Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Curious Genre of Maple Sugar Bible Molds

Before the availability of refrigeration which made maple syrup a viable commodity, maple products were produced in solid forms such as maple sugar. Maple sugar was often processed in decorative wooden molds as sale or gift items. Sugar molds were made during the 19th century throughout New England and Canada. I have found a curious group of bible molds which produced small sugar bibles that would fit in your hand. I have seen these in three different designs and assembly styles. Two are in my collection and one is at the Royal Ontario Museum. I don't really have an understanding yet of the context of the maple sugar bibles, but they could have been served at religious communal meals and holidays, or perhaps they were gifts or rewards for children.

Mold 1: This mold was purchased from a dealer in Maine. It probably dates from the late 19th century. It is missing it's foredge piece. In the shipping box there was an additional spine piece, indicating that there were at least two book molds. This is a six-piece mold held together with four wood pegs. Only two are shown. Its bookish features include a curved spine with three raised bands, squares, and a cross design typical of a bookbinding. The mold is fully described in my book Blooks: The Art of Books That Aren't. To understand more about the history and production of maple sugar, I refer you to the essay Maple History, from the website of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. Here is a segment:
From the journals of early New England explorers we have learned that there were three types of maple sugar made by the Northeastern American Indians: "Grain Sugar" a coarse granulated sugar similar to that we know as "brown sugar"; "Cake Sugar," sugar poured into wooden molds to become hard cakes or blocks; and "Wax Sugar," which was made by boiling syrup extra thick and pouring it over snow. This wax sugar is what we know today as "sugar on snow."
In the early days maple sap was boiled down and made into maple sugar, instead of the more common maple syrup that we see today. There was no easy way to store syrup as a liquid, but hardened, dry maple sugar was easily stored for use later in the year. The Native Americans of New England used their maple sugar as gifts, for trading, to mix with grains and berries and bear fat. During the heat of summer a special treat was a drink made of maple sugar dissolved in water. The early European settlers who came to New England made maple sugar in the way which they learned from the Native Indian population. The settlers set up sugar camps in the woods where the maple trees were most plentiful, and the trees were slashed with an ax to allow the sap to drip out and be collected. As early as 1790 it was suggested that. slashing the trees was not good for their health, and that a better way was to drill a half inch hole in the tree and insert a "spill" or spile to allow the sap to run out. The early spiles were made of a softwood twig such as sumac that had a soft center. The center was pushed out leaving a hollow wooden tube that could be inserted into a hole drilled into the maple tree. The sap would then drip out through the hollow tube or "spile", and into a collection vessel such as a hollowed out log.
These early sugarmakers gathered their sap in wooden buckets as they went from tree to tree. The sap was then boiled down in a series of large iron kettles hanging over a long open fire. As the syrup got thicker in one kettle it was ladled into the next one and fresh sap was then added to the first kettle. In this way, they always had the last kettle full of nearly completed syrup or sugar. When it was finally thickened enough, the liquid sugar was stirred until it began to crystallize, then poured of into wooden molds. These blocks of maple sugar could be broken up or shaved later in the year when needed. (continued below)
Mold 2: Below is another mold from my collection. Instead of pegs, it uses two wood clamps to lock the pieces for pouring. Notice that the top piece, which represents the foredge of the bible is upside down in this photograph. This mold revealed something new to me about bible molds and their usage. 

What I thought in the sales photographs were raised bands, turned out to be the letters RIP (Rest In Peace), indicating that this mold could have been used in relation to a funeral gathering. 

Below is a detail, showing a registration mark at the right:

The registration mark, which looks like an "A" shows the sugar maker how to assemble the pieces of the mold. 

Mold 3: This elaborate and apparently well-used bible mold shown below resides in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada. The bible design is a bit more formal than the other molds and the maker seems more skilled. The spine is flat. Notice the heavy corners. I'm not sure how it was locked, but there could be clamps missing or perhaps it was held shut with hand pressure alone. 

This sweet product of the New England forests was very important to the colonists of early Massachusetts. In addition to providing a homemade source of sugar, the maple sugar was also used for trade or was sold. Many colonists made far more maple sugar than they could use themselves, sometimes as much as a thousand pounds per family. This excess was valuable to the early settlers as it provided some income or could be traded at local stores for other food and supplies. This locally made sugar was also important to the New Englanders because it was a sugar not made by the slaves of the West Indies. Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, was so much in favor of the United States producing its own maple sugar that he even started a plantation of sugar maples at his home, Monticello.
Over the next hundred years or so, maple sugar producing went through some changes. Metal buckets replaced the wooden ones; metal tanks became available for sap storage instead of hollowed out logs or wooden barrels. For boiling, large flat pans soon replaced the three open kettles that were hung over an open fire. A contained fire could be built under the flat pan in a furnace or "arch", thus becoming more efficient because of the large surface area exposed to the fire. Other improvements included the building of shelters for boiling the sap, which became know as "sugarhouses." However, the process still involved much time and labor.
As the price of imported cane sugar declined, more New Englanders bought cane sugar instead of maple sugar. By the late 1800's a Vermont man built what he called a Maple sugar "evaporator." This especially designed flat pan had channels for the sap to flow through as it boiled. In this way fresh sap could always be added to one end of the evaporator, and finished syrup could be drawn off at the other end. Today pure maple syrup is still made in an evaporator with much the same design.
Shortly before 1890 the import tax on white cane sugar was removed, and cane sugar soon out sold maple sugar. What happened in the maple industry however, was that maple syrup became popular. Soon the New England "sugarmakers" were making maple syrup instead of maple sugar, and were selling it in cans and bottles. Now over a century later we still seek that special flavor of pure maple syrup that the original settlers of Massachusetts learned about from the Native Americans.

What I don't know about these molds could fill a book. I'd like to know their dates, who made them, where exactly they were made and how they were used. I've read that Quakers supported maple sugar before the Civil War to boycott the use of cane sugar which was produced by slaves, but I don't know if these molds were produced that early. If you have any insight into the molds of have photos of other bible molds, I'd like to hear from you. In the meantime, I'll continue the search and update the blog post if I find new information. 


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