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.