Sugar and Sugar Refining


Fueled by extensive trade with sugar islands in the Caribbean, Philadelphia became a leading center of sugar refining in colonial America. Although the city lost its dominance of the industry to New York by the end of the eighteenth century, local sugar refining continued to expand, particularly under the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company (“Penn Sugar”). The rise of national sugar conglomerates and increasing production of sugar extracted from sugar beets proved to be insurmountable challenges, howeverAfter acquisition by the National Sugar Refining Company in 1947, the Penn Sugar refinery closed in 1984. Its legacy briefly revived in 2010 with the naming of the SugarHouse Casino, but only until rebranding changed the name to Rivers Casino Philadelphia in 2019.  

Photograph of silver sugar nippers that are slightly tarnished. The bottom of the nippers features two rounded blades to cut sugar.
Philadelphians who purchased single- and double-refined sugar loaves used sugar nippers, like those pictured here, to cut small pieces of sugar from the loaf. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Philadelphia’s early dominance as a principal seaport gave the city ready access to sugar. The type of sugar consumed and refined in early Philadelphia was extracted from sugar cane, a plant that grows only in tropical and subtropical zones. At the time, most sugar plantations were located in the Caribbean, where enslaved Africans worked under brutal conditions to harvest tough sugar cane stalks with sharp bladesExtracting the sugary juice of the cane before it spoiled required the cane to be immediately crushed or run through a roller mill. The liquid was then heated to evaporate liquid and concentrate the sucrose. This raw sugar was next packed into wooden casks and transported to cities such as Philadelphia, where it was refined—a labor-intensive process of cooling and heating the sugar repeatedly to remove impurities and produce a finer, whiter sugarPhiladelphia’s status as a center of transatlantic commerce and the availability of laborers—including European immigrants, free Blacks, and enslaved people—made it a desirable location for sugar refining. 

Philadelphia consumers had access to a wide range of sugar products. The coarsest and least expensive was raw brown muscavado, a product left over after draining off molasses during the first stage of refining. Consumers also could buy single- and double-refined loaf sugar, formed in earthenware cones at sugar refineries by successive rounds of boiling and evaporation. To use the sugar loaves, which were rock hard, required wielding implements including steel nippers and hammers to break the sugar into smaller chunks. Another laborious process made granulated sugar and powdered sugar by crushing the chunks of sugar in a mortar and pestle to the desired size, using a fine sieve as needed to separate varying sizes. 

Photograph of silver sugar tongs. The top has two rings to fit fingers through and move the tongs. The bottom of the tongs are wider and flat to grip sugar cubes.
Wealthy consumers used delicate silver sugar tongs to remove sugar cubes from a sugar bowl—and to communicate their social standing. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Sugar also played an important role in social rituals. In formal settings or social occasions such as taking tea, wealthy Philadelphians used delicate silver tongs to pick up sugar chunks from a sugar bowl in order to sweeten cup of tea. Sugar bowlsoften made from costly materials such as silver and porcelain, sometimes came with larger tea services that also included teapots, cream jugs, cups, and saucersSpecialized tea tables became a popular furniture form, made of either tropical mahogany or local hardwoods such as black walnut. These tables typically had a tripod base and a circular top that swiveled for ease of use and could also be flipped up to store against a wall when not in use. 

 Riverfront Refineries 

By the mid-1700s, Philadelphia had become one of the leading centers of sugar refining in colonial America. Philadelphia sugar refiners (also known as “sugar bakers”) included both English- and German-speaking people, many of them merchants engaged in transatlantic trade who saw an opportunity to increase profits by refining the raw sugar they were importing. Many of these early refineries were located near the waterfront, with convenient access to the wharves where the heavy barrels of raw sugar were unloadedIn 1772, merchant William Coats advertised “loaf, lump, and muscovado SUGARS” in addition to rum, wines, indigo, and spices at his store, identified by the “sign of the Sugar-Loaf.” His handbill depicted the store’s interior, with numerous loaves of sugar prominently arranged in the middle. Another Philadelphia merchant, Edward Pennington (1726–96), kept a notebook in which he compiled “Observations on Making Sugar.” He noted consumers’ preference for white sugar and advocated using more water during the refining process. Prominent Germans also invested in sugar refineries, including David Schaeffer (d. 1787) and his son-in-law Frederick Muhlenberg (1750–1801). After Schaeffer’s death in 1787, Muhlenberg bought out his brothers-in-law’s shares in the sugar refinery and formed a partnership with Jacob Lawerswyler. The business initially thrived, but was terminated in 1799 due to intense competition and the devastating loss of a ship, the Golden Hind, of which Muhlenberg was part-owner. 

