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Chapter 8:

  • Substitutes for coffee.
  • -- raspberry-leaf tea. -- home-made starch, putty, and cement. -- spinning Bees

One of our most difficult tasks was to find a good substitute for coffee. This palatable drink, if not a real necessary of life, is almost indispensable to the enjoyment of a good meal, and some Southerners took it three times a day. Coffee soon rose to thirty dollars per pound; from that it went to sixty and seventy dollars per pound. Good workmen received thirty dollars per day; so it took two days hard labor to buy one pound of coffee, and scarcely any could be had even at that fabulous price. Some imagined themselves much better in health for the absence of coffee, and wondered why they had ever used it at all, and declared it good for nothing any way; but “Sour grapes” would be the reply for such as they. Others saved a few handfuls of coffee, and used it on very important occasions, and then only as an extract, so to speak, for flavoring substitutes for coffee.

There were those who planted long rows [102] of the okra plant on the borders of their cotton or corn fields, and cultivated this with the corn and cotton. The seeds of this, when mature, and nicely browned, came nearer in flavor to the real coffee than any other substitute I now remember. Yam potatoes used to be peeled, sliced thin, cut into small squares, dried, and then parched brown; they were thought to be next best to okra for coffee. Browned wheat, meal, and burnt corn made passable beverages; even meal-bran was browned and used for coffee if other substitutes were not obtainable.

We had several substitutes for tea which were equally as palatable, and, I fancy, more wholesome, than much that is now sold for tea. Prominent among these substitutes were raspberry leaves. Many during the blockade planted and cultivated the raspberry-vine all around their garden palings, as much for tea as the berries for jams or pies; these leaves were considered the best substitute for tea. The leaves of the blackberry bush, huckleberry leaves, and the leaves of the holly-tree when dried in the shade, also made a palatable tea.

Persimmons dried served for dates. [103]

Each household made its own starch, some of the bran of wheat flour. Green corn and sweet potatoes were grated in order to make starch. This process was very simple. The grated substance was placed to soak in a large tub of water; when it had passed through the process of fermentation and had risen to the surface, the grated matter was all skimmed off, the water holding the starch in solution was passed through a sieve, and then through a thin cloth to free altogether from any foreign substance. A change of clear water twice a day for three or four days was made to more thoroughly bleach the starch. It would then be put on white cloth, placed on scaffolds in the yard, and left to drip and dry. Starch of wheat bran was made in the same manner. It was as white and fine as any ever bought.

A good makeshift had soon been devised for putty and cement, and the artlessness of it will perhaps cause a smile to flit across the face of glaziers. But no cement could be bought, and this was useful in many ways, as panes of glass had to be set in, or a break to be mended; the handle broken from a pitcher to be placed on [104] anew, or repairing done to table ware. When it was necessary to repair any such breaks, a Spanish potato (none other of the species of that esculent root answered so well) was roasted in hot ashes, peeled while yet hot, immediately mashed very fine, and mixed with about a tablespoonful of flour; it was then, while warm, applied to whatever need there was. This paste, when it had become hardened, remained fixed and firm, and was as durable as putty.

In place of kerosene for lights, the oil of cotton seed and ground peas, together with the oil of compressed lard, was used, and served well the need of the times. For lights we had also to fall back on moulding candles, which had long years lain obsolete. When beeswax was plentiful it was mixed with tallow for moulding candles. Long rows of candles so moulded would be hung on the lower limbs of wide-spreading oaks, where, sheltered by the dense foliage from the direct rays of the sun, they would remain suspended day and night until they were bleached as white as the sperm candles we had been wont to buy, and almost as transparent as wax candles. When [105] there was no oil for the lamps or tallow for moulding candles, which at times befell our households, mother-wit would suggest some expedient by which the intricate problem of light could be solved.

One evening at a neighbor's, where we had gone to tea, when we took our seats at the supper-table we were diverted by the lights we were to eat by, the like of which, up to that time, we had not seen, nor even thought of.

In the absence of any of the ordinary materials for lighting, the good woman of the house had gone to the woods and gathered a basketful of round globes of the sweet-gum tree. She had taken two shallow bowls and put some lard, melted, into them, then placed two or three of the sweet-gum balls in each of the vessels, which, soon becoming thoroughly saturated with the melted lard, gave a fairylike light, floating round in the shallow vessels of oil like stars.

At other times rude lamps or candles were improvised, anything but attractive in appearance, though the light was fairly bright. Medium — sized bottles (of course any proper sized bottle would answer) were [106] taken, and several strands of spun thread twisted together to form a wick two or three yards long were well steeped in beeswax and tallow, and coiled around the bottle from base to neck closely and evenly. When ready for lighting, one or more of the coils of thread would be loosed from the bottle, raised above the mouth an inch or so, and pressed with the thumb to the neck of the bottle. When the wick had burned to the bottle's mouth, the same process of uncoiling and pressing the wick to the bottle would be repeated. This gave a steady flame. When beeswax could not be had, tallow was used for steeping the strands.

Sewing societies were formed in every hamlet, as well as in our cities, to keep the soldiers of the Confederacy clothed as best we could. They met once every week, at some lady's house, if it was in the country. To such societies all the cloth that could be spared from each household was given and made into soldiers' garments. Socks, gloves, blankets, woolen coverlets, and even home-made bedquilts were donated; wool scarfs, knitted on long oak or hickory — wood needles, were sent for our [107] soldiers in the bitter cold of Virginia, to wrap around their necks and cover their ears.

In many settlements there were spinning “bees.” Many women whose husbands were in the army found it uphill work to card and spin all that was necessary to clothe a numerous family, In such cases, as often as was needful, there would be a gathering of ladies of the settlement, both married and single, for the “spinning bee.” Wheels, cards, and cotton were all hauled in a wagon to the place appointed. On the way, as often as not, a long flexible twig would be cut from the woods, and attached to one of the spinning-wheels; from the top of such flagstaff would play loosely to the wind, and jolts of the wagon, a large bunch of lint cotton, as our ensign. Sometimes as many as six or eight wheels would be whirring at the same time in one house, and assistance was also given in weaving, cutting out, and making up clothing for such families.

Ah, those stormy days of our convulsed country had their guileless pleasures, as well as sorrows! We were drawn together in a closer union, a tenderer feeling [108] of humanity linking us all together, both rich and poor; from the princely planter, who could scarce get off his wide domains in a day's ride, and who could count his slaves by the thousand, down to the humble tenants of the log-cabin on rented or leased land. I have now a letter written by a Southern woman, whose husband and oldest son belonged to an Alabama regiment, which was ordered to Island No.10, in the Mississippi River; and soon surrounded there as it was by the Federal army, communication was cut off between our soldiers and the home ones. Soon the island was captured by our enemies, and her husband and son were taken prisoners. She was then thrown upon her own resources entirely to provide for a family of ten, no longer receiving the government pay of eleven dollars per month each for husband and son. Her two oldest daughters were large enough to give her some help in her battle to keep the wolf from the door. These people were of those who had never owned a slave in their lives, and who had but a few acres of land, but they were just as true and devoted to our cause as those who numbered their slaves and [109] acres by the thousand. I cannot forbear quoting here a few lines of this brave, good woman's letter.

“ We had a hard time [she writes]; myself and two oldest daughters making a living for ten in the family. There was no work the little boys could do. We spun and wove cloth to sell, day by day, and we took in sewing, which was done by night. We knit a great deal, and worked, oh, so hard! and I thank God that it was so, for had it been otherwise, had I had time to sit and ponder over all the sad details that the daily news brought me, I should have failed. But when night came on, my weary, aching limbs and troubled heart were soon at rest; and I awoke refreshed, and ready for another day's trials; and I am proud to say we never went to bed hungry .... We even had some merry days, neighbors and friends meeting together, telling our trials, and even laughing at them; feeling that the sacrifice was little, could we but gain our cause. There is one thing I am proud of, and that is, the advantages we took of our resources, and our own independence. I can hardly see how such a people could be conquered.” [110]

She lives to-day in the “Lone star” State, surrounded by nine of her children, who are all good and useful citizens. Her husband died in a Northern prison. The oldest son, who was taken prisoner when his father was, was paroled soon after the South's surrender, and returned home, as thousands of others did, to join a broken home circle.

We often thought, and said too, that it was well for us all in the South that our minds were so taxed in devising temporary expedients, and our hands so busied in carrying them into effect; we really had no time to brood over the sorrowful news that the papers were daily depicting. We were being led in a way we knew not: and like the humble woman of the cottage, we even made merry over our inevitable privations and inconveniences. Indeed, we grew so accustomed to them that they scarcely seemed privations.

While hemmed in on all sides by the blockade, we used to think that if no war were raging, and a wall as thick and high as the great Chinese Wall were to entirely surround our Confederacy, we should not suffer intolerable inconvenience, but live [111] as happily as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they tasted the forbidden fruit. We used to say, “How can we be subdued, when we have so cheerfully and uncomplainingly given up every luxury, and in a measure even the comforts of life; and yet with what crude resources are at hand, we are feeding and clothing the whole people of the South, civil as well as military?” We felt all the more pride, when we remembered that at the beginning of hostilities we were unprepared in almost every essential necessary to the existence of our Confederacy; yet now, the best part of two years had gone, and the South was holding her own.

Our day of adversity had not come; it was not unnatural that we sang with fervor and animation, “We conquer or die,” and “Farewell, brother Jonathan.” But we did not forget to call upon the Lord in the day of our success, as well as in the day of our adversity. Often the inhabitants of our settlement — and it was just the same all over the Southern States--were called to the house of worship to sanctify a fast. What comfort and consolation we gathered from the reading of the first and second [112] chapters of the book of the Prophet Joel; how fervently and devoutly we prayed that God would stay up the hands of our armies, till victory was won; and trusting God we would return lifted up in spirit to our homes and to our labor. It was well for us that we had not prophetic vision to foresee the result of the contest. We fasted, we prayed, we trusted; but victory did not crown our armies.

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