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Hardtack (or hard tack) is a simple type of cracker or biscuit, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. Inexpensive and long-lasting, it was and is used for sustenance in the absence of perishable foods, commonly during long sea voyages and military campaigns. The name derives from the British sailor slang for food, "tack". It is known by other names such as pilot bread (as rations for ship's pilots), ship's biscuit, shipbiscuit, sea biscuit, sea bread (as rations for sailors) or pejoratively "dog biscuits", "tooth dullers", "sheet iron", "worm castles" or "molar breakers". Australian military personnel know them as ANZAC wafers.
The introduction of the baking of processed cereals including the creation of flour provided a more reliable source of food. Egyptian sailors carried a flat brittle loaf of millet bread called dhourra cake, while the Romans had a biscuit called buccellum. King Richard I of England left for the Third Crusade (1189-92) with "biskit of muslin," which was a mixed grain compound of barley, rye and bean flour.
Many early physicians believed that most medical problems were associated with digestion. Hence, for sustenance and health, eating a biscuit daily was considered good for one's health. The bakers of the time made biscuits as hard as possible, as the biscuits would soften and be more palatable with time due to exposure to humidity and other weather elements. Because it is so hard and dry, hardtack (when properly stored and transported) will survive rough handling and temperature extremes. The more refined Captain's biscuit was made with finer flour.
To soften it, it was often dunked in brine, coffee, or some other liquid or cooked into a skillet meal. Baked hard, it would stay intact for years if it was kept dry. For long voyages, hardtack was baked four times, rather than the more common two, and prepared six months before sailing.
At the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the daily allowance on board a Royal Navy ship was 1lb of biscuit plus 1 gallon of beer. Later, Samuel Pepys in 1667 first regularized naval victualing with varied and nutritious rations. Royal Navy hardtack during Queen Victoria's reign were made by machine at the Royal Clarence Victualing Yard at Gosport, Hampshire, stamped with the Queen's mark and the number of the oven in which they were baked. Biscuits remained an important part of the Royal Navy sailor’s diet until the introduction of canned foods; canned meat was first marketed in 1814, and preserved beef in tins was officially introduced to the Royal Navy rations in 1847.
In 1801, Josiah Bent began a baking operation in Milton, Massachusetts, selling "water crackers" or biscuits made of flour and water that would not deteriorate during long sea voyages from the port of Boston, which was also used extensively as a source of food by the gold prospectors who emigrated to the gold mines of California in 1849. Since the journey took months, pilot bread was stored in the wagon trains, since it could be kept a long time. His company later sold the original hardtack crackers used by troops during the American Civil War. The G. H. Bent Company remains in Milton, and continues to sell these items to Civil War re-enactors and others.
During the American Civil War, 3-inch by 3-inch hardtack was shipped from Union and Confederate storehouses. Some of this hardtack had been stored from the 1846–8 Mexican-American War. With insect infestation common in improperly stored provisions, soldiers would break up the hardtack and drop it into their morning coffee. This would not only soften the hardtack but the insects, mostly weevil larvae, would float to the top and the soldiers could skim off the insects and resume consumption. Another way of removing weevils was to heat it at a fire, which would drive them out. Impatient troops would eat it in the dark to avoid seeing what they were consuming.
During the Spanish-American War some military hardtack was stamped with the phrase REMEMBER THE MAINE.
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