Wartime Deprivations

Shortages of sugar, rum, gunpowder, textiles, tea and china were among the inconveniences suffered by colonial Americans during the Revolution. Historian Lou Powers describes the deprivations and the substitutions.


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. War makes demands on a country that go beyond soldiers and weapons. During the Revolution, people from all walks of life felt the bitterness of war in shortages of everything from sugar to rum. Historian Lou Powers is with us in the studio today to talk about wartime deprivations and some ingenious American substitutions. Lou, thank you for being back with us today.

Lou Powers: Hi, glad to be here Harmony.

Harmony: I’m so excited to talk about this topic of wartime deprivations because today when our country goes to war ,or is engaged in a conflict, as it might be called, we don’t really feel it. You know, I can still go to the grocery and buy all the same things, I can still get gas at the gas station, but during the Revolution -- a conflict that happened on American soil -- it was a much different experience for American citizens.

Lou: It really was. A lot of that is because the Americans are fighting their suppliers and manufacturers of nearly every important good. All the British ships are carrying textiles and ceramics from England, and sugar from the West Indies. Rum is made from molasses which too is a byproduct of sugar. So all these things, when the Americans decide to go against the big bad enemy, they say the best way to do it is through their pocketbook; we’re not going to buy anything from them.

And these, beginning in 1774, these non-importation associations are effective. They get the attention of the ministers in St. James’ in London. Once war is actually declared and we're in an embargo situation, ships can’t get to us. We have no cloth, we have no coffee, sugar, tea; of course tea is the main thing. Remember Boston Harbor? So it becomes a way the Americans decide to hit the British in their pocketbook, because they’re much weaker combat companion and it’s highly effective. Then when war is actually going there are shortages of all kinds.

Think of trying to create an army and a government simultaneously, practically overnight. They do it within about a month. They write the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia, elect a Governor, put the men from the militia into the Virginia regiments and the Continental line. They’re making it up as they go along.

Harmony: And all without coffee!

Lou: That’s right.

Harmony: So out of these shortages come substitutions and that’s where I really like to see the American story, the classic American tale of ingenuity and, you know, roughing it. What are some of the most notable substitutions that were made when we couldn’t get these prime, these staples of food and daily life like textiles; which is more than just clothing? Textiles is sheets, it's sails, it's canvas coverings for tents and shelters.

Lou: Yes, the textile industry in England had been supplying us for so many decades. It’s the number one import, so when that is cut off beginning in 1774 and then lasting through the war, you see plantation owners such as George Washington putting his slaves to making textiles, to spinning and weaving and beginning the home production of these essential textiles.

Of course there are lots of people with plenty of clothes and it can be reused and it can be remade. Fashion's not quite as important during wartime as it was earlier, so there’s a lot of what we would now call "upcycling" and recycling and making do.

But some of the substitutions you mentioned, Harmony, there’s really no substitution for coffee. I think you and I would agree with that, nor tea, although there are herbal teas; herbs that you could grow in your own garden, dry and then make into some sort of chamomile or rosemary, those sorts of plants will make a tea and they had been used as home remedies and now they’re about the only hot beverage you can get. Because think of it, chocolate, tea and coffee are all imported. They didn’t have what was called their intoxicating, exciting beverages. They weren’t available.

But speaking of intoxicating, another substitution is that because they couldn’t get rum because of the molasses coming from production of sugar in the West Indies. They can’t get their corn out. We’re growing corn, so we've got a surplus of corn, they can’t ship it away to make money. So, let’s think, what will we do? We’ve got all this corn, we haven’t got any rum. “Let’s make whiskey.”

Harmony: An American beverage.

Lou: That’s correct, and it becomes the substitution there. You take this large quantity of corn and you distill it down to a very much smaller volume into a form that keeps a long time and it is both an entertainment drink and used for anesthesia, for surgeries and that sort of thing. So that sounds like an American Civil War story, but actually it’s an American Revolution story. It happens earlier.

Harmony: So those are some substitutions. Let’s see, we also wanted to talk about smuggling. Of course, if you have a shortage there’s always somebody who’s willing to get it for you. How did smuggling become a boom business?

Lou: As I mentioned, the embargo was all along the East Coast cutting off usual transportation routes, but there are those daring souls in their small ships who will scoot around and get to the Dutch Islands in the Indies. They’ll be able to bring various traded substances, whether its salt, gunpowder, indigo, rum, all these things can be brought in in small quantities.

There is a wonderful tale of St. George Tucker, who went to College of William & Mary here and became a lawyer after studying with George Wythe. He’s from Bermuda. He cannot practice in the courts because the courts are closed, so he’s kind of in limbo, looks around, what should he do, gets to Bermuda. His father buys him a little ship. St. George Tucker before he left just happen to have told Patrick Henry and Peyton Randolph that the powder magazine at St. George’s in Bermuda was -- nobody was looking after it. What do you know? A ship from Virginia and one from South Carolina pull up at St. George’s, take the powder and run the blockade and come back to Virginia with that gunpowder.

Harmony: So when those shortages went beyond creature comforts they actually needed some supplies for the business of war?

Lou: Absolutely. Gunpowder’s one of the biggest things. Another huge shortage of a very necessary item, Harmony, is salt. Of course it’s an essential mineral for humans. Also for animals, all the horses and cattle that are used in pulling goods of the Army, the cannon, all the baggage of the Army, but even more important than that it’s importance in preserving meats. Without refrigeration people were salting meat, take the ubiquitous Virginia ham as a prime example, as a way to keep it from year to year.

Harmony: What about medicines for apothecaries?

Lou: Yes, they had been importing all their drugs from Europe for decades, of course, and that’s on the more professional side of the medical world. Underneath that there had always been home remedies that housewives knew about; the herbal treatments and various things of this sort. Lacking those imported drugs, we have to go back to that more old wives tales, home remedies sorts of things because they cannot get those drugs from overseas at this time.

Harmony: In our beloved Story of a Patriot, the movie that plays at the Visitors Center when everyone begins their visit to Colonial Williamsburg, there’s a famous quote when Mrs. Fry says, “English goods were ever the best.” After trade was able to resume, what were some of the first things, some of the English goods that colonists were anxious to get their hands on again?

Lou: Textiles, clothing, accessories, style, ceramics because they’re very stylish too. We wouldn’t put our egos in the kind of cup we’re carrying or the way we set our table so much but it was big business and people really wanted their ceramics. They’re being made in different styles and it’s just a rapid turnover in the pattern change of various ceramics, china, tableware of all sorts so those two big items, the two biggest industries that Britain has are exactly what we want and, yes sir, we’ll buy them again. We do not hold a grudge. We will buy them again because they’re the best and most fashionable.

Harmony: It’s a fascinating story. One that you can see when you visit the Historic Area and talk to the interpreters, but I think it’s probably also a story you can see if you visit the museum collections at the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. You can see some of the textiles and some of the ceramics that we’ve been talking about today.

Lou, thank you so much for being our guest today. It’s always fun to have you Thank you for being here.

Lou: Great, Harmony. Thank you.