Was the diet of the Civil War era more healthy than our diet?

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Aug 25, 2012
Today we eat foods with so much sugar and so many additives. So how do we compare with the average diet of the Civil War era? Although we may eat more sugar, foods with saturated fat, and too many foods with additives, the average American also eat less foods with fats. At my house there is no lard for cooking and we have not had any in the house in decades. I can not remember the last time we had real butter
or whole milk in the house. As far as I know we have not had any bacon or pork in the house in years. I can not remember the last time we had beef in the house. Perhaps a month ago my wife bought me a frozen dinner with some kind of beef, but I am not sure of this. I almost never eat pork or beef when we go to a restaurant. I might eat beef once every two weeks. I am not sure the last time I ate any pork. Civil War era people often ate both pork and beef daily.

So although Civil War era people ate fresh vegetables and fresh fruit I am not sure they ate healthier foods. I have a salad most days and vegetables at most meals except breakfast. Often breakfast for me is fruit and low fat yogurt or perhaps low fat yogurt and a dry English muffin. Compare that to the average breakfast of the Civil War. Bacon, bread, perhaps eggs fried in lard or butter. The people of the Civil War might even eat potatoes fried in lard or butter for breakfast. Instead of a dry English muffin they ate jams, jelly, or preserves on bread.

However, I am not sure how most modern Americans eat. I would think most Americans watch the amount of fat and red meat they eat. Some modern Americans probably eat less healthy than others.
 

Booklady

Sergeant
Joined
Mar 19, 2017
Location
New England
More like a Waffle House, but whatever. I think you are onto something that is a leading indicator that the diets today are worse than back in the 1800s. This thread is dubious at best: America is the most unhealthiest country in the world today or one of them. Creeping on a 50% obesity rate(95 million). All the processed high-fructose corn syrup and fast foods are showing in people’s waistlines and in mortality rates as obesity is of the leading causes of preventable deaths. Over 100 million Americans have pre-diabetes or they are a diabetic, and that's 1/3 of the entire population. What is behind prediabetes and diabetes? Insulin resistance. I would imagine 65-70% of the population has that as well. America has the 4th highest rate of heart disease and pulmonary disease the world. America is #1 and the quantity of people who get cancer: 542 out of 100,000.

Here is the conflicting date: the United States spends $3 trillion on health care and still has high incidence for disease. Spend the most money in the world on health care but still is the top or one of the top unhealthiest countries in the world.

I severely doubt that the diets back in the 1800s were any worse than they are today.
Here is the conflicting date: the United States spends $3 trillion on health care and still has high incidence for disease. Spend the most money in the world on health care but still is the top or one of the top unhealthiest countries in the world.

Yesterday I heard an interview with Michael Moss, author of "Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions." https://www.mossbooks.us/ His assertions were astonishing, and enough to persuade me to buy his book (which I guess is the point of author promo tours).
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Member of the Month
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
Here is the conflicting date: the United States spends $3 trillion on health care and still has high incidence for disease. Spend the most money in the world on health care but still is the top or one of the top unhealthiest countries in the world.

Yesterday I heard an interview with Michael Moss, author of "Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions." https://www.mossbooks.us/ His assertions were astonishing, and enough to persuade me to buy his book (which I guess is the point of author promo tours).
Rats! I wish I hadn't clicked on that link! This weekend is our historical society's barn sale and bake sale; I volunteered to make spice cookies--and now I feel downright evil about it. 😞 Maybe I'll skip the work, bring in a plate of carrots and say "it's for your own good". 😂

BTW: I'm going to read that book too. I worry more about the quality of food that I'm giving to Maximus (dog) and Strindberg (cat) than I do about my own consumption. Thank you!
 

Booklady

Sergeant
Joined
Mar 19, 2017
Location
New England
Rats! I wish I hadn't clicked on that link! This weekend is our historical society's barn sale and bake sale; I volunteered to make spice cookies--and now I feel downright evil about it. 😞 Maybe I'll skip the work, bring in a plate of carrots and say "it's for your own good". 😂

BTW: I'm going to read that book too. I worry more about the quality of food that I'm giving to Maximus (dog) and Strindberg (cat) than I do about my own consumption. Thank you!
I think if you make your own you're ok. :hungry: He seems to be all about avoiding the processed foods thrust upon us by Big Food. And what gets me is, they own the diet companies, too!!

