Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rollo on the Atlantic: Ships and Dining from a Child's Viewpoint

 Rollo on the Atlantic, from Jacob Abbott

Thanks to a wonderful correspondence with one of my blog readers, I ended up buying Jacob Abbott’s Rollo on the Atlantic, written in the early 1850s and part of a series that, as Abbott put it, are “intended to be books of instruction rather than of mere amusement.”  The reader “may feel assured,” the author continued, “that all the information which they contain . . . is in most strict accordance with fact.”

Because I feel a lot like a child who must be introduced into the ways of shipboard life by an expert, I have depended on Rollo on the Atlantic to verify my hunches, clear up my confusion on certain matters concerning the layout of a Collins vessel, and on occasion, correct some of my information regarding food and dining aboard early steamships.

A brief plot synopsis:  Rollo, a twelve-year-old boy, and his cousin, Jane, must take a Collins ship, the Pacific, to England to be reunited with Rollo’s parents.  They are travelling alone, first-class, and in this predicament must rely on the kindness of the crew and fellow passengers for information and help; however, their being unchaperoned also allows them freedom to explore and to make inquiries in regards to the workings of the vessel. 

Collins's Pacific (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Given my needs as a researcher, I was most interested, of course, in scenes that involve food and dining, and given that meals presented one of the surest opportunities for a child to break protocol or upset decorum and thus cause the rest of the passengers some annoyance, Abbott does focus on the saloon and meals to guide his young readers.

Thankfully, I have discovered that my conclusions regarding the lavishness of a Collins dinner at sea were correct.  Abbott verifies that “the dinner was very much like a dinner in a fine hotel on  land,” that “first there was soup; then fish of various kinds; then all sorts of roasted meats, such as beef, mutton, chickens, and ducks, with a great variety of vegetables.  Then came puddings, pies, jellies, ice-creams and preserves; and, finally, a dessert of nuts, raisins, almonds, and oranges.  In fact, it was a very sumptuous dinner” (pp. 106-108).
Jacob Abbott, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jacob Abbott’s detailed descriptions of the interiors of a Collins ship are particularly helpful.  Abbott (1803-1879) was a well-off professor of mathematics at Amherst College in Massachusetts (USA) as well as an ordained minister and author; he likely was well-travelled and accustomed to genteel life both on and off of ships.  His ability to “see” the narrow passages, saloons, and stairs of the Collins’s Pacific from a child’s point of view is delightful, as well as helpful.  Abbott’s description of Rollo’s and Jane’s journey to the dining saloon for their first lunch at sea is particularly noteworthy, given that at this point, I have only seen illustrations of the ship's exteriors.

The children are on the promenade deck when it is time for lunch.  They walked forward until they came to a short flight of very steep stairs that led to the deck below.  From there, they passed into a “long and narrow passage way with doors leading to state rooms on either hand.”  Eventually they came to “a sort of entry or hall, which was lighted by a skylight above.  In the middle of this hall, and under the skylight, was a pretty broad staircase, leading down to some lower portion of the ship.”  Again, the stairs are very narrow, and at the bottom, the children “found themselves in a perfect maze of cabins, state rooms, and passage ways, the openings into which were infinitely multiplied by the large and splendid mirrors with which the walls were every where adorned.”  At this juncture, there are sofas and room to sit, but they must proceed onward to get to the actual dining saloon:

“They found themselves in another long and narrow passage way, which led toward the forward part of the ship.  The passage way was so narrow that they could not walk together.  So Rollo went first, and Jane came behind.  The vessel was rocking gently from the motion of the waves, and Jane had to put her hands out once or twice, first to one side and then to the other of the passage way, in order to steady herself as she passed along.  Presently they came to a place where they had to go up five or six steps, and then to go immediately down again. It was the place where the main shaft passed out from the engine to the paddle wheel.  After getting over this obstruction, they went on a little farther, and then came into a large dining saloon, where several long tables were spread, and a great many passengers were seated, eating their luncheons.” (p.64).

Simply having that information allows me to tour the ship vicariously, to understand better just how cramped some spaces had to be, how those spaces had to conform to the engineering of the ship itself, and how mirrors would have been used to help passengers feel less claustrophobic.    

Rollo is helpful for other information as well, including how to decipher the bells that sailors depended on for their shifts, for information on the departure and the arrival of the ship in port,  how to purchase a ticket and secure a state room, for the occurrences of seasickness and the remedies for it (hot broth), and for the relationships between the passengers, the officers, and the crew.  I highly recommend this book to anyone fascinated with maritime life in the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Beauty and Flavor of Cunard's German Sparkling Wines

                                   Moselle Vinyards, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Friedrich Petersdorff
I last wrote about the champagne options served aboard Cunard ships throughout the 1840s and up through the 1870s, but also listed on the "Wines, Spirits, and Other Liquors" Cunard menu were options for sparkling wines (champagne, but produced outside the Champagne region and from other countries or from other regions of France).   

Sparkling German wine selections included Hock and Moselle.  I have always found the word, "Hock", somewhat confusing, and I was unsure how to distinguish it from Moselle wine, so I decided to do a bit of research.
Aboard a Cunard ship, Hock, sparkling or still, sold for 5 shillings per quart or 3 shillings per pint; sparkling Moselle likewise sold for 5 shillings per quart, or 3 shillings per pint.   Both options were cheaper than Champagne (see my previous blog post), although from my research, Hock seemed more respected in quality among the Victorians than did Moselle.
“Hock” was the British word for German wine that came from Hochheim on the Main River in the Rheingau wine region, although the word (also seen not capitalized) often came to encompass all the white wines produced along both the Rhine and Main Rivers.  “Rhine” and “Hock” are and were largely synonyms. 

