Domestic Economy in the Confederacy
Coffee, Tea, and Sugar  

From an 1886 Atlantic Monthly article by David Dodge

            Coffee had been almost the sole table beverage of the South, and no privation caused more actual discomfort among the people at large than the want of it. There was nothing for which they strove so eagerly and unceasingly to procure a substitute. Few indeed were the substances which did not first and last find their way into the coffee-pot. Wheat, rye, corn, sweet-potatoes, pea-nuts, dandelion seed, okra seed, persimmon seed, melon seed, are but a few of the substitutes which had their turn and their day. “A fig for the difference between Ri-o and ry-e,” said the wits. “Eureka!” cried an enthusiastic newspaper correspondent. “Another of the shackles which holds the South the commercial thrall of the world is severed. Let South America keep her Rio and the antipodes its Java. It is discovered to be true beyond peradventure that as a beverage the seed of the sea-island cotton cannot be distinguished from the best Java, unless by its superiority; while the seed of the ordinary variety is found to be not a whit behind the best Rio.” What a flutter of excitement and joy it raised in many a household — and doubtless the scene in ours was typical — to find that the great national plant, the very symbol of the Confederacy, was indeed so many-sided! It gave us greater confidence, if it were possible to have greater, in the power and possibilities of the South, now that Cotton, the great king, had had another crown laid on his brow. So opportune was the discovery, too, that it struck us as almost a divine revelation, indicating the interposition of Providence in our favor. So eager were we to test it — or rather to confirm it, for it was too good not to be true — that we could not await meal-time. Residing in North Carolina and up the country, we had never seen any sea-island cotton, but the prospect of being confined to Rio was by no means appalling. A pickaninny was forthwith hurried off to the cotton patch, then sparsely flecked with newly opened boles. The apronful of precious stuff, now a veritable manna, was hardly indoors before a dozen hands, of all sizes and colors, were tearing, picking, at the discredited fibre, in quest of the more priceless seed. The Rio was made and drunk. Despite the sorghum sweetening, the verdict was unanimous in its favor. I hope that the communication of this stupendous discovery to our neighbors added as immensely to our happiness as to our self-importance. But if in the last respect we sinned, retribution could not have been laggard. For although, owing to the fact that happily the recollection of disappointments and humiliations is less abiding than the opposite feelings, I am unable to tell exactly why and when we returned to parched bran, it is nevertheless true that we did.

            Receipts for making “coffee without coffee” (when the real article was alluded to, strong emphasis on the word left no doubt as to which kind was meant) were extensively advertised in the newspapers, and in some instances sold by canvassing agents. But rye, okra seed, and meal or bran held in the long run the popular favor. Those who could afford an infinitesimal quantity of the real article, counted out by the grain, to flavor the substitute, were the envy of the neighborhood. A cup of pure and genuine coffee would in the eyes of many have been an extravagance akin to Cleopatra’s famous draught itself. The contents of a small gourd, which held our entire stock of the genuine article for many months before the close of the war, must have gone towards the making of an incredible lake of coffee.

            The few votaries of tea consoled themselves as best they could on a decoction of raspberry leaves or sassafras root. Some genius discovered in corn-fodder the exact flavor of black tea. Sugar, after the fall of Vicksburg, was almost as scarce as coffee. But in sorghum the people found a substitute which came perhaps nearer a success than any of the numberless makeshifts of the period. Sorghum, or Chinese sugar-cane, as it was then known, had been raised to some small extent in the State as early as 1857. It began to be largely planted in 1862, and during the two succeeding years its cultivation became general; sorghum-boiling adding another to the great Southern festivals of corn-shucking and hog-killing. It was about the sole thing of which there was no stint in the Confederacy. Verily the land was “submerged in sorghum.” It sweetened the coffee, tea, and all the desserts of the time; sorghum candy was the national confection, sorghum “stews” the national festival. The strange creaking hum of the cane-mills pervaded the land. Every place was redolent of it; everything was sticking with it.

            As the juice, after being expressed by rude wooden mills on the farm, was boiled by unskilled hands in vessels of every imaginable shape and size, the most divers and surprising results often ensued. Here one farmer left his sorghum so underdone that it soured; there another so overcooked his that it refused to leave the barrel in which it had been poured. In short, every result between candy and vinegar was obtained. The product of no two farms, indeed of no two kettles, was alike in color, taste, or consistency. While a few succeeded in making a tolerable syrup, the majority were only learning the art when the war ended. As the sorghum was in most cases unavoidably boiled in iron vessels, the habitual users of it were easily to be distinguished by their abnormally black teeth. Controversy as to its healthfulness and unhealthfulness, its effect upon the teeth and the system in general, was almost as rife as that now carried on respecting whiskey and tobacco; and it may be added that it exerted about the same influence on the millions of consumers.


Dodge, David; “Domestic Economy in the Confederacy,” The Atlantic Monthly,  Volume 58, Issue 346; pp. 229-243; August 1886; Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co.

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