Civil War Food Prices Escalate in Richmond

by Sandra Merville Hart

The Confederate Capitol was officially transferred to Richmond, Virginia, on May 21, 1861. Confederate President Jefferson Davis moved there with his family.

Richmond’s prewar population of 38,000 swelled to 100,000 by 1865. This caused food shortages as the war continued.

By early 1862, the cost of food had risen. Bacon was 25 cents a pound. Butter was up to 50 cents a pound. Beef had risen from 13 to 30 cents a pound for poor quality meat. Fish, even shad or rockfish, was expensive.

Folks paid $1.50 for a pound of coffee. At that price, ladies used roasted rye or roasted corn as substitutes for coffee. Some used dried willow leaves to replace tea.

As the war continued, some residents resorted to “Dutch treats,” when entertaining guests at dinner parties. Guests attending such dinners provided delicacies like brandied peaches, sardines, or French prunes for the meal.

Oriental’s Bill of Fare dated Monday, December 21, 1863, shows a variety of choices. This Richmond restaurant boasted of “Game of All Kinds (In Season)” and “Meals Furnished at All Hours.”

Here are a few of their menu items and prices:

Soups: Beef, Chicken, Vegetable, Clam, Oyster, Terrapin, Turtle, Mock Turtle—$1 each

       Fowls: Roast Turkey, Roast Goose, Roast Ducks, Roast Chicken—$3 per plate

       Fish: Shad, Perch, Herring, Crabs and Lobsters—$3 per plate

       Meats: Roast Beef, Roast Mutton, Roast Lamb, Roast Veal—$3 each

      Steaks: Beefsteaks, Pork Steaks, Mutton Chops, Veal Cutlets, Venison Steaks—$3 each

       Sundries: Ham and eggs, Poached eggs, Scrambled eggs, Fried eggs, Omelets—$3 each

       Oysters: Fried oysters, Scalloped oysters, Raw oysters—$3 each

       Birds: Partridge, Robin, Snipe, Woodcock–$3 per pair

       Vegetables (many choices marked as unavailable): Irish Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Cabbage, Lettuce, Onions, Celery—50 cents

      Non-alcoholic beverage choices were Pure coffee—$2.50, Pure tea—$2, Fresh milk—50 cents.

     Wines: Champagne, Madeira, Claret, Port

     Liquors: French Brandy, Apply Brandy, Peach Brandy, Rye Whiskey

     Malt Liquors: Ale, Porter

Even Fine Havana Cigars were on the menu. It’s difficult to read the prices for the alcoholic drinks and determine if it was sold by the bottle or glass. For instance, champagne has $40 marked by it in pen.

In contrast, Corinthian Hall’s Bill of Fare, from March 28, 1864, shows price increases in only three months. These are grouped by price:

     $7.50—Ham and Eggs, Tenderloin Steak, Beefsteak and Onions, Oyster Fried, Oyster Boiled, Oyster Scalloped

       $5—Veal Cutlets, Mutton Chops, Boiled Ham, Fish, Omelet-herb

       $2—Potatoes cream, Potatoes fried, Celery, Toast, Butter

       $4—Coffee per cup

These old menus give us a glimpse back into history—what a treasure!

Sources

“Richmond in the Midst of the Civil War,” Virginia Museum of History & Culture, 2021/02/04 https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/richmond-midst-civil-war.

Mortimer, Gavin. Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War’s Most Daring Spy, Walker & Company, 2010.