                          A map of the Main and Rhine Rivers, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, BerndH.

Moselle (or Mosel) wines were produced along the Moselle River and take into account German wines that came from the regions along the Saar and Ruwer Rivers as well.   
Just as Henry Vizetelly’s Champagne and Other Sparkling Wines helped me understand Victorian attitudes towards and interest in champagne, Walter and Alfred Gilbey’s self-published 1869 Treatise on Wines and Spirits of Principal Producing Countries has been equally valuable for helping me understand wines.  In spite of its very dry-sounding title, this book is easy to read and full of fascinating information.

Hock nowadays might get a bad rap, both in the UK and the US, due to the popularity of the Blue Nun in the 1970s and 1980s, and other sweet mass-marketed German white wines.  Felicity Cloake has an excellent post on  white German wine’s shifting reputation in the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog that might be interesting to read for a modern-day perspective:

However, at the time that Cunard was sailing and offering Hock on its menu, it was considered, as Cloake puts it, part of the Holy Trinity, along with claret and champagne.  Walter and Alfred Gilbey declared that “Hock is a wine of which the palate never tires, and in this respect it resembles the red wines of Bordeaux [i.e., claret]; and is unlike other natural white wines, which are consumed only at intervals, and for sake of change and variety” (n.p.).  The Gilbeys also pointed out that German wines were of a drier character than French white wines, that they had “greater aromatic properties,” and were “the most refreshing of all natural white wines” (n.p.).  While these authors might have been overly subjective in their generalizations, I would attest to the distinct, pleasantly acidic, dry nature of the very best Rhine wines, as I think many others today would as well. 
In the 19th century, Hock was often served in tinted-color wine goblets (light green, light amber) because these distinctive wines, after fermenting for as much as seven to ten years before bottling, were oftentimes of an inperfect brilliance; hence, “the custom of drinking wines of this description from colored glasses, as in the matter of wine it is always desirable to consult the eye as well as the palate” (Treatise on Wines and Spirits, n. p.).

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  Rummer, Germany or Netherlands, early 19th century. MRAH, Collection of European Decorative Arts, Jubilee Park, Brussels
This research leads me to want to drink more German white wines, and I am glad to know that other countries, including the United States, Australia, and Canada, produce some very fine Rieslings that compare in quality to the finest wines of Germany.  I have always loved the Roemer style glasses, remembering so fondly my first trip to the Rhine and Moselle regions when I was an exchange student, drinking wine in various Gasthofs and bars near my host family's home near Koblenz.  I am uncertain at this point if Cunard ships served these wines in the distinctive Roemer glasses.  Perhaps some visits to maritime museums will answer this question for me.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Champagne Houses in the Nineteenth Century and Cunard's Offerings

A confession:  When it comes to champagne, I am ignorant.  I’m too poor to buy bona fide champagne on a regular basis, and for my tastes, I would rather spend what money I do have on the dry red wines that British people often refer to as clarets, and what Americans call Bordeaux.  I also have a passion for the sparkling dry wines from New Mexico, USA, such as Gruet’s.  (
But in researching Cunard’s Bill of Fare, circa 1840-1870, I have been familiarizing myself with its champagne offerings.  That it has taken me a long time to write this post is evidence of just how little I know, and how long it is taking me to ramp up my knowledge.

While one could order other wines aboard a Cunard ship, including claret, hock, chablis, port and sherry (more on these in my next blog), champagnes dominated the list.
The World Wide Web offers hundreds of authoritative websites to help the uninitiated understand and appreciate champagne and its history, and of course there are hundreds of authoritative books to choose from as well.  My blog is simply to determine what happened (if anything) to the various Champagne Houses from which Cunard bought its stock, as well as record any interesting, historical bits along the way.

First, for those interested in understanding champagne in the nineteenth century, a gem of a book is Champagne and Other Sparkling Wines, by the English journalist and publisher, Henry Vizetelly (1820-1894).  Exhaustive in its information, Vizetelly’s guide reads like a travelogue, a history of France, and like a guide to culture all combined.  It’s available via Google books in full text.

8 champagnes topped the Cunard “Wine, Spirits, and Other Liquors” menu.  All of these champagnes sold for 7 shillings, 6 pence a quart, or 4 shilling a pint.  From what I can determine, the champagnes on offer were of comparable quality.
Wachter’s, extra Cuvée, topped the Cunard menu. 
The label indicates that Wachter’s had a royal charter to Her Majesty the Queen and the Prince of Wales. The Cunard menu likewise notes that Wachter’s cuvée (its house’s secret blend) was especially created to please Her Majesty and the Prince of Wales. Wachter’s Champagne, from what I can determine, is no longer available. 
It is interesting to note that Reims, in the Champagne region, was the site of royal coronations. 
                    Cathedral of Reims, Site of French coronations.  Courtesey of bodoklecksel, Wikimedia Commons
When Louis the XIV was made King at age 16, he was introduced to the still wine (not yet carbonated) of the region and from then on, he drank wine exclusively from Champagne.  He set the fashion for nobility throughout France to eat and drink as he did, according to C. Michael Hall and Richard Mitchell in Wine Marketing: A Practical Guide (2008).  Champagne houses from that point on promoted the association with champagne and royalty, and the importance of serving champagne at any celebratory and exclusive event stems from that connection as well.  Travel aboard a steamship, no matter the difficulty of the journey or its presumed dangerousness, was often treated by a shipping company as a celebratory affair for its first-class passengers, and while plum pudding and roast turkey—foods associated with holidays in both Britain and the United States—were often featured on the bill of fare, champagnes were at the top of the drinks menu for similar reasons.
Second on Cunard’s menu was Heidsieck & Company’s champagne.  Founded in 1785, Heidsieck is now owned by EPI (Societe Europeenne de Participations Industrielles).  Vizetelly offered a great deal of information about Heidsieck.  It gained in prominence and respect when in 1877, the English market was flooded with cheap and crude French wines from 1874 vintages.  Heidsieck instead exported its 1870 and 1872 vintages to England, ones that were “beautifully rounded by keeping, and of fine flavor and great delicacy of perfume” (Vizetelly, p. 182).   Heidsieck was famous for a dry variety of the Monopole brand that was exported regularly to England, as well as for its dry Grand Vin Royal.  Apparently, Heidsieck’s was very popular aboard transatlantic ships.  In 1998, according to Wikipedia, the Hiedsieck Cuvée, Diamant bleu, vintage 1907, was found in the shipwrecked Swedish freighter, Jönköping, in the Gulf of Finland.  Around 2000 bottles were salvaged and sold quickly at auction. 