ETA, I think you can access the interview I heard here: https://www.wgbh.org/news/national-news/2021/05/11/boston-public-radio-full-show-5-11-21
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
My friend the nutritionist *Edited*. The principles of what constitutes a healthy diet are well known. It isn't all that complicated. What people actually believe & crank diets are an entirely different matter entirely. Like so many things, 19th Century scholarship on nutrition was rudimentary to say the least. Post, Kellog cereals & Graham Crackers began as health foods created by gurus. Here in Tennessee, from early on, people spent weeks at a time drinking hideous tasting sulphur water for their health. Tyree Springs, Red Boiling Springs, Castilian Springs were resorts that operated into the early 20th Century. A black piano player called Peg Leg Pete was a major draw.

Wynnewood.jpg

Everybody from Andrew Jackson to Jesse James stayed at Wynnewood, Castilian Springs, Tennessee
Waynnewood is the largest historic log structure in Tennessee. From the late 1700's onward everybody who could afford it came here to take the waters. Small rude cabins lined the ridge behind the main building. The kitchen is camera right, beyond the boarded up breezeway.

Diningroom Wynnewood.jpg

Dining room with some original furniture, Wynnewood

Kitchen, Wynnewood.jpg

Kitchen Wynnewood, this image contains many original implements.
The cook's quarters are upstairs above the kitchen.
Believe you me, any modern person born in the South would be happy to put their legs under the table for meal at Wynnewood during the day. As to the sulphur water... let's just say that it is an acquired taste.

*Image Removed*
One of the many innovations brought to the market by the Shakers was paper seed packets. Carefully grown, harvested & packaged medicinal herbs, decorative flowers & vegetables were sold all over the U.S. The most popular sweet corn for eating out of hand, an innovation, was called Aztec Black. I was disappointed to learn that the kernels were black until cooked.

Today, you can enjoy Shaker meals in your own kitchen. There are many Shaker recipe books on the market. I highly recommend Shaker cuisine to those of you who enjoy cooking... & eating.

River Cane shoots.jpg

Tennessee River Cane Shoots
Every spring here in Tennessee, the first edible green plants were consumed with gusto. The cane in our backyard shoots out of the ground & grows up to 30 feet in couple of weeks every spring. The shoots are tasty, just break off & it is a crunchy fresh tasting treat. We have good friends who are from China. Bamboo shoots in spring are celebrated. Every spring, their parents come to our yard & collect every shoot. Historically, folks here did the same thing. Winter Cress, which is the first editable plant to come up in the spring, has a leaf that is tasty raw & cooks up into a delicious mess of greens. My relations still can "creases" to enjoy all year.

Hotel Restaurant 12:7:64.jpeg


Ad 12:7:64.jpeg


Circus add 11:15:64.jpeg

Advertisements in the Nashville Daily Union Banner Newspaper during the "Siege of Nashville" Nov-Dec 1864
For a taste of both the living & dining of the 1860's, I know of no more pleasant way than a stay at Pleasant Hill Shaker Village in Kentucky. The Shakers had a guesthouse that catered to the businessmen who came to the village. Known as the Trustee's Table, the food is as close to what would have been played in the time. Unlike ordinary historic sites, at Pleasant Hill you stay in the shaker building. The furniture is replica Shaker designs created by students at nearby Beria College. All lovers of history will include this place in your travel plans. <shakervillageky.org>

IMG_2534.jpg

This what the ice storm that hit Nashville & delayed Thomas' attack looked like.​

The culinary scene in Tennessee was nothing like what most folks would imagine in the 1860's. As Hood's veterans were unable to distribute rations due to the thick coating of ice that made movement impossible, an ice cream parlor was having a grand opening in Nashville. A soldier could have had a multi course meal at a hotel. Howe & Norton's Championship Circus performed three times a day, seven days a week all during the siege. The legal brothels had kitchens that served up treats for the patrons. German & Norwegian families sent boxes of all the traditional seasonal foods to soldiers. Starving Army of Tennessee pickets on the heights above the city could literally inhale the delicious smells coming from cooking fires across the lines.

So, yea there were times when the food soldiers Army of the Cumberland ate was little more than corn grubbed from the ground where officers horses were fed. Then again, oysters on the half shell were on the A. of the C. menu, too. Modern day people would starve on the one & feast on the other. Was that healthier? That depended on which side of the line you were on, don't you know.

 
Last edited by a moderator:

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
Resort to name-calling and labels ends this exchange. Don't make the erroneous assumption that it means your statements are accurate.

What name calling? Lol. Calling you a trustee of the modern medical community is insulting to you? You responded to my post, I never responded to any of your posts. Sheesh..
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
Here is the conflicting date: the United States spends $3 trillion on health care and still has high incidence for disease. Spend the most money in the world on health care but still is the top or one of the top unhealthiest countries in the world.

Yesterday I heard an interview with Michael Moss, author of "Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions." https://www.mossbooks.us/ His assertions were astonishing, and enough to persuade me to buy his book (which I guess is the point of author promo tours).

Yes. IMO, sugar is the our biggest addiction here in America. The obesity rate here in America is creeping on 50%, which I referenced in post #72. I live in Middle Tennessee and I would have to say by just observing things that the obesity rate here is even higher than the national average. Almost everyone I run into is out of shape to where it is palpable.

If you buy the book please fill me in on the details, please.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
What name calling? Lol. Calling you a trustee of the modern medical community is insulting to you? You responded to my post, I never responded to any of your posts. Sheesh..
Did you even read your post for comprehension? It's in response to mine and uses the word "you". It's "labeling", as I pointed out. Try this, very slowly. I'm not a "trustee" of anything, including the "modern medical community", whether that's good, bad, or indifferent - entirely aside from the basic point that it is extremely easy for anybody today to access information about diets (1) that avoid the myrad of ills you referred to and (2) are vastly better than what the population was consuming in 1860. G'day .....
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
Did you even read your post for comprehension? It's in response to mine and uses the word "you". It's "labeling", as I pointed out. Try this, very slowly. I'm not a "trustee" of anything, including the "modern medical community", whether that's good, bad, or indifferent - entirely aside from the basic point that it is extremely easy for anybody today to access information about diets (1) that avoid the myrad of ills you referred to and (2) are vastly better than what the population was consuming in 1860. G'day .....

Yeah, and I didn't comprehend it like you did, so it is a impasse. I'm sorry If I offended you. Nevertheless, I still disagree with you.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Yeah, and I didn't comprehend it like you did, so it is a impasse. I'm sorry If I offended you. Nevertheless, I still disagree with you.
Fair enough. I just don't care for people using labels or framing what I'm saying that way - and it happens in some of these threads. It's easy to disagree on a subject without going there. And to be clear, I have no problem with a post that calls out somebody for making false or distorted assertions - as opposed to an area of disagreement.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
While reading up on an entirely different topic, I ran onto an eye popping article about milk in the 19th & early 20th Century. Unpasteurized milk was down right poisonous. In cities, cows were fed on byproducts from breweries. As a result, the milk was a bluish color & very unhealthy. In an age where infant mortality hovered around 40%, pasteurization cut that rate instantly. A contemporary doctor called cows milk death in a bottle… By chance, I know that dairies in Nashville were required to pasteurize milk during WWII, more than 1/2 a century after Pasteur made his discovery.
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
There is a difference between a healthy diet and a safe one. With that distinction, we should be able to agree that our contemporary food supply is infinitely more safe than that of the mid 19th century.

Yes, in terms of sanitation things are better off today, but the real distinction from the OP was were diets more healthy back then or today, like the content of the foods—macro and microunits, caloric intake and outtake and nutritional value. People back then didn't have the choices people have today. I think diets today have the "potential" to be healthier, but have the "potential" to be unhealthier. It seems to me that with close to 50% obesity rate the majority of people here in America choose the latter. I hope I'm making sense?
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
There is a difference between a healthy diet and a safe one. With that distinction, we should be able to agree that our contemporary food supply is infinitely more safe than that of the mid 19th century.
Certainly true in the abstract regarding the difference between the two, but there is clearly a lot of overlap. Another problem is that there is vastly more data regarding (1) what "the diet" is today and (2) its effects on health and mortality. Discussing "the diet of the Civil War era" is loaded with speculation and assumptions.
 

Yankee Brooke

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jun 8, 2018
Location
PA
There is a difference between a healthy diet and a safe one. With that distinction, we should be able to agree that our contemporary food supply is infinitely more safe than that of the mid 19th century.
I'm certain foodborne illness was a major problem then, probably a really high death toll too(whether they knew it or not). It still can be today, even though we've become adept at fighting and avoiding it. The only standard for how well something was cooked was to taste, so if you liked your chicken on the undercooked side...
 

Claude Bauer

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jan 8, 2012
I believe you are harboring a misconception about soldier rations. It is true that anyone who attempted to survive on salt meat & hardtack alone would die of scurvy. For that reason, sugar dried beans, potatoes $ onions were included in the daily ration.

One of General Thomas’ many reforms was to issue rations to groups of soldiers. Having a designated cook eliminated waste & produced more wholesome meals. When fresh vegetables were not available, dried vegetables were issued. The ‘desiccated’ or ‘desecrated vegetables’ were made by dehydration.

You don’t boil hardtack. First you cut up the bacon & tender fat from it. Remove the meat from the pan & cook crumbled hardtack on the sizzling fat. Return the meat to the pan, mix in potatoes or beans & you have a hearty, delicious meal.

