Of High Prices And Prisons


November 25, 1990|By Carleton Jones

Worried about food prices and the 10 percent boost said to be ahead because all those grocery trucks will be burning up expensive gasoline?

It may, indeed, be a tight squeeze by the holidays, but it'll be far from the worst upgrading of home kitchen costs in American history.

In both the 20th century's world wars, prices of consumables rose sharply once controls were lifted. Post-World War I brides, in some areas, suddenly found themselves confronted with $1-a-pound butter, and fans of steak and Scotch whisky found the prices of those items unbelievable in World War II days.

But even these were hardly the peak days of American food prices, gourmet and otherwise.

Backtrack to the last period of the Civil War. Beleaguered Richmond, the Confederate capital, was packed with refugees from other parts of the South and reeling from the cutoff of supplies from the Southwest and the Shenandoah Valley granaries.

"I saw a ham sell today for $350," wrote Varina Howell Davis, wife of the Confederate president. She was quoting from a book called "Diary of a Southern Refugee." "Today, bacon is selling for $6 a pound. . . . Sugar has risen to $10 and $12 a pound and the price of a turkey today is $60."

The terrific inflation of the Confederate dollar was, of course, helping to cause the price increases, but it was coupled with the fact that Richmond, once a small, industrial city surrounded by lush farmlands, was now a vastly overcrowded area surrounded by devastated fields after three years of conflict.

Even against today's prices, the cost of food in central Virginia, as recorded by Mrs. Davis, seems appalling. Flour: $300 a barrel; candles: $10 a pound; milk: $4 a quart; sugar: $900 a barrel; potatoes: $25 a bushel; and white dried beans, $4 a quart. As she roamed the pitiful Richmond markets in search of food for the Confederate White House, the first lady of the South railed against the inflation that boosted the price of chickens to $6 each and coffeeand tea to $12 and $22 a pound. "Tomatoes about the size of a walnut were $20 a dozen," she noted.

It all made Varina Davis mad, and she quoted one observer as saying, "The price for coffee was now prohibitory to those who were not speculators."

The high prices made daily living a horror. "Those having families may possibly live on their salaries; but those who live at boardinghouses cannot, for board is now from $200 to $300 a month," Varina Davis reported.

When she wasn't railing against the penury of the last days in the rebel capital, Jeff Davis' wife was raging bitterly against the North for its prison-camp conditions (the horrors of the prisons in both the North and South were just trickling into the news reports) and for its refusal to trade prisoners. The latter was a strategic move of a Northern government well aware that it could replace tens of thousands of war casualties with immigrants while the South bled to death.

In a sense, she claimed, Northern leaders were condemning prisoners of the South's (notorious) Andersonville prison to death.

As the news of the prison camps emerged in the postwar period, it was revealed that, while they were no rivals of the Andersonville prison in Georgia, Johnson Island, Ohio, and Point Lookout, Md., were grossly mismanaged prison compounds controlled by the Union.

A war, as should be better known, always has two guilty parties. *

For a closer look at the outspoken Varina Howell Davis, see her book, "Jefferson Davis: A Memoir." A centennial edition of the two volumes has just been published by the Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co. of America, 101 W. Read St. The price for both volumes is $68.50 in hardback, $39.90 in paper. They may also be purchased separately for $34.25 hardback and $19.95 softback.

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