Roederer, short for Louis Roederer, was next on the Cunard menu. 
                         Roederer Vinyard, Courtesy of Champagne Louis Roederer, Wikimedia Commons
Based in Reims, France, Louis Roederer was initially founded as Doubois Père & Fils in 1776.  To this day, Roederer remains one of the most famous icons in the champagne industry, along with Dom Pérignon (from the champagne house of Moët & Chandon) and Krug’s Grande Cuvée. Dorling Kindersley’s Wines of the World: Your Essential Handbook, notes that Roederer wines are “exemplary; elegant, subtle, complex, and long-lived.”  Most distinguished are its non-vintage Brut Premier and Cristal.  A wonderful and more affordable option is Blank de Blancs.  I plan to search it out now that I have read of its affordable price and its wonderful flavor.
Both Carte Blanche and Extra Dry by G. H. Mumm were next on Cunard’s menu. 
Like Roederer, Mumm is situated in Reims and remains one of the largest champagne producers in the world today.  The three brothers who founded the champagne house were German winemakers from the Rhine Valley who established their company in Reims in 1825.  Mumm is now owned by Pernod Ricard.  Vizetelly wrote that Mumm’s “Carte Blanch is a pale, delicate fragrant wine of great softness and refined flavor; a perfectly dry variety.”  He went on to write that Americans in particular held Mumm in great repute, with the champagne house shipping nearly half a million bottles to the United States alone—more than twice the quantity shipped by Roederer (Vizetelly, p. 61).
Ruinart Pere Et Fils came after G.H. Mumm on the list.  Vizetelly wrote that Ruinart claimed to be the oldest existing champagne house in Champagne. It was headed by Vicomte de Brimont (Vizetelly, p. 66).  The fascinating website, ChampagneJayne ( agrees:  In September, 1729, the champagne business as we know it began when a wealthy cloth merchant from Epernay, Nicolas Ruinart, opened the first official champagne house.  Now Ruinart is a subsidiary of luxury conglomerate, LVMH: Moët Hennessy, Louis Vuitton S. A. 

Champagne Jayne, incidentally, is the champagne educator, Jayne Powell, who is a Sydney-based Welsh-Australian.  I loved her site.
Krug & Co. came next on the Cunard list.  It, too, is located in Reims.  Champagne Krug was one of the famous champagne houses to form part of the membership of the Grand Marques.  It is now one of the brands of the LVMH division mentioned above.  Its champagne was known for its oaky undertones and is an extremely dry champagne.  Krug was established in 1843 by Johann-Joseph Krug, a German immigrant from Mainz. 

Last on the Cunard list was Bollinger.  Founded in 1829 in Aÿ, a commune in the Vallée de la Marne, by Henniquin de Villermont, Paul Renaudin, and Jacque Bollinger, the House of Bollinger remains to this day proudly independent. It also remains a favorite champagne of the Brits, who affectionately call the champagne, “Bolly.”  In pop culture, the champagne is also closely associated with James Bond, as many are bound to know already.  ChampagneJayne notes that Bollinger only uses the first press of high-quality grapes from the vineyards exclusively in the Marne, never grapes that come from the Aube region.
Wealthy Victorians and Edwardians loved champagne, and it was acceptable for women to drink it with all courses of a meal, not just as an aperitif or with the fish and dessert courses.  It is fair to say that vast quantities of champagne continue to be drunk by passengers on cruise ships and ocean liners all over the globe for the same reasons that it was popular in the nineteenth century:  it signified sophistication, wealth, and celebration.  It also helped take people’s minds off the anxieties of crossing the ocean, and it was considered by many to be an excellent cure for sea-sickness.  (But what alcohol would not be!?)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Drink Up! Non-Alcoholic Beverage Options Aboard Cunard, 1840-1870

A beautiful collection of old-fashioned bottles, courtesy of the Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information Website (
Most of my research has been devoted to transatlantic ship menus and how they might help us draw some conclusions about culture at sea in the nineteenth century.  This week, however, I focused more on drinks, soft drinks and mineral water in particular.
My research was made easy because the Cunard line included a generic Bill of Fare in its Official Guide and Album so that passengers had an idea of what would be served for breakfast and dinner during voyage.  On the back side of the Bill of Fare was the drinks list. 

Except for tea and coffee, passengers paid for bottled water and soft drinks, just as they paid for wine, spirits, and beer.  For wine, the steward tallied up what the passenger owed, and he paid before leaving the ship. For beers, soft drinks, and bottled water, the passenger paid out of pocket when he ordered.  Part of this practice continues today in the cruise ship industry, where aside from coffee, tea, and tap water, all other drinks are charged to the passenger on most ships. 

