the greasiest of roadside diners to the poshest of hotels the world over. They enable customers to add a single portion of sugar or sweetener to their meals without the worry of spilling it everywhere - as is the norm when using a bowl and spoon, although there’s contention over how much a 'single portion' is.
It’s thought that a sugar sachet should hold a teaspoon of sugar2. So, in metric measures that equates to about 4g - or 5g, or 3g, or possibly 6g. For those who have a sweet tooth, it's recommended you multiply the number of sugar sachets needed to sweeten your drink by three - due to the uncertainty of the sugar content in the average sugar sachet.
Variety is the Spice?
The sugar sachet has gone on to become more than just table dressing, with an amazing array of uses that you wouldn’t perhaps think of at first. Here are just a few:
During intense conversation, idle fingers will often subconsciously pick up empty sachets and fold them into weird and wonderful sculptures - balls, geometric shapes, paper aeroplanes... You may only fully appreciate this exhibition of origami when you finally leave the table.
Enjoy a game of poker? You haven’t got any money? Use sugar sachets instead. You can tell the hardcore sachet gamblers - they're the ones with their dentist's name and phone number tattooed on their forearm.
Arguing over the offside rule, or whether the fly-half can make it through to the hooker? Sugar sachets can aid the working out of complex sporting formations, with sachets substituting players on the table-top field of play, thereby settling those lunchtime disputes.
Wobbly tables can be made stable by stuffing sugar sachets under the offending shorter leg. You may, however, find the gentle crunching noises, as the table's weight shifts during dining, a little distracting.
If you accidentally eat a hot chilli and your mouth's on fire, then sprinkle a sachet of sugar on the tongue and let it dissolve.
Ever been dive-bombed by a bird while sitting alfresco? Use a sugar sachet to remove the offending matter.
Don't stuff the sachet empties back into the receptacle - the waiter will have to fossick them all out again when you've gone. Instead, why not send the empties on to Melbourne designer Moya Delany. She has crafted a lampshade from empty sugar sachets that sells for Aus$210 at Market Import, in Armadale, Australia.
There are some downsides, however. Being made of paper, if they get wet they’re next to useless and the contents crystallise. And of course if the sachets aren't complementary they’re prime candidates for the shopping bargain known as a 'five-finger discount'3. One h2g2 Researcher can confirm:
Ah, I well remember my student days when purchasing a cup of tea at a local café, or in the refectory, would involve helping yourself to at least a dozen sugar sachets. We never needed to buy a bag of Silver Spoon4 for our kitchen!
The sugar sachet has unfortunately found itself mixed up in all sorts of nefarious activities, many of which have hit the international news headlines. Incredibly, Qantas, the Australian airline, sacked one of its airline stewards after finding they’d been stealing sachets. And while there’s some comfort in the knowledge that in the UK you’re legally entitled to take unused sachets from your hotel room, the following are just a few examples of misguided uses of the humble sugar sachet:
Vandals have tried to damage cars by pouring sugar sachets into the fuel tank. There’s no direct evidence that this puts a spanner in the works, so to speak, but there are reports of some vehicles being ruined due to sugar getting through to the engine - although these may just be an urban myth.
Prisoners use sugar sachets as trading chips for other commodities, or for brewing 'moonshine'. This backfired in New Zealand when prisoners went on strike because their sugar bowls had been replaced with sachets. How exactly a prisoner strikes is uncertain; perhaps they simply refused to make car registration plates or break rocks that week.
Australian cricketer Glen McGrath's favourite practical joke is to sprinkle a sachet of sugar into the hair of one of his team-mates in the dressing room. It's his way of mentally preparing for a match.
A Sydney man was spotted in a cafe flossing his teeth with the edge of a sugar sachet and then placing it back in the receptacle.
In February 2007, Croatian police investigated the company Pinki for distributing sugar sachets in the town of Pozega with a drawing of Adolf Hitler and an anti-Semitic joke on each of them.
Lorikeets and mynah birds in Sydney Botanic Gardens have taken to helping themselves to sugar sachets from nearby cafes. Experts believe this is damaging their health and leading to deformities in the wings of baby birds, affecting their ability to fly.
The northern Sydney suburb of Manly, New South Wales, Australia, has banned restaurants from providing sugar sachets (and other disposables) alfresco, to combat litter problems.
Regardless of these, the sugar sachet continues to appeal, so much so that it’s gained what some may consider a 'cult following' in contemporary society.
Because of the diverse appearance of sugar sachets, with various pictures, shapes and sizes available, they’ve actually become collectable like stamps or coins. And 'sucrology' is now an identified hobby. In the UK alone, there are 250 recognised and 'official' sucrologists.
However, a sketch in the Times newspaper reported that sucrologists may be 'responsible for 2 per cent of the world's gross national product being tied up in emergency reserves of sugar and salt sachets. If such supplies were convertible to cash, the world would be rich enough to provide clean water to everyone in Africa, or possibly even to pay for Al Gore's domestic-energy bills for a year’.
One Lump or Two?
Here’s some sugar sachet trivia:
A Boeing 747 travelling from Melbourne to Los Angeles will stock up with 950 sugar sachets.
German tea specialist Ronnefeldt produces sugar portions in tetrahedron-shaped sachets (triangular-based pyramids), each containing 4g.
In the film I am Sam, Sean Penn's character is seen painstakingly reorganising sugar sachets according to brand - at the Starbucks where he works.
An employee of New Zealand firm Health-Pak reckons he made in excess of 9.6 billion sachets of sugar in more than 22 years.
In 2001, the ANZ bank mailed a light-hearted glossy booklet to its customers: '101 Better Ways to Save.' Number 90 suggests taking sugar sachets home from fast-food restaurants (while number 45 suggests building a bungalow for your mother-in-law and upping the rent each month).