by Kelly Duffy, National Museum of the American Sailor Deputy Director
While a sailor’s life onboard an Age of Sail ship during the 1700s and 1800s was difficult, food and nutrition created further hardships. Prior to the introduction of shipboard refrigeration in the early 1900s ,the storage of fresh foods was virtually impossible. Sailors rarely had access to fresh meats, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Instead, their early Navy sailors diets consisted of hardy fare including salt pork or beef, hard cheeses, salted fish, hardtack (a hard dry biscuit), and usually ale or grog instead of water.
Shortly after the Revolution, in 1794, Congress formally established a sailor’s rations. A sailor’s average week of rations included:
Sunday: 1 lb. bread, 1 ½ lb. beef, ½ pt. rice
Monday: 1 lb. bread, 1 lb. pork, ½ pt. pease [sic], 4 oz. cheese
Tuesday: 1 lb. bread, 1 ½ lb. beef, 1 lb. potatoes or turnips and pudding
Wednesday: 1 lb. bread, 2 oz. butter or, in lieu thereof, 6 oz. molasses, 4 oz. cheese, and ½ pt. rice
Thursday: 1 lb. bread, 1 lb. pork, ½-pint pease, ½ pt. pease or beans
Friday: 1 lb. bread, 1 lb. salt fish, 2 oz. butter or 1-gill oil and 1 lb. potatoes
Saturday: 1 lb. bread, 1 lb. pork, ½-pint pease or beans, 4 oz. cheese
Navy sailors ate salted meat packed in barrels full of salt and brine to prevent spoilage. This process involved cutting meat down to manageable pieces, placing it in a wooden barrel, adding copious amounts of salt, and then filling the barrel with brine. The salt preserved the meat and ensured it was safer to eat during long voyage as sea.
Due to the large size of crews, sailors would eat in messes of fifteen to twenty sailors rotating the duty of waiting on the table, or being the “berth-deck cook”. Rather than fresh bread, sailors instead consumed hardtack (also known as ship’s biscuit). Made of only three ingredients (flour, salt, and water), the cracker-like food was baked numerous times to draw out any remaining moisture. Practically inedible when hard, sailors soaked it in liquid including coffee and ale to soften it for eating. While hardtack seemed impervious to the elements, moisture caused it to mold. Weevils and worms also found it particularly tasty and while some sailors tried to remove them, for others the pests became an unintended additional source of protein. Known for its long shelf life, there are still existing pieces of hardtack from the Civil War that although are in good condition, perhaps not advisable for snacking.
Congress had adjusted sailor rations in the years between 1794 and the onset of the Civil War; in 1801 and 1842 for example. In July, 1861, three months after the start of the Civil War, Congress once again approved new rations for Navy sailors. These new ration adjustments reflected technological advancements in food preservation and storage, these new ration regulations for sailors included:
One pound salt pork, with half a pint of beans or peas; or one pound salt beef, with half a pound of flour, and two ounces of dried apples or other fruit; or three quarters of preserved meat (canned), with half a pound of rice, two ounces of butter, and once ounce of desiccated mixed vegetables; or three quarters pound preserved meat, two ounces of butter, and two ounces of desiccated potato; together with fourteen ounces of biscuits (hardtack), one quarter of an ounce of tea, or once ounce of coffee or cocoa, two ounces of sugar, and a gill (four ounces) of spirits (grog); and a weekly allowance of half a pound of pickles, half a pint, of molasses, and half a pint of vinegar.
In addition to issues with food storage, Navy ships during the Age of Sail also faced difficulties with storing potable liquids. As a result, sailors often drank ale or grog instead of water. Freshwater was difficult to store and contaminated quickly during long voyages due to unsanitary conditions aboard ships. The alcohol content in ale and grog helped to kill any bacteria that would have been present in fresh water. When determining rations in 1794, Congress declared that sailors each get “one-half pint of distilled spirits per day, or in lieu there of [sic], one quart of beer per day to each daily ration.”