For sixpence, a passenger could order a bottle of soda water, ginger ale, lemonade, English seltzer, kali potass, or sarsaparilla.  For one shilling, Congress water and German seltzer were on offer.
Many of these are of course still known and remain popular, particularly lemonade, sarsaparilla (known today as root beer), and ginger ale.  People today do not look to these drinks for their health benefits, but in the nineteenth century, these drinks and indeed the waters and the kali potass were all considered medicinal and/or necessary to good health. 

Take ginger ale.  When I was a child and our family traveled by plane, my mother always ordered me a ginger ale.  The drink was special, given to me only on such trips or on rare occasions when I was sick with the stomach flu. Passengers aboard a Cunard ship sipped ginger ale for the same reason:  ginger was considered an excellent cure for seasickness, motion sickness, or upset stomachs. 

Sarsaparilla, which in the United States was commonly called sassparilla, and probably at that time brewed from the plant Smilax reaelii, was also considered to have medicinal properties, rather like a tonic to aid in good health.  It is likely that Cunard’s sarsaparilla had a small amount of alcohol, given the brewing process that was used during that time period.    
This leads to Cunard’s offer of soda water.  I discovered from Webster’s Dictionary that soda water is “a weak solution of sodium bicarbonate with some acid to cause effervescence.”  Joseph Priestley is credited with creating soda water for drinking purposes, and in his paper, “Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air” (1772), he explained the chemical process and how to make soda water oneself.  Further research suggests that soda water was first sold as a medicine, often with added flavored syrup added to make it more palatable.  On its own, the sodium salts  in the water imitated the healthful minerals and natural effervescence found in the more expensive option, natural mineral water.  I don’t know if the soda water served aboard Cunard ships was flavored.  If not, then it would have been akin to the club soda that people buy today.  If the soda water was flavored, then it would have been the precursor to cola-flavored beverages that people universally adore today.

For many years, soda water was thought to be excellent for health, even if flavored with syrup.  As this quite horrific advertisement suggests (courtesy of and Food Inc, that association lasted well into the 20th century!  

What, then, was Congress water? What accounted for its higher price of one shilling?  Congress water came from Congress Spring at Saratoga, New York one of those very popular resorts where wealthy people came to take the waters in the 1800s, and which became famous for its race course.  To find out more about Congress water, I relied on a wonderful website, Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information, created by the United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and the Society for Historic Archeology.  The below photo of a Congress water bottle is taken from that site (

Congress water was bottled as early as 1809 and was used for an assortment of ills, including an upset stomach. 
Similar to Congress water would have been German seltzer and English seltzer waters.  German seltzer water, as its higher price on the Cunard menu indicates, was universally recognized for its health-giving and medicinal properties.  The springs in the area of Selters in Hesse, Germany, where the name “seltzer” is thought to derive, had a particularly high concentration of sodium bicarbonate, and hence, was offered as Cunard’s most natural or pure “soda water.”  As with Saratoga Springs, Selters was also famous for its spa. At this point, I am uncertain as to where Cunard’s English seltzer water originated, although perhaps Bath would be a good bet.  

Of all the medicinal and health-giving options available on Cunard’s beverage menu, Kali Potass took the most amount of research.  While I figured out that “Potass” referred to potassium, the information I found on kali potassium was largely written by chemists for chemists, a discipline well outside my realm.  From what I can determine, kali potass was a tonic thought to reduce stress or nervousness due to anxiety. 
The Cunard drinks menu suggests that crossing the North Atlantic was no pleasure trip for most involved.  The bar on Cunard vessels opened at 6:00 am, well before the dining saloon was open for breakfast, and it was the last public space to shut its doors each night.  Drinks were of course available in the saloon for meals and likely served to passengers outside in their deck chairs if weather permitted.  While the food menu for Cunard became more sophisticated and lavish by the end of the nineteenth century, suggesting the glamor and the thrill of an ocean voyage, the drinks menu suggested that passengers were desperate to spend much of their time forgetting their anxiety and sickness, and at the very least partaking of strengthening tonics, sodas, and mineral waters to keep up their courage until docking.

Here's a recipe I developed for homemade lemonade.  It might have been similar to what Cunard offered its passengers:

Equipment:  1 half-gallon glass jug
Ingredients:  3 lemons, 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/4 t. instant yeast, filtered room-temperature water
Method:  Juice the lemons and strain the juice into a jug.  If you wish for your lemonade to be more tart, add more lemon juice.  Do not use bottled.  Add the white sugar and 1/4 t. yeast and filtered water.  Screw the cap on the jug and shake gently to dissolve the sugar and yeast.  Put it in a cool, dark place for 24 hours.  Gently shake the contents to stir it around. Refrigerate for 12-24 hours.  Be careful when you take of the lid! 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

What's In a Name? Stewards, Waiters, and 19th Century Steamships

Confidence, Hudson River Steamboat, 1849 James Bard (Wikimedia Commons)

The more I learn, the less I know.  That sums up my feelings about research on food and dining aboard transatlantic ships.  My latest sense of ineptitude involves the meaning of the term “steward.”  These faceless men have long hovered on  the fringes of my consciousness, carrying trays and pouring coffee.  They have been as unobtrusive to me—the writer—as they ideally were for those they served—the passengers.  When I have bothered to picture them at all, they have white gloves, smart jackets, groomed hair, beardless faces, impeccable manners, clean fingernails.
But of course there’s a lot more to it, and now it’s time to figure out who the stewards were, and what the word “steward” meant. 