By the 1830s, pro-abolitionists in Philadelphia sought to find alternatives to cane sugar due to its reliance on enslaved labor. Sugar beets offered a promising alternative as they could be grown in temperate climates. This prospect gained plausibility after 1747, when German chemist Andreas Marggraf (1709–82) discovered that the sucrose contained in beets was indistinguishable from that in sugar cane. His protégé, Franz Karl Achard (1753–1821), discovered a method of extracting the sucrose from beets to make sugar. Philadelphians founded a Beet Sugar Society in 1836, but it failed due to the poor quality of the product. (Beet sugar later found success in California and by the twenty-first century about half of all sugar produced in the United States came from sugar beets.) 

Philadelphia encountered increasing competition in the sugar industry during the nineteenth century, especially in major port cities with an abundance of labor. By 1810, sugar refineries had opened in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Virginia. Bthe late 1800s, New York, the nation’s greatest port, dominated the industryNew York became home to the largest sugar refinery in the world after an 1882 fire destroyed an earlier plant (est. 1852) and spurred construction of a massive, ten-story structure and sprawling industrial complex in Brooklyn—the American Sugar Refining Company. Owned largely by the wealthy Havemeyer family, American Sugar became the largest manufacturer in the United States. 

Black and white photograph depicting men standing on a dock completely covered in barrels full of sugar.
Barrels of raw sugar awaiting refining lined the wharves at the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company complex, known as the Sugar House. It can be seen in this photograph circa 1883-1896. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Philadelphia, meanwhile, became the base of operations for large sugar refineries such as the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company (“Penn Sugar”)Founded in 1868 by German immigrant John Hilgert (1807–81)at Fifth and Girard Streets, the company moved in 1881 to the base of Shackamaxon Street along the Delaware River in the city’s Fishtown section. There, under the leadership of John Hilgert’s son Charles, the company repurposed an earlier whale oil works into a sugar refinery. By the 1950s, the refinery had grown into a massive complex with eighteen buildings and more than 1,500 male and female employeesFormer workers recalled that by that time, most or all of the employees were white, although of varying ethnic backgrounds; previously, during the Second World War, the company had employed many African Americans. In an industrial-scale version of the eighteenth-century process, ships unloaded huge quantities of dark brown, raw sugar (imported from both the Caribbean and now the Pacific basin islands) at Penn Sugar’s wharf along the DelawareThe refinery’s melter house converted the sugar into a thick syrup, then filtered and piped to the pan house to be crystallized, washed, and dried. The refined sugar was then pressed into cubes or packed it into bags, boxes, or large wooden barrels, while pulverizing the rest into powdered sugar. The remnants became black-strap molasses or could used to make solvents, flavorings, and even antifreeze. 

The Decline of Sugar Refining 

During the twentieth century, Philadelphia’s once-thriving sugar refining industry suffered in the face of stiff competition from massive sugar conglomerates and the production of sugar extracted from sugar beetsIn 1947, the New York-based National Sugar Refining Company, also known as Jack Frost, acquired Penn Sugar. The local refinery remained active until 1981when Jack Frost filed for bankruptcyUnable to buy raw sugar, the company laid off its six hundred Philadelphia employees.

Color photograph showing the SugarHouse Casino with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in the background.
The former site of Penn Sugar lay vacant until 2010, when the SugarHouse Casino—named for the sugar refinery—opened its doors. (Visit Philadelphia, photograph by G. Widman)

The Penn Sugar site lay dormant until it was reborn through adaptive reuse as the SugarHouse Casino, which opened in 2010 (renamed Rivers Casino Philadelphia in 2019). The former refinery’s waterfront location, once a practical necessity, made it appealing for urban redevelopment along the Delaware River. The casino is just one example of Philadelphia’s former sugar refineries being repurposed for new uses; the Sugar Refinery Apartments were one of the first industrial warehouse sites converted to residential use in the Old City historic district.  

Although Philadelphia’s once-thriving sugar refineries disappeared by the late twentieth century, the industry was a major part of the city’s industrial heritage. While no longer actively used for manufacturing, the few remaining physical traces of once-bustling sugar refineries indicate the vast scale of the sugar refining industry. 