There were two types of preserved meat. Salted pork & beef were preserved in barrels of brine, i.e., heavily salted water. Salted meats had to be soaked in water to be palatable. Smoked pork was what we call pork belly & bacon. I am going to the ‘Hammery’ a few blocks from my house in Murfreesboro TN this morning & purchase some for my breakfast. That particular part of Civil War diets is alive & well today... mighty toothsome it is, too.

Whenever possible, fresh meat & vegetables were issued to soldiers. A little known aspect of Sherman’s famous signals from Kennesaw Mountain to Alatoona was his contact with a regiment herding 5,000 head of cattle. Units returning from leave were put in charge of herds of cattle in Chattanooga. They then drove them southward. Sherman signaled orders to the commander in charge of the drove that avoided contact with Hood’s hungry forces.

Like most of my fellow living historians, I have enjoyed many an authentic period meal. There is no reason to assume that period cooking was not good eating.
Many associate scurvy with sailors on long sea voyages, but here's an account of it afflicting infantry troops in the Army of the Potomac, as well. The poor guy in the picture can't even stand up without supporting himself on a chair. Also further testament to the general dislike of "desecrated vegetables."

This Week in the Civil War:
June 14 1862 (Saturday)

When regimental doctors discover scurvy in two Massachusetts regiments, Surgeon Charles S. Tripler, Medical Director, orders that “potatoes, dried apples, pickles, and desiccated vegetables” be distributed to the men. He warns: “The desiccated vegetables are less reliable, as the men dislike to use them. They should, however, be compelled to do so.” The rations of desiccated vegetables supposedly contain string beans, turnips, carrots, beets, and onions which have been compressed into one inch by one foot rectangular bricks. Soldiers often refuse to eat the desiccated vegetables. One soldier remarked: “I ate a lot of desiccated vegetables yesterday and they made me the sickest of my life. I shall never want any more such fodder.”

I ate a lot of desiccated vegetables yesterday and they made me the sickest of my life. I shal...jpg

From the Facebook site "This week in the Civil War."
 
Joined
Jul 22, 2021
It often makes me balk, the amount of fat, salt, and red meat they were eating....and don't think they weren't eating plenty of sugar too. Molasses, syrup, jellies, jams...it seems to have been there in quantity.

The average soldier during the war? My arteries harden just reading their diet.
The more things change the more they stay the same. One can speculate all the live long day about diet but soldiers proved they could do well on a few rations like canned meat, rancid meat, coffee, and insect laden hard tack. To compare that or the diet of the average American is like comparing apples to A-1 Abrams tanks. Moreover most had no idea about nutrition like they didn't know about sanitation and hygiene.

Really, the bottom line is whether their diet was any better than the diet of today and the answer is who knows? It really depends on the individual and what they put in their mouth. Then and now. Many of the diseases then still exist; heart ailments, cancer, kidney disease, arthritis, TB and many kinds of infection like staff, strep, and STDs. So, in some ways we have progressed like with the use of surgical interventions, aseptic technique, quarantine, and the use of drugs and antibiotics. However, many of those infections have adapted and are still around today and people will be people. Some use drugs appropriately while others abuse them.

The most important aspect. None of us gets out of this alive!
 
Last edited:

Claude Bauer

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jan 8, 2012
Really, the bottom line is whether their diet was any better than the diet of today and the answer is who knows?
One thing's for certain, the diet of young musicians studying at the Union's music school on Governor's Island, NY wasn't anything to write home about:

Breakfast: a small piece of cold salt pork, a bowl of coffee, and a four ounce piece of bread buttered with pork fat.

Dinner (lunch): a bowl of rice and vegetables or bean soup; boiled salt pork or bacon, bread, and rarely, one or two potatoes.

Supper: a small portion of steamed dried apples, bread, and black coffee.

Try eating that for a week and see what happens!
 

nc native

Sergeant
Joined
Aug 30, 2011
Location
NC Piedmont
I believe the diet our Civil War ancestors was in general more healthy than what we eat today. There were fewer preservatives and chemicals in foods such as the pesticides and weed control agents that vegetables are subject to. The organic movement in vegetable gardening has gained steam and although the products grown in that manner are usually more expensive I lean towards eating them rather than the more widely available products in stores. I have my own vegetable garden and never use any chemicals except for deer repellant which is a must because the deer are very numerous despite my meager efforts to control the population during hunting season every year.

If the deer would eat the weeds and grass like they do my vegetable plants every year, I would roll out the welcome mat for them and swear off venison for the rest of my life.
 
Top