My difficulty with the term “steward” comes from work done this week on Edward Knight Collins, owner of the spectacular and short-lived Collins Line.

My educated guess is that the Collins Line was renowned for its fine food and service because E. K. Collins was influenced by the food and service that  distinguished not only the American sailing packets (he owned a company of them, the Dramatic Line of Sailing Packets), but also the steamboats that plied U.S. rivers in the 19th-century.  Standards of dining aboard the “River Queens” were exceptionally high for first-class passengers.  Meals were (relatively speaking) gourmet-quality, the service exquisite, the saloons beautiful.  Collins, who split his time between New York City and New Orleans, would have been familiar with those steamboats, and he likely traveled on them when he went between New Orleans and St. Louis, Missouri to visit his brother-in-law, Samuel Woodruff.  It seems plausible that Collins would have wished to transfer some of that fine tradition of service and cuisine from the steamboats of the Mississippi to his steamships on the North Atlantic.  
That connection between riverboat and steamboat dining resulted in my research into Mississippi steamboats, and that’s when my limited knowledge of stewards became more problematic.

First:  Who served as a steward?  In the antebellum United States, that position was often filled by a black man, likely a free black man, but sometimes an enslaved one.   On British steamships such as Cunard's, stewards were probably white men, although I have not yet been able to determine race and how it played a factor, if any.  In the 1850s, stewards and cooks were often treated poorly by the seamen, given that stewards and cooks performed the equivalent of domestic duties, "women's work."  Their reputation, however, began to shift in the 1850s because the work became more challenging, and the role of cuisine and dining became increasingly important to attracting wealthy passengers. 
Second:  The term itself.  What exactly is a steward?  Is it synonymous with “waiter?”  Sometimes, authors use the term “waiter” to describe what stewards were doing during a meal:  waiting on tables.  Otherwise, these men (and a few women—the stewardesses) were cleaning staterooms, taking inventory in the storeroom, helping the galley cook scrub pots, swabbing the deck, etc.  But at other times, and this seems to be the case aboard very large riverboats or steamboats, some men were technically just waiters, while those in charge of them were technically the stewards.  The two terms and job requirements, on paper at least, were distinct.   It matters because I have to understand the pecking order in the catering department.  Who wielded the most authority?  I know that the Chief Steward was higher up in the catering department than the Chief Cook.  The Chief Steward planned menus in consultation with the Chief Cook, but the Chief Steward had the final say.  He also had some authority over provisions and hiring personnel in the catering division. 

Some of my information on waiters and stewards comes from Thomas C. Buchanan’s helpful study, Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World (2004), where Buchanan has separate categories in the Index for waiters and stewards.  On p. 62, Buchanan writes that waiters “were under the immediate supervision of the steward, who generally hired between two and five of them, depending on the number of passengers to be served, prepared the dining table, served food and drinks, filled the coal stoves that heated the cabin, erected cots for cabin passengers when staterooms were overbooked, ran errands for provisions and other goods, helped cooks with dishes or slaughtering game, and cleaned the cabin.”  So, those man who fulfilled similar roles on Cunard’s Britannia, or Collins’s Arctic, men who I had been referring to as stewards, or steward’s assistants or under-stewards, might actually have been “just” waiters?  
This question sent me to Judi Heit’s blog post, “Loss of the Steamer Arctic” at  In the Arctic's catering department,
there was one Chief Steward, a 2nd Steward, and one Officer’s Steward, a 2nd Cabin (i.e., second-class) Steward, an Assistant 2nd Cabin Steward, two Stewardesses, four Mess Boys, and—one Head Waiter and twenty Waiters.  So:  Buchanan’s delineation of what stewards did and what waiters did on river steamboats does seem to apply to catering aboard a Collins steamship.  Whether or not Cunard, with its more Spartan dining and service plan in the 1850s, hired that many persons to see to the needs of the passengers is questionable.  But, more research awaits.

First Class Dining Saloon of RMS Mauretania, circa 1913.  Wikimedia Commons 
By this decade Cunard ships could hardly be described as Spartan, and stewarding in such a magnificent space might have been exhilarating--or intimidating, depending.

The most important book that I have discovered to help me understand the various hierarchies in the catering department aboard large ocean liners is the 1950s-era Ship Steward’s Handbook, by J.J. Trayner and E.C. Plumb, two former catering instructors at the National Sea Training School in Gravesend, Kent, UK.  At the end of the ocean liner era, various nautical schools gave formal instruction for positions that historically had been apprenticeships, if even that.  The Ship Steward’s Handbook explained to young men that within the catering department aboard a merchant vessel, there were two career paths.  "He may become an assistant (saloon, messroom, etc.) steward, who is roughly the equivalent of a commis waiter ashore."  From there he may graduate to third steward and second steward.  The second steward usually supervised the service in the saloon.  Above the second steward was the chief steward, usually supervised service from the pantry (p. 8).  Presumably, these second stewards in the saloon supervised the assistant stewards--waiters by and large.
I know that etiquette books and guidebooks—even cookbooks—are tricky.  They do not reflect the reality so much as offer us an idealized reality.  Those who were initiated, particularly a Victorian-era mess boy on his way up the ladder to steward or cook, did not need the Ship Steward’s Handbook to figure out his job.  He was breathing the culture, imbibing it as he went along.  However, by the 1950s, jobs such as steward had become more professionalized, complete with certification, classes, as well as textbooks and handbooks.  They were open to a wider array of people as well, many of whom did not come from the coasts at all but moved there in search of opportunity.  The days of apprenticeships and being born into a maritime life were in part waning.  The young man at whom the Ship Steward's Handbook was directed was, I like to think, somewhat on par with me.  He certainly might have been as grateful to get his hands on that guidebook as I have been, because who wishes to make crude and embarrassing mistakes among the initiated?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

“Water, Water, Every Where, Nor Any Drop to Drink”

The beautiful Unicorn figurehead, courtesy of the Unicorn Preservation Society's website.

