Artifact Corner: 19th Century Sailor’s Diet

Hi everyone! This weekend marks the 209th Anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh. Our annual commemoration is also happening this weekend, the museum is open and we will have early 19th Century life demonstrations. This event commemorates Thomas MacDonough’s incredible victory over the British fleet on September 11th, 1814. We thought it might be fun to look at what a sailor in US Navy’s diet would have been like. What did they consume, was it very different from what the average person ate? Let’s take a look at the diet of a sailor in the US Navy during the Battle of Plattsburgh.

Matthew Brenckle from the USS Constitution Museum has written a fantastic article titled “ Food and Drink in the US Navy, 1794 to 1820.” In his article he details the rations that were given to sailors in the United States Navy, and how the compared to the diets of the average Americans. Brenckle writes, “To modern stomachs accustomed to processed food and exotic delicacies on a daily basis, this menu may seem uninspiring at best. But when placed in the context of early 19th century foodways, one apprehends that the navy diet was in fact excellent. For the majority of the American population, whole grains formed the staple of their diet. Corn and wheat grew nearly everywhere, and were easily stored over the winter. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available only in certain seasons, although they could be dried or salted to preserve them for future use. While it is true that the average rural American consumed more meat than his European counterpart, only in certain meat-raising regions of the country did the urban poor eat beef or pork on days beyond holidays or other special occasions. The navy diet, with its abundance of protein – not to mention the daily spirit ration – appealed immensely to lower-class recruits who were accustomed to seasonal fluctuations in food sources and the concomitant hunger they produced. While he enjoyed more meat than most landsmen, a country-born sailor would have missed the dairy products like milk and soft cheese that comprised a large part of a farm family’s diet. Even if the navy diet seemed monotonous, it at least provided the hard-working seaman with the energy to survive at sea. The 1813 menu ensured that each man consumed approximately 4,240 calories per day (mostly from fat), 8 nearly double the daily recommended allowance for a full-grown male in modern America.”

So, what was a sailing ship likely provisioned with in the early 19th Century? Here is a list from a Court of Inquiry record, from Captain Charles Stewart, May of 1814. Here is the inventory of provisions: Bread, 84,456 pounds. Beef, 57,700 pounds. Pork, 50,600 pounds. Flour, 12,544 pounds. Suet, none. Cheese, 2,174 pounds. Raisins, 360 pounds. Peas/Beans, 1,932 pounds. Rice, 1,657 pounds. Molasses, 870 gallons. Vinegar, 870 gallons. Crout (or finely shredded and pickled cabbage), 800 gallons. Spirits, 9,546 gallons. Water, 47,265 gallons. Sailors were also provided with fishing nets, so that they could provide themselves with fresh fish and anything else they could gather in their nets.

Overall, despite the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, sailors ate quite well on board the Navy’s vessels. Sometimes better than their counterparts on land. If you are in the area this weekend, please come down to the museum. The museum is open from 10-4 on Saturday and 11-3 on Sunday. There are also so many other events happening around the city. For a full list of the activities check out the 1814 Commemoration Inc.’s website. We hope to see you this weekend and thanks so much for stopping by.

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
Free download:
License (CC BY 4.0):
Artist website: