When History and Video Games Collide

1, October 2014

Recently, as I was browsing through our collections, I came across a piece of hardtack. I paused in surprise, and thought, “Wow. This is actually a thing.” Hardtack is something that I use every day but didn’t realize actually exists (or existed). You see, I use hardtack in a virtual world, one in which I fight for the good of humanity as I try to save the world from its own narcissistic tendencies. This world is called ArcheAge, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). It is a world of high fantasy, a world where myth and magic rule, elves fight the corruption of evil, and it is a world that is full of historical Easter eggs. In this virtual world of long-fought battles, hardtack is an inexpensive food that allows me to quickly replenish my health and continue moving forward.

piece of hardtrack from the Civil WarHardtack was a staple in the diet of the Civil War soldier. This piece dates to 1861–1865. Missouri History Museum.

Interestingly, this is the same reason that hardtack was used in the Civil War. Hardtack weighed around 16 ounces and measured approximately three inches square and was a half-inch thick. Soldiers were typically issued 9 or 10 pieces. Consisting of water and flour, it was inexpensive with a long shelf life. While hardtack was created for its longevity, it wasn’t the tastiest option. This prompted soldiers to crumble it into soups or toast it over a fire. It was also used to make a variety of dishes, such as skillygalle, hellfire stew, and lobscouse. The drying process made hardtack so dry and hard that most recipes required soaking the bread. However, while the bread was notoriously hard, this didn’t stop weevils and other insects from making it their home. Soldiers who soaked hardtack in their coffee would sometimes find the need to scoop off a layer of maggots before drinking. In addition to fueling soldiers, the non-perishable quality of hardtack was great for making long voyages and also became known as shipsbiscuit and pilot bread. While not the most nutritional culinary confection, hardtack was a boon for those embarking on a long and difficult journey.

As I continue making my own journey through our collections and the virtual realm, I will likely come across a variety of items that surprise me in much the same way that the hardtack did. Our collections are vast, and the Missouri History Museum is a deep well of knowledge wrought by the efforts of the collection staff and the curatorial team—past and present. The world of gaming is also vast, and the worlds that appear to be fantasy have the ability to create unique and fun educational opportunities. They contain rich narratives that are created by researchers and writers who have a tendency to merge reality with the whimsical. If you too are a gamer, as you make your way through game worlds, look up some of those items and objects that you come across. You just might learn something new. And by all means, share it with us. As I come across new and unique opportunities for learning, I will be sure to share it with you.

—Judy Williams, Digital Engagement Coordinator