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?


  1. Thank you for this interesting essay and sharing these important references. Much appreciated!