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.
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.