A delightful NY Times article by Jon Grinspan called “How Coffee Fueled the Civil War” (thanks, Eric!) is worth reading for any coffee lover (there are tasty quotes like a soldier’s “what keeps me alive must be the coffee” and Gen. Butler’s “if your men get their coffee early in the morning you can hold”), but what brings me to post it here is this sentence: “Men ground the beans themselves (some carbines even had built-in grinders) and brewed it in little pots called muckets.” Naturally I was intrigued by the final word and looked it up, but I was unable to find it in any of my reference works. Both Webster’s Third and the OED know it only as a freshwater mussel (OED, updated March 2003: “A North American freshwater mussel of the family Unionidae; spec. Actinonaias ligamentina of the eastern United States or a related species, usually of the genus Lampsilis or Leptodea“), and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Vol. 2) and Jonathon Green’s Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang know it only as “a hairpiece” (HDAS: “origin unknown”; Green: “? var. on SE merkin, a pubic wig”). Googling gets me this, from Palmer H. Boeger’s “Hardtack and Burned Beans” (Civil War History 4:1, March 1958, pp. 73-92, quote from p. 89):

Veterans despised the coffee boiled at the company cook shack and boasted about brewing their own to just the right strength and flavor. Early in the war many soldiers of the Army of the Potomac carried a small tin pail with a cover and a wooden handle called a “mucket” in which to boil their coffee.

I’m guessing that’s where Grinspan got it. If anyone knows more about this mysterious term, go ahead and spill the beans.


  1. Alas, I have no grounds for writing this comment.

  2. Google mucket coffee and you can learn a bit more. Apparently the word is still in use among the Civil War reenactment enthusiasts, but according to this is probably used wrongly.

  3. They were ‘lucky’ in that war; they got to grind beans. Both World Wars were fueled by instant coffee. See Coffee; a Dark History by Antony Wild. That explains why, whenever anyone was handed a mug of coffee in those old war movies, they tasted and complained about it. Remember that, anyone?

  4. mocha + bucket

  5. From Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War: A History (p. 289):

    So incompetent was the [British] commissariat that it took shipments of green, unroasted coffee beans, instead of tea, the usual drink of the troops in an Empire based on the tea trade. The process of roasting, grinding and preparing the coffee was too laborious for most of the British soldiers, who threw the beans away.

    He adds: “The British troops were not accustomed to foraging for food or fending for themselves. Recruited mainly from the landless and the urban poor, they had none of the peasant know-how or resourcefulness of the French soldiers, who could hunt for animals, fish in the rivers and the sea, and turn almost anything into food.” Plus the French had coffee prepared for them at the food canteens the British notoriously lacked.

  6. Robert:
    You’ve made me think. If bad coffee is ‘muck’ – nasty brown mud-like stuff that stains your clothes when spilled – there are other possibilities:
    a. ‘muck’ + ‘bucket’,
    b. ‘mud’ + ‘bucket’ (isn’t bad coffee often compared to mud?),
    c. ‘muck’ + diminutive ending (it’s much smaller than the average bucket).
    Choices a and b would be hard to distinguish, since ‘mud’ and ‘muck’ are near-synonyms and ‘mucket’ could have picked up its K sound from ‘bucket’.

  7. des von bladet says

    There was an infantryman from Nantucket…

  8. Possibly related: your friends or close comrades in the British Army are your muckers, and helping other people out by sharing their work is mucking in.

  9. J. W. Brewer says

    Via google books you can find what appears to be a contemporaneous use of “mucket” in the coffee-making sense from a 1903 edition of the 1861-65 wartime letters home of Oliver Willcox Norton. The letter in question is dated Apr. 14 1862, at which point he would have been an enlisted man in the 81st Pennsylvania. (He later became one of the white commissioned officers of the 8th U.S. Colored Troops; Willcox was also inter alia a bugler and is credited in some sources with the composition of “Taps.”) But it’s deuced weird that google books should not turn up anything prior to your 1958 source other than this one hit, since I would think that the google books corpus would be jam-packed with obscure small-press-run local histories and reminiscences by Civil War vets.

  10. Weird indeed!

  11. A decade later, googling [coffee mucket] gets plenty of hits (“The mucket is the same as the Corn Boiler ( 6 cups) above with some added features”; Stainless Steel Coffee Boiler/Mucket; Muckets & Coffee Pots | BASBROS CO), but the OED is still unaware of this sense.

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