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.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cookery for Seamen

Thanks to the sleuthing and diligence of Dr. Roger Adams, Special Collections Librarian at Kansas State University (, I am now able to read the library’s newest acquisition: a very rare copy of Cookery for Seamen by Alexander Quinlan, who taught at the Liverpool Nautical School of Cookery, and N.E. Mann, who taught at the Liverpool Training School of Cookery.  This booklet, published in 1894, cost sixpence and offered sea cooks a comprehensive crash course on how to offer up wholesome and filling meals to their fellow sailors on long voyages, some that lasted up to a year.

This booklet goes a long way in helping me make better sense of my recent trip to the South Street Seaport Museum ( in lower Manhattan, NY, where thanks to Captain Jonathan Boulware, I was able to tour the Peking. This beautiful 4-masted barque was built in Hamburg, Germany in 1911 and made voyages from Europe to the West Coast of Africa with general cargo on her way there, and with guano to make fertilizer and explosives on her way back.  No doubt a book such as Cookery for Seamen was stowed in the galley as a reference for the cook and his help.

Peking, Southstreet Seaport Museum (author's personal photo)

For someone trying to understand the logistics and the challenges of cooking at sea, this booklet is invaluable.  Just a brief read indicates a number of items that I had not taken into account. 

The advertisements are particularly enlightening.  Take the full-page one for Canadian Royal Yeast Cakes, a popular yeast targeted at Canadian housewives from the 1880s.  I was interested to see that Royal Yeast Cakes advertisements were also targeted at sailors:  They  “never get sour,” claimed the ad, and they “will keep sound for twelve months,” no matter the “change of climate.”  Royal Yeast was indeed popular at sea because of its long shelf-life, in spite of the terrible humidity that came with sea cooking.  Perhaps the Peking’s cook kept Royal Yeast on hand in its blue tin canister, somewhere above the range where the air was presumably drier.

Nonetheless, a competent sea cook on a long voyage also needed to know how to make his own yeast, and Cookery for Seamen offered the following, relatively simple recipe:

2 quarts clean water, free from grease

2 ordinary sized potatoes

2 tablespoons sugar

¾ pounds flour

As many hops as can be lifted with the finger ends, or ½ ounce

Method.—Put the water in the potato pan after dinner before the pan has been washed, add the potatoes, cut small, the hops and sugar, simmer slowly for 30 minutes.  Strain through a sieve, and rub the potatoes through into the liquor, throw away the hops, and leave the liquor to cool slightly before adding the flour, as the flour must not be scalded.  Place the yeast in a jar or bottle while warm.  Keep it in a warm place until it has worked, which will be in about 30 hours, then keep it in a cool place to stop working. (p. 32)

The recipe, like the interiors of the Peking itself, suggests that cooking at sea remained largely pre-industrial into the twentieth century.  While wealthy ocean liners such as Cunard’s Lusitania or White Star’s Olympic could afford state-of-the-art galleys that ran entirely on gas and electricity, thousands of cargo ships at the turn of the 20th century still relied on sails for power, and they retained many of the features that were common on ships in the 1840s and 1850s, including coal-fired ranges as well as open fires with grates over the tops, relatively crude equipment (primarily iron pots and large skillets), a provisions room, but no refrigeration. 

Coal-fired cast iron stove in the lightship Ambrose, 1907  (author's personal photo)

Cookery for Seaman also demonstrated the smart use that cooks made of resources around them, primarily the salt water itself.  After the recipe for making yeast is one for setting bread (how to make a sponge).  Quinlan and Mann advised the sea cook  that “sea water makes better bread than fresh water, and requires no salt” (33).  One  merely takes “as much salt water as will set a smooth sponge” (33).  Rice, too, was prepared using sea water, given that the salt in it will flavor the rice.

Finally, while most passenger ocean liners stopped carrying livestock on board in the mid-to-late 1800s, the audience for Cookery for Seamen likely worked on vessels where it made sense (given the length of voyages and no refrigeration) to bring sheep, pigs, poultry, and even cattle on board to be housed in make-shift barnyards until slaughter.  The first pages in Cookery for Seamen are directions for how to slaughter these beasts.  Along with all the other shipboard activity, the cook and his helpers had to find space to hang animal carcasses “up to the rigging by the gambel” to wash and dry them before cutting them open.  The cooks were attempting the impossible by trying to slaughter cattle, sheep, and pigs in a dry place, for if the beast is killed, it must hang “in a place sheltered from rain or spray, which always tend to make the meat go bad” (9).

