In the earliest days, much of the sugar arriving at the Havemeyer family’s refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront had been harvested by slaves. It was mixed into a dirty slurry, boiled in enormous vats and filtered through charred animal bones.
Then it was “whipped, beaten, flayed, hurled into ‘grain,’” The Illustrated American magazine reported in 1894. “The process is very wild and terrible, like a caged cyclone.” Life in the refinery was “infernal” so the The New York Tribune, a Marxist paper that underwrote Karl Marx’s articles, declared in 1894 that a worker had only one hope of escaping “perpetual torture.” “And not infrequently,” the newspaper said, “death comes quickly to his relief.”
What amazes visitors to the refinery today is how palpable this history remains. It is awakened by the smell of fermentation that still clings to the bricks with sweet and sour notes, as if it were coming from a neighborhood bakery next to a corner saloon.Sugar is everywhere around the long-shuttered plant — in hardened brown clumps that are perched on the beams and wispy stalactites that drape the machinery, in a shiny film that blackens the walls and a syrupy residue that slickens the floors.
It speaks of a time when “refined” and “sugar” were as inseparable as “homogenized” and “milk,” when the Havemeyers were to sugar what the Rockefellers were to oil…the pictures in the photo essay are sheer delight. Really a mixed media paint dream.
More images are here.