Remembering the Days: The Great Biscuit Rebellion

Remembering the Days - episode 38

For much of the first half of the 19th century, students at South Carolina College were not pleased with the quality of food served on campus. In 1852, the wormy biscuits and rancid meat were too much to stomach, so the students issued an ultimatum — that ultimately gave them a case of indigestion.


Maybe I’ve gotten a little jaded with all the commercials and advertising that happen around the holidays.

A huckster’s voice : “Prices slashed to the bone! Buy one, get one free! You’ll save thousands — what are you waiting for? Step right up — how can you afford to miss this opportunity. It’s the deal of a lifetime. And at this price, it won’t last long. C’mon folks, what are you waiting for? ”

It just seems like there’s too much hype — everything is over-the-top. So, when I tell you that this episode is about the Great Biscuit Rebellion of 1852 …

Huckster’s voice:  “The Great Biscuit Rebellion — that's right, there were biscuits and a rebellion, it was great!”

… naturally, you’re going to expect a story about a massive conflict, about students possibly coming to blows over biscuits.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and — truth be told — the Great Biscuit Rebellion was a food fight, but probably not the kind you’re thinking about.

Here’s a little background. When South Carolina College, the precursor to the University of South Carolina, began in the early 1800s, all of the students and professors lived on the Horseshoe, and the students were required to eat all of their meals in the Steward’s Hall. Think of it like a big cafeteria with cafeteria-quality food, which is to say, not particularly apetizing.

Elizabeth West: "The steward who ran the Steward's Hall cafeteria used the cheapest ingredients possible,  which gave him a little extra income, a little extra profit there, and the students were constantly complaining about stale wormy biscuits and rancid meat that they were being served and just a really, really poor quality of the meals that they were being served."

That’s Elizabeth West, the university archivist, and, yes, you heard her correctly: The biscuits served to the students were often stale and sometimes had a few worms crawling around inside. And the meat — well, let’s just say it wasn’t prime rib … or even sub-prime rib.

Students complained about the food incessantly, and they sometimes took matters into their own hands. On more than one occasion in those early years, they broke up furniture in the Steward’s Hall and confiscated dishes and silverware and threw them into the campus well on the Horseshoe.

Elizabeth West: "The students more than once threw materials down the college wells. During the 1970s, archaeologists were able to excavate the wells during the Horseshoe renovation project and pulled out a lot of materials, including cups, ceramic dishes, shards, silverware, things like that."

So you might be thinking that that was the Great Biscuit Rebellion — students trashing the Steward’s Hall and throwing silverware into the well. But no, the great rebellion was still decades away. In the meantime, students kept complaining about food, so much so that college president Thomas Cooper noted in the 1820s that the college was in “yearly jeopardy of being destroyed because of disputes about eating.”

The college tried to appease the students in different ways. For awhile, students were allowed to leave campus and take their meals at one of several boardinghouses nearby. The problem with that was the boardinghouses were also taverns, which meant that it was a little too easy for students to wash down their meals with some strong drink. You might recall that South Carolina College built a wall around the campus in the 1830s to try to keep the students from going to those taverns at night. Check out the episode called "The Great Wall of Carolina" to see how that turned out.

By the late 1840s, the college opened a new Steward’s Hall at the corner of Greene and Main Streets — it’s where the College of Education is now — and the college was paying a bursar a salary of $1,500 a year to provide meals for the students. Going to the Steward’s Hall was mandatory, but the college’s board of trustees thought that the bursar, since he was being paid fairly well, would not try to skimp on the quality of food. Apparently that was wishful thinking, and by 1852, the students were once again exasperated with the college’s culinary offerings.

Elizabeth  West: "The students had been complaining yearly through all these generations of students about the poor quality of the food. And in 1852, it came to a point where the majority, nearly all of the student body, banded together to sign essentially an ultimatum to the board of trustees that if they if the board of trustees did not change the dining system, improve the food, allow them to eat off campus, then they, the students would leave the school, leave the university."

Even though there was not so much as one wormy biscuit thrown in anger, the incident soon came to be called the Great Biscuit Rebellion. The students had thrown down the gauntlet and threatened to leave college if the dining system wasn’t changed. Unfortunately for them, the trustees and the college president, James Thornwell, did not appreciate being forced into a corner. They sympathized with the students’ plight to some degree, but they refused to change the rules unless the students rescinded their pledge.

The students considered it a matter of honor. They had pledged to leave if nothing changed and many of them made good on their promise. The student body stood at 199 in 1852 but dwindled to 122 in 1853, and only 11 seniors graduated that year.

Ironically, the trustees changed the dining system in 1853 — they might have been afraid that even more students would leave — and students were once again permitted to eat their meals at a licensed boardinghouse. The new arrangement did, however, stipulate that “no intoxicating liquor, whether distilled or fermented, shall be supplied to the students and none be permitted to be drunk at the table.”

The university continued to operate a Steward’s Hall after the Civil War and into the 20th century, but it was no longer mandatory for students to eat their meals there and that by itself dialed down the temperature of students’ tempers over campus food.

And now? As you probably know, there are restaurants galore all around the campus and on campus itself. Walk over to the Russell House at lunchtime and you’ll see two or three food trucks parked on the street and half a dozen or more eateries inside, including a Chick-fil-A. You can’t go far across campus without running into a Starbucks.

Not that this would ever happen, but I asked students what they would do if, hypothetically, the university told them they had to eat all of their meals on campus at a dingy Steward’s Hall. It turns out that nothing about student sentiments have changed in that regard over the past two centuries.

Several student voices:

“I would probably complain a lot. Either that or I would probably end up like sneaking around and trying to eat off campus anyways.”

”I'd be upset, but like, I only eat at Chick-Fil-A anyways, so I wouldn't be too upset.”

“I feel like in general, like, I'm a rule follower, but I feel like with that, like trying to eat food of that quality that might be cause enough to break the rules, for sure."

"I think I would have to draw a line there with nasty food, with bugs in it.”

Nasty food with bugs in it — yeah, I think we would all draw the line there. And probably stage our own Great Biscuit Rebellion.

That’s all for this episode, but stick around for a moment, I want to tell you about the next season of Remembering the Days. We’ll have an episode about the legendary groundskeeper Sarge Frye, we’ll learn about a building that was a massive failure when it was constructed but became a big success more than a century later. We’ll hear the sonorous voices of a choral group that traveled around the world, hear about student life in the Towers (or the Honeycombs as they also were called) and we’ll learn the stories of alumni who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. All of that and several more episodes coming up in the spring 2022 season that kicks off Jan. 18.

Remembering the Days is a production of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina. I’m Chris Horn wishing you happy holidays and an even happier new year. Thanks for listening, and forever to thee.

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