A 1901 issue of the Epicure, aimed at cookery school personnel, declared that the time had come to take the alimentary needs of the sailor seriously.  A poorly fed sailor is apt to quit rather than continue to sit down to tasteless and poorly prepared food, and so to retain competent sailors,  four schools were set up to train seamen cooks who could tempt the sailors' appetites.  Along with the Liverpool Nautical School of Cookery were schools in London, Shields, and Hull.  Cookery for Seaman was  also the product of such an initiative, and for its insight into the challenges of cooking at sea, I am grateful to have it for reference.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


I was amused to see on Yahoo! News the following headline:  “Concert Organizers Pull Plug on Springsteen and McCartney in Middle of Encore” (Dylan Stableford, 7/15/2012  Apparently, the two rock stars had exceeded the three-hour limit for their Hyde Park concert, a limit that had been set by London’s Westminster Council.  Nonetheless, when the plugs were pulled, 76,000 people were still reveling in the music, oblivious to the time, the never-ending rain, and the sogginess.  Meanwhile, Springsteen and McCartney were grooving, happy to oblige their audience.  Then wham!  Sound systems failed, amps died, and for a bit, it appeared that the band did not even know what had happened.  Finally, everyone dutifully packed up and left.  So, there it was, what seemed to be the concert of the year, and just like that, the authorities showed up, and I can just hear T.S. Eliot's barkeep in "The Waste Land" shouting,  "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME." 

What does this firm adherence to regulation have to do with ships and dining?  Surprisingly, quite a bit, if we are speaking of the very British Cunard Line.  It was that adherence to rules no matter the circumstance or context that made the line vulnerable to competition from the very American Collins Line, a steamship company founded by Edward Knight Collins that not only vowed to offer passengers an even quicker voyage than Cunard's, but one replete with luxuries, gourmet food, and excellent service—no matter what time of day or night.  Should one wish to linger in the dining saloon over dinner?  The stewards would oblige.  Wish for a longer breakfast period?  The saloon was available at breakfast time for at least two hours.  How could a wealthy passenger resist such attention, Edward Knight Collins conjectured, particularly when the only other viable steamship line, Cunard, was all about rules, rules, and more rules?   

In 1840, Cunard published its Official Guide and Album and distributed it to its cabin-class passengers.  Intended “to assist in lightening the inevitable tedium of a voyage” (Preface), the Official Guide included several essays in its back pages by well-known authors, but the Guide also published a list of 18 Rules and Regulations.  If passengers could follow the rules with a “cheerful acquiescence”, the Guide seemed to chirp like Nanny, then all would be safer, and hence, happier.

Because Cunard was so rule driven, the meals seemed to present a particular annoyance.   They got in the way of running the ship, and they seemed to create an undue burden on the stewards, even if the stewards had  been hired presumably to see to the needs of the passengers. Imagine a gentleman and his lady having just boarded Cunard's Britannia.  They stow their luggage in their narrow and uncomfortable stateroom, and rest up a bit by glancing together through their Official Guide.  Being the orderly citizens that they are, the “Rules and Regulations” part of the Guide demands their attention, and hence they read those carefully.  What did they make of them?

While the Wine and Spirits bar opened at 6:00 A.M., breakfast did not begin until precisely “Half-past 8, and Cloths removed by Half-past 9.” One must be prompt or miss the toast and eggs and ham.  For two-and-a-half hours, one could then amuse one's self by playing cards, drinking at the bar (if he were a man), chatting, whiling away the time dozing, staving off nausea in one’s state-room, writing letters, etc., until “from 12 to 1’o’clock” luncheon was “to be on the Table.”  No more, but also no less.  Again, a block of time for the same activities as before, although if the weather were at all decent, passengers likely strolled the decks to escape the stuffy confines of the saloon and their state-rooms. 
At half-past three o’clock, the passengers heard the before-dinner bell so that they might dress for the most important meal of the day.  Dinner was “to be on the Table at 4—the Cloths to be removed the instant it is over.”  Why such speed?  Where was one to go afterwards? There was no train to catch, no show to watch.  Why did it matter so much that the Cloths be removed the instant it was over? Furthermore, who determined  “the instant"?, the husband and his lady must have wondered.  And what if people wished to linger over a cognac and another slice of tart?  Clearly they would be in the way and the rude stare of the stewards would prompt them to leave even if they were not ready. 
Tea was to follow dinner.  This simple repast of cakes, bread, butter and jam, cheese, and cold meat, along with the beverage itself, was “to be on the Table at Half-past 7.” And, Cunard’s Official Guide huffed, “Supper, if required and ordered,”  must be done so “before 10 o’clock.”  Anyone who could still be hungry after four meals a day was clearly a glutton, the tone of this Rule implied; that tone probably was successful in inhibiting some passengers from making such a demand on the stewards, or at the very least, it must have resulted in their asking for more food in a meek and mild manner. 

