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.