Lisa Minardi is executive director of Historic Trappe and a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware, where she is studying the German community of early Philadelphia for her dissertation. Her publications include numerous books and articles on Pennsylvania furniture, architecture, and folk art. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2020, Rutgers University


SugarHouse Casino

Visit Philadelphia

After the Penn Sugar plant shuttered completely in 1984, the site remained unoccupied until the SugarHouse Casino opened in 2010. The development of a casino at the former sugar refinery was long and contested. Early in 2008, Mayor Michael Nutter (b.1957) revoked the license allowing the casino to be built on the riverfront, citing concerns about potential economic and social effects of the casino on surrounding neighborhoods. Local anti-casino activists also fought to have the project shut down.

Although Mayor Nutter eventually allowed the casino to be built at the site of the Penn Sugar plant, developers faced complications surrounding the federally mandated historical review and archaeological dig process. Preservationists and activists criticized the initial dig, which started in February 2007, after it failed to uncover evidence of a British Revolutionary War fort and Batchelor’s Hall—an eighteenth-century gentlemen’s club for prominent Philadelphians— documented to be on the site. A second dig began in October 2008; when archeological work ended in December 2009, no evidence of the fort was discovered. Although archaeologists discovered Native American tools dating back 4,000 years, there was not enough historical evidence to stop development of the site. In October 2009, workers broke ground on the future SugarHouse Casino. (photograph by G. Widman)

Penn Sugar Barrels

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Although New York overtook Philadelphia as the center of sugar refining at the end of the eighteenth century, the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company continued to expand sugar production in the city through the nineteenth century. John Hilgert (1807-1881) founded the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company in 1868 at Fifth and Gerard Streets. In 1881, the company moved to Fishtown, where it grew into a large complex known as the Sugar House. While national sugar conglomerates forced many competitors out of business, Penn Sugar continued operations into the first half of the twentieth century. When it was purchased by the National Sugar Refining Company, also known as Jack Frost, in 1947, Penn Sugar was the last independent sugar refinery in the country.

Sugar production at the Sugar House complex came to an end in 1981. Jack Frost could no longer buy raw sugar and filed for bankruptcy. The plant was completely shuttered in 1984, and the complex was left vacant.

Sugar Nippers

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Consumers in Philadelphia could purchase sugar in several forms. The cheapest was raw brown muscovado, a product left over after draining off molasses during the first stage of refining. Refined sugar was sold in “loaves,” which were formed in earthenware cones through rounds of boiling and evaporation. After purchasing a loaf, consumers used sugar nippers, pictured here, to cut pieces of sugar from the core. They then used the cut pieces to fill sugar bowls or ground them into granulated sugar.

Sugar Tongs

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sugar consumption was an important part of wealthy Philadelphians’ social rituals. Drinking tea, and other special occasions, called for a variety of specialized tools. Silver sugar tongs, like those pictured here, were used to pick up cubes of sugar from a sugar bowl in order to sweeten a cup of tea. Through the mastery of such tools, elite Philadelphians communicated their social standing and showed that they were sophisticated consumers.

Sugar Bowl

The Speaker's House, Trappe, Pa.

Frederick Muhlenberg (1750–1801), born in Trappe, Pennsylvania, to German immigrant parents is best known for serving as the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. However, Muhlenberg was also a businessman. In 1771, he married Catharine Schaeffer (1750–1835), daughter of prominent sugar refiner David Schaeffer Senior. Following David Schaeffer’s death, Muhlenberg bought out his brother-in-law's shares of the refinery and formed a partnership with Jacob Lawerswyler. The sugar refinery initially thrived, but intense competition and the loss of their ship the Golden Hind, forced Muhlenberg to close the business in 1799. (Photograph by Gavin Ashworth)

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Doerflinger, Thomas M. A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. 

Dunn, Richard S. Sugar & Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.   

Gutleben, Dan. “A Record of the Behavior of the Men and Machines in the Pennsylvania Sugar Refinery, 1868-1960.” Unpublished mss., Historical Society of Pennsylvania, coll. Am.3434. 

 Harveson, Robert M. “History of Sugarbeets.” In CropwatchInstitute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

 Philadelphia, A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace. Harrisburg, Pa.Federal Writers’ Project, Works Progress Administration, 1937.  

 Minardi, Lisa. “Frederick Muhlenberg.” InImmigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 1, edited by Marianne S. Wokeck, German Historical Institute. Last modified May 31, 2016.  

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. London: Penguin Books, 1985. 

Related Collections

Related Places


Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy