As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Coffee…The drink of the civilized world.” Coffee means so much to so many people that it even has its own day – September 29th. Coffee has become a staple in most homes, offices, campgrounds, and yes – even the military. The US military is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the country. Coffee allows military personal to always be on the watch, and is especially helpful to those who do the night watch. The Navy has a special history with coffee. We can even thank the Navy for the term “cup of Joe”. Sailors have their own special relationship with the hot brew, one that is much different from the average drinker. From the way it’s brewed, to the cup you drink it in, coffee in the Navy is like no other.

                In 1773 after the Boston Tea Party, the Continental Congress declared coffee to be America’s National drink. In fact, the plan for the Tea Party was hatched in a coffeehouse. During the Civil War,

Figure 2 Forbes, Edwin, 1839-1895, artist. Military life 1870-1880

coffee was the only fresh food available to many of the troops. Confederate troops tried to substitute anything to try and make the drink including roasted corn, rye, sweet potatoes, and chicory. But of course, nothing beat the original.  The Civil War even saw the first attempt at instant coffee. However, this trial did not go very well. Factory owners trying to save cost used spoiled milk which caused more problems on the battlefield and failed to boost morale. The military very quickly switched back to the real product. Before becoming President, William McKinley delivered hot coffee to the front lines. There is even a Civil War monument in Maryland honoring McKinley’s coffee service. The monument reads, “Sergeant McKinley Co. E. 23rd Ohio Vol. Infantry, while in charge of the Commissary Department, on the afternoon of the day of the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1962, personally and without orders served hot coffee and warm food to every man in the Regiment, on this spot and in doing so had to pass under fire.” This story was told many times during his Presidential campaign – highlighting the soldiers’ love of coffee. In a 1983 memoir on World War II, Captain Sam Lombard-Hobson said that sailor’s strong coffee was “black as ink and hot as hell; to keep the watch watchful on cold nights in the North Atlantic.”

Figure 1 Marines making Coffee on Iwo Jima

From the beginning of our military, coffee has been a necessity. While coffee was an integral part in soldier’s rations, in the Navy, it wasn’t always the favorite drink of choice.

The early days of the US Navy was molded after the British Royal Navy. This meant a daily ration of grog. Grog, which is rum diluted with water, was a daily ration in the British Navy up until 1970. Much of early Naval history is filled with stories of the rum trade. Many of our early sea tales are filled with rum soaked pirates being chased by the Dutch East India Company. In 1801, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith substituted the daily ration of American-made sour mash for West Indies rum. The daily ration of hard liquor was restricted though in 1862 during the Civil War. Order No. 29 restricted all alcohol brought on board ships. Only drinks that the Captain permitted were allowed onboard. While specific information isn’t available, many officers continued to have wine with a meal daily. The removal of alcohol on board ships came in 1914 with Order No. 99, which banned all alcoholic beverages from Naval property. This move was made by Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels.

Figure 3 Harris & Ewing, “Josephus Daniels,” c. 1920. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36747. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While there is no definitive proof of the connection, the American slang for coffee – “a cup of Joe” is highly linked to this action. The coffee mess became a prominent fixture on surface ships and submarines alike. Coffee pots could be found on the bridge, in the engine room, the ship’s office, the machine shop, and many other places. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy established its own coffee-roasting plants in Oakland, California and Brooklyn, New York. While both plants are closed now, this represents how serious coffee was regarded during wartime in the Navy.

Figure 4 Oakland Naval Supply Center, Coffee Roasting Plant, East of Fourth Street, between J & K, Oakland, Alameda County, CA

During WWII, most of Hawaii’s kona crop was purchased by the Navy in order to supply its sailors with the amount of coffee they needed. The average coffee consumer may be asking why is Navy coffee so important. After all, it’s just coffee. But coffee on a boat is not like your average cup.

There is an article on the Naval Historical Foundation website called “Don’t Wash That Coffee Mug” that perfectly describes the outsider’s realization about Navy coffee. The author of the article describes his first experience with Navy coffee in the following manner: “It was hot and strong. Very strong. The thickness of it closely resembled crude oil. It tasted both wonderful and terrible at the same time. Your mind can trick you into believing anything. When a supreme bot of joe is brewed, many of the volunteers would call it ‘Signal Bridge Coffee,’ recalling the nostalgia of long nights and many cups consumed.” [1] One of our own had a similar experience. When our assistant manager in the gift shop started, she asked one of the sailors if they had any milk she could borrow. She was quickly told that there was no milk around. Submariners drink their coffee black and strong – or not at all. While this may not be true with all sailors (creamer and sugar are consumed widely by military personal), this idea stems from the period of time when soldiers in war could only get spoiled milk due to the delay in the arrival of supplies. Today many sailors, and other military members as well, will tell you a cup of black coffee is the only way to go. It is not only the strength of the coffee that matters, but the cup in which you drink it. There is a tradition, as strange as it may seem, to not wash your coffee mug. The practice is called “seasoning”, and many a sailor that passes through the museum will suggest that one must never wash their mug. This is another reason for drinking their coffee black. If someone used milk and sugar in their coffee, they’d have no choice but to clean it. A 1945 Navy cookbook outlines clear instructions on how to clean both the coffee pot and mug upon consumption. Today’s sailors carry a different tune. Especially amongst the Navy chief community, a well “seasoned” cup is a sign of stature and seniority.  Much like taking coffee black, a “seasoned” coffee mug is not practiced by every sailor in today’s Navy. Despite this, these traditions show how coffee has become an integral daily routine for many sailors.

Coffee has played a distinctive role in the US military. The drink is one of the top items sent to deployed military personnel.  So, we want to know – how do you take your coffee? Do you think you could handle the strong, thick Navy coffee? And would you ever try to “season” your coffee mug?