Thanks to a lead from my friend in Scotland, Iain Burr, I was able to order from the UK and read a fascinating booklet entitled Mariners’ Mealtimes & Other Daily Details of Life on Board a Sailing Warship by Una A. Robertson (Dundee:  Unicorn Preservation Society, 1981).

That Robertson was interested in food and dining and willing to devote a booklet to that topic has saved me from a dreaded chore:  slogging through old 800-page volumes of work regarding the Royal Navy in order to find six or seven pages’ worth of reference to provisioning ships and dining customs.   

Some readers might wish to visit the Unicorn Preservation Society’s fine website,, to see photos of the grand old frigate, HMS Unicorn (built in 1824), and/or to consider planning a trip to Dundee, Scotland to visit the frigate or make a donation to the preservation society.

As I revise and streamline Chapter Four of my book which deals with the first two decades of passenger steamships, I take breaks to read Robertson’s account of mariners’ mealtimes.  Robertson has been able to answer some lingering questions that I have had on the topic of provisioning ships, questions that have been surprisingly difficult to answer. 

One of my most nagging questions concerns water:  Where was it stored, how was it procured?

I knew that water was stored in casks in the ship's hold, and I knew that it was almost unpalatable, and sometimes, unpalatable.  I did not understand fully why. 

Prior to the1800s, ships carried the water in huge wooden casks that had been used previously to store other commodities.  So, not only did wood grow old and start to rot, especially when filled with water, but the water took on the flavors of the wood and whatever commodities would have been stored in the cask previously. As a result, the water was “execrably bad” and the allowance of it “scanty”, even after the casks had just been filled and the ship was just leaving harbor, according to a naval chaplain who had been stationed aboard a navy frigate (qtd. in Roberton, p. 31).

For such a putrid necessity, the sailors nonetheless had to work extremely hard to procure it.  Empty water casks had to be hauled up from the hold, put into the ship’s boats, taken ashore and filled at some suitable watering point—a river, a lake, some deep body of water.  The sailors would roll the casks out to the deep part, submerge them in order to fill them, and then bung them.  From there, these now extremely heavy and cumbersome casks had to be rolled down to the sea, where the men would float the casks after roping them together to form a long chain.  As the ship was anchored around 2 to 3 miles off coast, this was an extremely difficult job, and it was not over, because the casks then had to be hoisted back on board and stowed below deck.  Roughly 270 tons of water were stowed on what was called a second rate navy ship (displacing around 2000 tons, with a crew of 750).  As Robertson pointed out, “the sheer physical effort involved does not bear thinking about” (p. 31).  And yet, I have indeed thought a lot about it.!

Things improved some in the nineteenth century, thanks to iron which replaced the wooden casks.  Iron did not taint the water’s taste as badly as wood, and the water kept fresher longer.  These iron tanks would be filled by hose and forcing pump from the source of the supply.  Of course, the drawback was obvious: ships had to be anchored near a large supply of water and had to fill their water casks at frequent intervals, “rendering them vulnerable to hostile activity ashore and severely limiting their sphere of action afloat” (p. 32).

Just as it was on land, sailors tried to avoid drinking plain water.  Not only did it taste bad, but it was oftentimes dangerous, the cause of the dysentery and other diseases that spread through a ship’s crew and passengers like fire.  Sailors instead depended largely on beer, with the daily ration a gallon of beer per man per day prior to the introduction of the rum ration, which by 1731 had largely replaced beer.  The original rum ration, according to Robertson, was one-half pint per man per day, and it was divided into two issues and durnk neat.  But in 1740, Admiral Vernon ordered that the rum be diluted one gill to three gills water.  “It was from the Admiral’s heavy grosgrain cloak that his nickname ‘Old Grogram’ was taken, and hence the name ‘grog’ for the mixture” (p. 33).  By 1824, however, the evening rum ration was abolished and replaced by tea and cocoa.  By 1881, the rum ration for officers was stopped altogether, and "over 300 years of naval tradition came to an end in 1970 when the free issue of rum to ratings was discontinued" (Robertson, p. 34).

I’ll conclude this post with some slang terms that I had heard but did not know the origins of:  “Flip” was the name for beer that had been “enhanced” with the rum or brandy that sailors smuggled onto the ship.  “Miss Taylor” was the name sailors gave to a much-loved fiery Spanish white wine called Mistela.  In those early days before rum rations, when beer ran out, sailors were allotted a pint of wine or a half pint of spirits.   Not all that Robertson writes about in regards to navy ships applies to passenger ships, but nonetheless, the parts that do have saved me a lot of effort and in some cases, her information as been the source of an occassional "Eureka!" from me.  Thanks, Una A. Robertson, for your help.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Planning Your Transatlantic Trip, 1911

Google Books is a treasure trove for time travelers.  Just the other day, I happened upon the wonderful booklet, Presbrey’s Information Guide for Transatlantic Travelers, written and published by Frank Presbrey.  The 7th edition came out in 1911 and was aimed at first-class American travelers embarking on a first-time transatlantic steamship voyage. 

While Presbrey’s is full of information regarding nautical terminology, how to read a compass, how to chart ship speed and ocean depth, it also offers information on shipboard culture so that passengers understood the routines and could avoid costly or embarrassing mistakes. 

