Molasses used to be the primary sweetener used in days of yore until refined white sugar pushed it to the back of the shelf. It has a distinctive flavor that brings extra sparkle to spice-laden recipes such as gingerbread or toffee.
The English term molasses comes from the Portuguese melaço which in turn is derived from the Latin mel, meaning honey. Melasus (sic) was first seen in print in 1582 in a Portuguese book heralding the conquest of the West Indies.
Molasses was exported to the U.S. from the West Indies to make rum. High taxes were levied on molasses by the British via the Molasses Act of 1733, but the duties were so widely ignored by U.S. colonists that the taxes were reduced in 1764 in hopes more would comply.
Up until the 1880s, molasses was the most popular sweetener in the United States, because it was much cheaper than refined sugar. It was considered particularly tasty with salt.
After the end of World War I, refined sugar prices dropped drastically resulting in the migration of consumers from molasses to white sugar crystals. By 1919, U.S. per capita consumption of white sugar was twice what it was in 1880, with most Americans completely switching from molasses to granulated white and brown sugar.
In January of 1919, a huge vat of molasses at the Purity Distilling Company in Boston exploded. What came to be known as the "Great Molasses Flood" killed 21 people and spilled two million gallons of molasses into the streets.
Interestingly enough, molasses now costs about twice as much as refined sugar. Along with industrial alcohol and rum products, molasses can also be used to make yeast, cure tobacco, and in cattle feed.