Across the late-nineteenth-century Caribbean, sugar plantations were replaced by centralized industrial factories filled with sophisticated machines. Contemporary observers and later historians have credited those factories and machines with producing sugar of unprecedented purity and consistency. In doing so, they have written sugar's modern history as one of artisan skill replaced by automation. They have also accepted that sugar as a commodity inevitably approaches a sameness that only modern science can measure.
This essay argues that the notion that sugar is a globally uniform chemical commodity was equally the product of these factories, showing them to be sites of metrological struggles for control of the labor process. For centuries sugar production had depended on workers' multisensory skills; by claiming that pure sugar was a chemical, industrialists tried to delegitimize these artisans' knowledge and obscure its continuing importance. Far from being automatic, however, the production of chemically pure sugar now depended on the equally hidden work of chemists, whose form of knowledge cane farmers distrusted and turned to the state to regulate. By examining the construction of sugar's apparently universal metrology, this essay suggests how historians can expose the invisible skilled labor that turns nature's diversity into interchangeable goods.