Not surprisingly, the first thing passengers were advised to do after coming on board was to “apply at once to the proper officer for a seat at the table.”  From the earliest days of ocean travel, cabin-class passengers (in other words, first- or second-class passengers) were always advised to stake out their seat in the dining saloon immediately.  Once a passenger was assigned a seat, it could not be changed without effort and justification.  Thus, it was important to secure a seat next to friends or family, and also, to take into account the distance between the seat and the door in case a person knew that he or she suffered from sea-sickness.

Next, passengers were advised to locate the deck steward and secure a place for their steamer chairs, assuming they had reserved one when booking passage.  These chairs cost roughly one US dollar rental fee.  Transatlantic voyages were not known for calm seas or mild weather, and for the roughly 41 percent of first-class passengers who were willing to rent a chair, where to place it was important. In summer, when demand for steamer chairs obviously increased, port side on an eastward voyage offered the best location, and starboard side on a westward voyage.

Photo of passengers reclining in steamer chairs on a transatlantic liner, from the Nautical Gazette: An International Weekly Chronicle of Shipping.  Jan., 1921

Baggage presented many challenges because staterooms were small, even for wealthy passengers, and of course space was at a premium.  The more space one needed, the more one paid.  First-class passengers were allowed a steamer trunk in their staterooms  measuring thirteen to fourteen inches in height and four feet in length; these trunks were designed to fit under a berth.

Steamer Trunk, Montgomery Wards Catalog, 1895

Valises and parcels were also allowed in the stateroom, but one was allotted no more than 20 cubic feet of space for stateroom luggage, and if more space was required, a passenger paid for it by the cubic foot.  Airline restrictions today resemble the types of restrictions steamship passengers faced then. On a steamship, a passenger’s other baggage for the overland part of the trip was placed in the hold and retrieved upon arrival at port.

Because Presbrey’s was targeted at first-class passengers, we don’t discover anything about second-class or steerage accommodations, except for the following bits of information.  Servants were booked “at special rates and given special accommodation.”  Except when their services were required by their employers, they were strictly relegated to the servants’ quarters.  Presbrey’s did not specify where those quarters might be, but depending on the cost of the first-class passenger’s ticket, it was likely a designated area in second class or steerage.  If cabin passengers wished to “visit the steerage,” they had to “secure permits from the captain.”  It was common in this time period of immigration for families to split up, with women and small children travelling second or first class and men traveling steerage in order to save a great deal of money.  Shipping lines understood that some passengers would have reasons for wanting to visit steerage, and hence, it was possible.  Nonetheless, the fact that one was required to secure a permit from the captain suggests that the areas were not only strictly segregated, but that fraternization was not exactly encouraged.  The events taking place aboard the Titanic in James Cameron’s film version of that shipwreck voyage of course hinge on breaking the rules in respect to class segregation.

Finally, the cost of the voyage beyond the actual ticket price is interesting to consider. “Epigrammatically speaking,” Presbrey’s writes, “it costs first class on an average, ten dollars per day per person by sea the world over and five dollars on land.”  Factored into ocean travel had to be tips.  Presbrey’s recommended the following:  Table stewards were customarily tipped $2.50 for each person, room stewards expected $2.50-$4.00 depending on how many occupants, deck stewards should be tipped $1.00 if his services were considered “valuable,” stewardesses (if a lady required a stewardess’s assistance) no more than $1.50, bathroom stewards .25 per bath, the Chief Steward, if his services had been required for a special need, $2.50 and up, and smoking room fees and fees for the ship’s band or orchestra were based on the passenger’s discretion.  The total budget then, for tips, amounted to $6.00-10.00 per person, to be given to the appropriate staff at the end of the voyage, just as passengers aboard cruise ships today are asked to save their tips for the end of the voyage as well.

Guidebooks such as Presbrey's are somewhat hard to come by, but they offer historians the same access to rules and customs that they offered the first-time travelers at whom they were originally aimed.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cabin Biscuits and Water: The High Price of Stocking a Lifeboat

                             The Arctic in all its glory, 1852.  From Harper's Monthly Magazine, Vol. 5, 1852

In the worst shipwreck of the 19th century, the wooden steamship Arctic collided with the smaller, iron-hulled steamship Vesta, on September 27, 1854.   The two ships were travelling through the Grand Banks, a stretch of the Atlantic roughly sixty miles from Cape Race, Newfoundland that was notorious for fog.  Around noon, Captain James Luce was in the chartroom when he heard an officer shout “Hard a-starboard!  Stop her!”  Moments later, the bow of the Vesta rammed into the starboard side of the Arctic.  Until a quarter after one, Luce desperately attempted to steam the Arctic to shore so that passengers and crew could be saved, but by 1:30, it was clear to that the ship was going to sink.  As the water reached the grate bars of the ship’s upper furnaces on the port side and the pumps and engines stopped, panic ensued.

This terrible wreck is remembered because no woman or child survived when the crew members mutinied and took many of the spots aboard the ship’s too-few lifeboats.  While the facts of that mutiny haunt me, I also remember this wreck for another reason.  It was the first incident that I know of where a suggestion was raised to stock lifeboats with provisions so that its occupants could perhaps survive, or at least survive in more comfort, until they reached shore or were picked up by other vessels at sea.   

