Sugar used to come pressed into solid loaves and cones. Some cones might be 60 cm (2 feet) tall, tapering from 23 cm (9 inches) at the base to 10 cm (4 inches) at the top.
Sugar cutters were everyday tools used for breaking such large pieces of sugar up into “lumps” or pieces.
There were two general types. One for use by grocers, and another type for home use.
Sugar cutters for grocers were made of cast iron, and mounted on a base with a handle. You pulled the handle down, which raised the other end off the base. You then put the sugar in, and pushed the handle back up. In this way, the grocer would break large cones of sugar into smaller (but still largish) pieces for sale to customers.
Ones for home use were more like tongs, except that at the “tong” end, instead of blunt edges, they had sharp edges pointing at each other for cutting into whatever was in between.
The tongs could be used at the table or in the kitchen to make the pieces from the grocer even smaller. To crush the sugar at home, a mortar and pestle could be used.
Home ones were sometimes referred to as “sugar nippers” or “sugar nips.”
Sugar cutters were made starting in the 1800s.
They started disappearing with the commercial advent of granulated sugar in the UK in 1867, and cube sugar in 1880.
They are now considered very collectible.