Introduced in n 1740 by Admiral Edward Vernon of the British Royal Navy, traditional grog included one part rum and two parts water. Vernon, who often wore a grogam (a fabric combination of silk and wool) cloak onboard his ships and was thus nicknamed “Old Grog,” wished to make his crew less-drunk and ordered the watering down of the ship’s rum to three parts water and one part rum. The new mixture was named in his honor. During the late 1780s and 1790s, however, American grain and corn farmers requested Congress to alter Navy sailors’ rations and replace the imported rum used in naval grog, with domestic whiskey, thus creating a greater demand for their crops. Complying in 1806 under then Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, the Department of the Navy instituted domestic whiskey rather than rum in sailor’s rations. At that time, whiskey was the greatest expense in the ship’s store; with a 44-gun frigate holding about 100 barrels. Then in 1842, in an effort to reduce the expense and diminish the spirit ration, Secretary of the Navy Levi Woodbury reduced the ration to one gill (1/4 pint) or half a pint of wine. The new ration also stated that only men twenty-one or older could be served. Sailors who were underage were granted an allowance of three to five cents a day instead. Sailors favored grog so much, that a reduction or withholding of a sailors grog ration, was often used as a form of punishment; and viewed by many to be more severe than flogging.
One sailor noted, “Grog was served out twice a day, in the morning before breakfast and again at night before piping down for super. When the Boatswains piped for grog time, the crew fell into line and marched in single file, before the ship’s steward, who dealt out each share as he camp up. Each man received one gill (four ounces) in a small round measure…a master-at-arms and a marine stood by to see that each man got his ration and that no man was served twice.”
As more conservative views in Congress grew, conservative members began to advocate for the removal of grog and other alcoholic drinks as early as 1841. A man by the name of John Rockwell gave an impassioned speech to the House of Representatives titled “Abolishing the Spirit Rations in the Navy” in 1847. While closing his speech he said “I have seen much evil, but never the least good, from having rum on board; all quarrels at sea have rum for their foundation.” Sailors drank grog until 1862 when conservative view in Congress prevailed and a new ration law ending the disbursement of grog and other spirits was passed.
Life at sea during the early years of the Navy was unpredictable and not for the faint of heart. Sailors faced many challenges, including eating unappetizing meals such as Duff (a “heavy indigestible plum pudding”), and yet managed to persevere. To learn more about the life of a Navy sailor during the Age of Sail, check out our newest exhibit “Sails Unfurled: The Dawn of the United States Navy” opening this November!
For the curious and brave:
Hard Tack (Recipe from Beef Stew for 2500: Feeding Our Navy from the Revolutionary War to Present by Rudy Shappee
- 3 ½ cups whole wheat flour
- Salt to taste
- 1 ½ cups water
- Mix flour and salt adding enough water to form a very stiff dough
- Roll the dough to a thickness of ¾-1 inch
- Cut into 3 inch squares and punch liberally with a fork to create holes
- Bake in a flat pan at 250 degrees F. for two to three hours
- “Refrigeration.” Refrigeration. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed October 22, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/technology/refrigeration.
- Blakely, Julia. “Beer on Board in the Age of Sail.” Unbound. Smithsonian Libraries, August 2, 2017. Accessed October 22, 2019. https://blog.library.si.edu/blog/2017/08/02/beer-board-age-sail/#.Xa884C5Kh7g.
- Shappee, Rudolph Terry. Beef Stew for 2500: Feeding Our Navy from the Revolutionary War to the Present (San Diego, CA: South Jetty Pub., 2007).
- Collins, John. Salt and Fishery (London: Printed by A. Godbid and J. Playford, and are to be sold by Mr. Robert Horne at the Royal Exchange, in St. Pauls Church-yard, Mr. William Bury, Globe-maker …, 1682), 122.
- Naval Institute Proceedings. Vol. 33. Baltimore, MD: The Lord Baltimore Press, 1907.
- “Biography: Edward Vernon.” Research. Royal Navy Museum, 2004. http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/info_sheets_edward_vernon.html.
- “Abolishing the Spirit Rations in the Navy.” Naval History and Heritage Command, October 19, 2015. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/a/abolishing-the-spirit-rations-in-the-navy.html.