This week’s feature is a quirky item. It’s not exactly culinary history related, but it’s not exactly NOT culinary history related, either. In other words, it’s tangential, but fun to talk about. It’s a trade card from a tobacco company (we’ve talked about one we have for a patent medicine before). We were interested in acquiring it for a number of connections: Virginia history, Civil War history, and advertising/culinary history.
The front depicts a Union and a Confederate soldier trading items, probably while on picket duty. While the card was primarily designed to promote Myer Bro’s and Co. tobacco, we culinary fans have a reason to take a closer look: the “caption” on the back.
It wasn’t uncommon for Union and Confederate soldiers to talk and trade across lines while on guard. We have several Civil War-era letters and diaries where soldiers mention sharing news, newspapers, and even food. Of course, they could end up in hot water if caught, but the fact that it happened regardless speaks volumes about the war.
Coffee is one of those ingredients that soldiers talked and wrote about a great deal. They had it (or didn’t, but wanted it), they made it (but with the most questionable of ingredients), or they were creating substitutes for it. At times, Union blockades kept coffee out of Confederate hands (which puts the caption of our trade card in an interesting context). You can find references in plenty of the letters and diaries among our Civil War materials without having to look too far. If soldiers were lucky, they might even have sugar to go with your coffee (or whatever passed for it).
In an 1861 letter to his wife, John Newton Carnahan laments, “we have had sum hard times to put on half rations of Bred no salt for ower Beef no sugar for ower Coffee and musty meal.” An entry in Merritt Hager Smith’s 1863 diary states, “Got up about daylight. same break–fast as have [?] eat every morning for the last ten days Hard Bread + Coffee and fried Pork.” Throughout the war, even on limited rations or repetitive menus, coffee was still at the core of the soldier’s diet. Well, at least so long as one was free…In early 1864, after months in Confederate prisons and finally being paroled, William Tippett writes to his wife, “as soon as we got on our boat supper was ready, coffee meat and good wheat bread Oh but wasnt it good – we had seen wheat bread since November and no meat since Crismas – and no coffee since we were taken prisoners.”
We have plenty of resources relating to the Civil War and to the History of Food & Drink, as our readers well know. What might surprise you is the overlap. If you’re interested in how these two topics connect, you might think about paying us a visit. If nothing else, you’ll get to look at some amazing and unique items!