Every American seaman received 14 ounces of “bread” per day during the War of 1812. This was not a nice crusty baguette, fit for sopping up the remains of one’s stew. No, what the purser’s steward flung into a sailor’s mess kid was a round, wheaten biscuit of obdurate hardness, the size of a man’s fist and as edible as flint. What it lacked in digestibility it made up for with longevity: biscuit kept dry and clear of pests could last for years. Indeed, several museums in Britain and America possess specimens reportedly baked in the early-nineteenth century.1
As with all its victuals, the U.S. Navy made every attempt to find bakers who could produce wholesome, high-quality biscuits. The oft-repeated tales of biscuits crawling with weevils or made with pea-flour and bone dust are mostly the concoctions of civilian authors writing from the comfort of their land-locked desks.2
An 1818 contract for “Navy Bread” stipulates that the “bread shall have no rye flour or any other than Wheaton flour in it – & after being baked shall be thoroughly kiln dried & prepared in all respects for shipment.”3 Surviving pieces of British-made biscuit confirm that they were in fact made of whole-wheat flour.4 To ensure that the biscuit’s interior dried properly, bakers punched a series of perforations in each one. Original specimens are usually about a half-inch thick, measure from 4 ¾ to 5 ¾ inches wide, and weigh about four ounces each. Assuming American-made biscuit conformed to these dimensions, each man received between three and four whole pieces per day.5 Constitution carried 84,456 pounds of this bread for a six-month cruise, or a total of about 337,824 individual biscuits. In 1816, the Navy Department estimated the average 44-gun frigate required 143,550 pounds of biscuit annually at a cost of $.06 per pound.6 How did a navy agent ever find enough bread to outfit a single ship, let alone an entire squadron?
The British Royal Navy equipped its dockyards to produce bread on an industrial scale. At Deptford alone the King’s bakers could manufacture enough biscuit in a day to feed more than 24,000 men. American bakers made navy bread on nearly as large a scale. Stephen Harris of Norfolk, Virginia used three brick ovens to bake 21 barrels of flour into biscuit per day.7 Baker William McKenny promised to deliver 2,000 barrels containing 160,000 pounds of bread, or 640,000 individual biscuits.8
Unless graced with strong teeth and powerful jaws, sailors could not bite into the bread, but they had several ways to overcome its obdurate hardness. Wrapping a biscuit in a cloth and smashing it with something hard (such as a knife handle) would succeed in breaking it into bite-sized bits. If one were truly desperate, one could suck on these pieces, allowing the natural moisture of the saliva to break down the biscuit. Alternately, the biscuit might be soaked in whatever liquid was at hand.
Numerous shipboard recipes called for a quantity of biscuit. For breakfast, a sailor might warm his innards with a can of “Scotch [i.e. cheap or synthetic] coffee,” burnt bread boiled with water and sweetened with molasses or sugar.9 Similarly, a mess with a desire for a sweet dish might make “dandy funk,” or “dunderfunk.” According to Melville, “Dunderfunk is made of hard biscuit, hashed and pounded, mixed with beef fat, molasses, and water, and baked brown in a pan. And to those who are beyond all reach of shore delicacies, this dunderfunk, in the feeling language of the Down Easter, is certainly ‘a cruel nice dish.’”10 Biscuit also figured in other concoctions such as lobscouse and possibly duff. In 1813, however, David Porter “gave the strictist orders to the cook, not to permit any person to use the slush from the cask, for the purpose of frying their bread, &c., as this practice is very common among seaman:” he was afraid that the habit caused scurvy, “that dreadful scourge.”11
Biscuit (when not fried in beef slush from the cask) was certainly wholesome (it provided 1,727 calories per day), and probably not vile-tasting.12 For years, however, writers have repeated lurid tales of biscuits swarming with maggots, weevils, and other undesirable creatures. Unfortunately, when one hears “maggot,” one thinks of fly larvae that tend to breed in rotten meat. Clearly, such animals never attacked ship’s bread, but it could play host to two other unpleasant insects. Tobias Smollett, among others, reported that “cockroaches” regularly consumed biscuit and reduced it to dust. These were probably not real cockroaches, but rather the Cadelle Beetle (Tenebroides mauritanicus). The beetle’s larvae can grow up to 20 millimeters long, and appear as white, black-headed worms — the sailor’s “maggot.” Jocularly referred to as “bargemen” because they looked like small oarsmen swarming a boat, the insects did not eat the biscuit themselves, but rather hunted the miniscule Bread Beetle (Stegobium paniceum). Scarcely four millimeters across when mature, the bread beetle’s larvae were the creatures with an appetite for biscuit, and it was they who could reduce a bag to dust. True weevils (of the family Curculio) might also have been present, since several species feed on grain. Yet these are also quite small and would be indiscernible in their larval stage. All three insects breed quickly in warm, damp conditions, and once packed away in the bread room, they could multiply rapidly.13 None of these was particularly harmful if ingested, and since many below-decks regions of the ship remained dark even in the middle of a sunny day, it is likely many sailors unwittingly consumed the creatures on a daily basis.