When the husband and his lady continued reading to the end of the Rules and Regulations, they might have grown rightly indignant when reminded that “as the labour of the Servants must be very great, and the space required for a larger number absolutely preventing an increase, the Passengers are requested to spare them as much as possible between the Meal Hours, and particularly preceding dinner.”  Welcome aboard, indeed ( “Rules and Regulations.”  Official Guide and Album of the Cunard Steamship Company, pp. 41-43).

Certainly such regimen made the Cunard fleet the safest line of all in those early decades of steam, but as Edward Knight Collins studied Cunard's plan and ethos, he detected significant vulnerabilities to exploit.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

As American as Cornmeal Pudding: Food and Nationalism aboard the Collins Line

The New York & Liverpool United States Mail Steamship Company, or Collins Line, as it was commonly known,  was founded in 1850 and named after its owner, Edward Knight Collins.  Although the line was short-lived, dissolving in 1858, it was distinguished for its luxurious service and its insistence on setting a culinary standard that surpassed anything that its rival, the British-owned Cunard Line, could produce.  The history of the Collins Line and the Cunard Line is complicated, given that the two companies did agree secretly to price-fixing measures before the Collins’ first ship, the Atlantic, even left its New York port, but it is clear that in spite of a cartel, the two companies were intensely competitive, and that Collins advertised not only a faster voyage, but a much more pleasant dining experience.

While the Collins Line very much subscribed to the prevailing American belief that “French is the predominant style of our public cuisine,” its various menus also championed when tasteful and practical a number of distinctly American foodstuffs (“New York Daguerreotypes.” Putnam’s Monthly. April, 1853: 353-368).   Corn flour, or finely ground maize, was particularly appreciated by William Kingston, a wealthy Englishman who sailed on Collins’s Atlantic in August, 1853 with his new wife.  The honeymooners were on their way to North America for a leisurely  journey which culminated in Kingston’s Western Wanderings, or A Pleasure Tour in the Canadas. (Interested readers can access the travelogue in full via Darlington Digital Library, University of Pittsburgh.

So intrigued was Kingston with corn flour that he not only recorded several of the dishes he ate that were made of it—everything from baked puddings to ice cream—but he offered his readers some recipes that he obtained from the Atlantic’s head cook.  Below is the Atlantic’s recipe for what he called an American Baked Pudding:

5 tablespoons of corn flour [finely ground cornmeal]

1 quart of milk

Dissolve the flour in some of the milk; heat the remainder of the milk to nearly boiling, after having put in a little salt; then add the dissolved flour.  Boil three minutes, stirring it briskly; allow it to cool, and then thoroughly mix with it three eggs, well beaten, with three tablespoons of sugar.  Flavour according to taste, and let it bake half-an-hour.

This recipe creates a version of a Southern United States classic, spoon-bread, but it is also reminiscent of a New England classic, hasty pudding, although hasty pudding was boiled in a method that resembled many English puddings, including plum.

While American foodstuffs did not dominate any Collins bill of fare, they were used strategically to impress upon its passengers that this line was distinctly American, not British.  Collins’ dining saloons, with their stained glass windows depicting cities such as Philadelphia and New York, and paintings of the various coats of arms of the various States of the Union, were complemented by meals where corn bread and molasses, pumpkin pie, roasted turkey with stewed cranberries, and salads of fresh tomatoes were common choices on the bill of fare.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dining aboard the Transatlantic Ship

Hi!  I am starting this blog to share what I am learning about the history of food and dining aboard Transatlantic ships in the nineteenth century.  There's very little on this topic out there, and so a lot of my research has been based on primary texts, from memoirs and newspaper articles to contemporary advertisements and ship archives.   At this point, I am at the half-way point in writing a book on this topic and would like to communicate with fellow maritime and food enthusiasts as I proceed.  Stay tuned!