Right after the collision, Captain Luce commanded Chief Officer, Robert J. Gourlay to release a lifeboat and row with some other sailors to the Vesta to rescue its passengers.  But quickly afterwards, as it became clear that the Arctic was sinking, Luce abandoned the Vesta and Gourlay’s lifeboat to their fates.   Gourlay’s  lifeboat was found a month after the Arctic sank when the American schooner Lily Dale picked it up at sea with its oars still inside, but empty of its occupants.  Given the situation, the only reasonable explanations were that they had been rescued by a ship that subsequently sank, or that after some days adrift without water or food, each man had died and had been thrown in the water by the survivors until the last survivor, in a fit of delirium, leapt overboard and committed suicide.

Equally chilling, two more Arctic lifeboats that had been filled with passengers and crew eventually washed ashore in Newfoundland, one in mid-November, and another in December.  A reporter from Newfoundland wrote, “We fear the people who took to her at the time of the loss of the ship must have perished fearfully” (Qtd. in Brown, 148).

Another lifeboat, manned by Third Mate Francis Dorian, held 31 people.  Aside from a pumpkin and a cabbage that floated by and were salvaged, these survivors had no food or water to sustain them, either.

The port quarter boat and the starboard guard boats held 45 survivors under the command of Second Mate Baalham.  They had nothing more than a handful of biscuits that one of the passengers, William Gilbert, had thought to stuff in his pocket before the Arctic sank.  Gilbert’s fellow lifeboat occupant, Frederick De Mayer, remembered that “the gnawings of hunger and the terrors of starvation” compounded their plight (qtd. in Alexander Crosby Brown, 123).    

After the Arctic’s wreck, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Peary argued that for as little as $286, ten lifeboats could be equipped not only with compasses, oars, yards, sails, and masts, but also water and 1,500 pounds of biscuits placed in watertight containers.   The general response from ship owners was that such provisions would cost them “too much,” according to historian David Shaw’s account in The Sea Shall Embrace Them (44, 204)

Edward Knight Collins, the owner of the Arctic, agreed with Perry, however.  He was stricken by the deaths of his wife and two children who went down with the Arctic, as well as the deaths of Maria Miller Brown and Bill Brown, related to the Collins Line President, James Brown .  E.K. Collins wished to make immediate improvements and thought the investment in lifeboat provisions worth the cost.  He was also desperate to save his company.  In  his letter to Joseph Francis, printed in the New York Times on 3 November, 1854, Collins requested five new Metallic Life-Boats for each of his ships, and he hoped that his company “be able to provide for four hundred persons with water and provisions for several days in ordinary weather, at sea.”

Collins’ respect for the safety and wellbeing of his passengers appeared to be newly found, and it came too late.  When Collins’ ship, Pacific, set sail on January 23, 1856, it was never seen again, having presumably run into a huge ice field that sank it (Butler, 80-81).  The United States Congress cut Collins’ subsidy down to $385,000, Collins’ new ship, the Adriatic could only attract thirty-eight passengers (it had room for 376) on its first voyage, and by 1858, the Collins Line was dissolved.  In the meantime, the proposal of supplying lifeboats with provisions and water went unheeded.  

The story of Collins’s demise contains an irony:  How could the large shipping companies that survived the Collins Line and that came into being after it claim to be unable financially to provision lifeboats, when en route they spent lavishly on food, wine and spirits?  The Collins Line had set the culinary bar spectacularly high and other companies felt bound to match it to stay in business.  As part of its effort to “cast this man Cunard from the sea”, Collins drove its ships on average three knots faster than Cunard ships, costing Collins an exorbitant $10,000 per voyage on coal, and it offered first-class passengers meals calculated to overwhelm their gustatory senses, even though the first-class ticket price of $130.00 could not cover such costs.  The perpetual budget deficit of the Collins Line was justified because E. K. Collins and his backers were confident that over time, superior meals and service would bring them more business.  And, in spite of the horrific wreck of the Arctic and the disappearance of the Pacific, the lesson that later steamship companies seemed to take from Collins was that in spite of the cost, what mattered were sumptuous meals in luxury surroundings, not comfortable but plainly outfitted ships that put the passengers’ safety at a priority--what had been and continued to be for some years afterwards, Cunard's mantra.  For most companies, gourmet food mattered more than provisioning lifeboats in case of a disaster.

Looking back, Rear Admiral French Ensor Chadwick (1844-1919) drew a salient observation about Americans, and by implication, the Collins Line’s business strategy:  Americans “demanded more and more luxurious surroundings and appointments”—and they got them “in every respect” when it came to opulence and extravagance at sea (Ocean Steamships, 120)  But in regards to the ultimate extravagance—the safest possible voyages—American steamships might arguably be blamed for having given its passengers the short shrift.  Their objective was not to profit by ensuring passenger safety so much as it was to profit by ensuring passenger deception, to do everything possible to help passengers forget that they were at sea so that they could enjoy the experience and entertainment of an ocean passage.   But at what expense? 

Sources Cited:

Brown, Alexander Crosby.  Women and Children Last: The Loss of the Steamship Arctic.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961.

Butler, Daniel Allen. Age of Cunard:  A Transatlantic History, 1839-2003.  Annapolis, MD: Lighthouse P, 2003.

Chadwick, French Ensor, et. al.  Ocean Steamships: A Popular Account of Their Construction, Development, Management, and Appliances. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891.

“Life-Boats Ordered for the Collins Line.”  New York Times.  3 Nov. 1854, p. 3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008).  Web.  4 June, 2012.

Luce, Captain Jame.  Letter to E.K. Collins.  Quebec, Oct. 14th 1854.  Reprinted in Friend’s Intelligencer 11(1854): 490.

Shaw, David W.  The Sea Shall Embrace Them:  The Tragic Story of the Steamship Arctic.  New York: Free Press, 2002.