How did the biscuit become infested in the first place? The baking facilities available in 1812 were not kept to the same standard we would expect from a bakery today, and it is likely they acted as magnets for any creature that fed on grain. After removing it from the ovens, the bakers left the biscuit to dry on racks, and it would have been easy for a beetle to lay its eggs among the batches’ many perforations. Royal Navy bakers piled their biscuit in 112-pound bags and then packed them in barrels for transport. Although this was the standard method of food transport in the early 19th century, a barrel is not the ideal container for biscuit. According to one source, the U.S. Navy recognized this and by the War of 1812 regularly packed biscuit in airtight boxes, which kept it “tasty.”14 Alas, there were no precautions that could defend against the most persistent pest of all: ship rats. During the USS Essex’s passage to the Pacific, rats “had found the way into our bread-rooms, and had occasioned a great consumption of that precious article.”15
So, you’d like to try your hand at making this 19th century staple? You could closely follow William Burney’s guide to the process:
“The process of biscuit-making for the navy is simple and ingenious, and is nearly as follows. A large lump of dough, consisting merely of flower and water, is mixed up together, and placed exactly in the centre of a raised platform, where a man sits upon a machine, called a horse, and literally rides up and down throughout its whole circular direction, till the dough is equally indented, and this is repeated till the dough is sufficiently kneaded. In this state it is handed over to a second workman, who, with a large knife, puts it in a proper state for the use of those bakers who more immediately attend the oven. They are five in number; and their different departments are well calculated for expedition and exactness. The first man on the farthest side of a large table moulds the dough, till it has the appearance of muffins, and which he does two together, with each hand; and then delivers them over to the man on the other side of the table, who stamps them on both sides with a mark, and throws them on a smaller table, where stands the third workman, whose business is merely to separate the different pieces into two, and place them under the hand of him who supplies the oven, whose work of throwing or chucking the biscuits on the peel must be performed with the greatest exactness and regularity. The fifth arranges them in the oven, and is so expert, that though the different biscuits are thrown to him at the rate of seventy in a minute, the peel is always disengaged in time to receive them separately. So much critical exactness and neat activity occur in the exercise of this labour, that it is difficult to decide whether the palm of excellence is due to the moulder, the maker, the splitter, the chucker, or the depositor; all of them, like the wheels of a machine, seeming to be actuated by the same principle. The business is to deposit in the oven seventy biscuits in a minute; and this is accomplished with the regularity of a clock; the clack of the peel, during its motion in the oven, operating like the pendulum. The biscuits thus baked are kept in repositories, which receive warmth from being placed in drying lofts over the ovens, till they are sufficiently dry to be packed into bags, without danger of getting mouldy; and when in such a state, they are then packed into bags, of an hundred weight each, and removed into store-house for immediate use.”16
If perhaps you don’t have access to a navy bake house, you can still make it at home in your oven. Here’s what you’ll need:
- 4 cups stone-ground whole wheat flour (note, do not use white, refined flour for this recipe — it won’t work!)
- ½ cup water (or so)
- DO NOT ADD SALT
Preheat the oven to 175 to 200 degrees.
Mix the flour and water until you get a stiff dough. Roll the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until well mixed. Cover with a damp cloth and let sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it is about ¾ inch thick. Most surviving biscuit is 4 1/2 to 5 inches in diameter, but remember they’ll shrink in both dimensions when baked. Use a cookie cutter or coffee can to cut out round biscuits. Take a (clean) large nail or medium-sized screw driver and punch 15 to 20 holes in the biscuit in a regular pattern (to let it dry thoroughly). Don’t use the tines of a fork for this operation. The holes are too small and produce a wholly inaccurate pattern on the biscuit surface. Place the biscuits on a lightly-floured cookie sheet and bake for 3 or 4 hours. Turn off the heat and let the biscuits cool in the oven.
For a really authentic experience, store your biscuit in a canvas bag on the back porch for three months, break up, and enjoy! Remember, ship’s biscuit was really a way of efficiently transporting and distributing flour — don’t try to bite it!
1 Period documents invariably refer to this as “biscuit,” “ship’s biscuit,” “ship’s bread,” or simply “bread.” The term “hardtack,” often used to describe hard military bread, seems to have been an invention of the second quarter of the 19th century, and was only popularized during the American Civil War.
2 For examples of such pervasive myths, see John Masefield, Sea Life in Nelson’s Time (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1905, reprint ed., 1984), 121-122. Masefield was only 24 when he wrote his book, and though he had been to sea himself, “many of the stories he repeats in this book,” as Janet Macdonald writes, “smack of an ancient mariner getting more and more outrageous as the grog went down, and of course they nicely reinforced the late Victorian sense of superiority over their forebears.” [Feeding Nelson’s Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era (London: Chatham Publishing, 2004), 12.]
3 William McKenny contract, 1818, Contracts, RG 45, E 336, vol. 2, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
4 For examples of biscuit, see James P. McGuane, Heart of Oak, A Sailor’s Life in Nelson’s Navy (New York, W.W. Norton & Co.: 2002), 36.
5 Dr. Cutbush says that “from three to three and a half biscuits will generally weigh fourteen ounces.” Edward Cutbush, Observations on the Means of Preserving the Health of Soldiers and Sailors, (Philadelphia, Thomas Dobson: 1808), 123.
6 “Estimate of Pay and Provisions for a 44-Gun Frigate, 1816,” American State Papers, vol. XIV, No. 135.
7 A. G. Roeber, A New England Woman’s Perspective on Norfolk, Viginia, 1801-1802: Excerpts from the Diary of Ruth Henshaw Bascom (Worcester, Mass, American Antiquarian Society: 1979), 304.
8 William McKenny contract, 1818, Contracts, RG 45, E 336, vol.2, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
9 William Robinson, Jack Nastyface: Memoirs of a Seaman (Annapolis, Md., Naval Institute Press: 1983), 33.
10 Melville, White Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 134.
11 David Porter, Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean, reprint edition (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: The Gregg Press, 1970), 63.
12 Extracted from the calorific content of British naval rations as summarized by Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 177. The American ration was 14 ounces per day, which equals 396 grams.
13 Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 97-98.
14 Ibid., 18. It should be noted that every U.S. Navy receipt for bread, in Boston at least, mentions “bags” and “barrels” rather than “boxes.”
15 Porter, Journal, vol. 1, 75.
16 William Burney, A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London, T. Cadell & W. Davies: 1815).
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.