Friday, November 5, 2010

The Tenth Day Out

Cunard Line,

English railroad magnate Henry Pease, growing weary at the end of an eleven-day voyage across the Atlantic in 1856, made notations next to each item on the breakfast menu. Such first-hand observations are rare. Menus typically do not provide information about the quality and  quantity of the food, or even whether the dishes on the bill of fare were actually available that day. Four extant menus from his voyage provide a rare glimpse of the meal service on a mid-nineteenth-century steamship.

On July 2 of that year, Pease checked out of the Revere House in Boston and boarded the side-wheel steamship Arabia bound for Liverpool, returning home after a three-month vacation at fashionable resort hotels in Saratoga Springs, Niagara Falls, and Newport.1 Still at sea ten days later, Pease wrote a cursory note by each breakfast item, recording which dishes were available and what he thought of them. His comments reflected the psychological state of someone in the final stages of a transatlantic voyage. Although now forgotten, such feelings were well known to passengers at the time.

The British and North American Royal Steam-Packet Company, later known as the Cunard Line, had a reputation for safety and reliability. Luxurious accommodations and fancy cuisine were of secondary importance. The dishes on its daily menus were described in simple terms, often using the old-fashioned abbreviation “Do.” for ditto. The breakfast dishes and supper pastries were printed on the standardized forms in advance; the dinner entrees were written in each day under seventeen generic categories—soups, fish, beef, mutton, lamb, veal, pork, pigs, turkeys, geese, ducks, fowls, currie, stews, fricassé, made dishes, and calves’ heads. On this voyage in 1856, the steward routinely crossed out the entire pastry section and inscribed the desserts that were available. (The 4¾- x 15½-inch format requires that each menu be shown in two scans.)



Pease's comments about breakfast are shown on the menu below. The dishes are succinctly described as bad, not bad, and pretty good. Interestingly, over half of the dishes were not available that day. Unlike the pastries, which the steward dutifully crossed out, these items were still on the menu even though supplies had run out. 

Beef Steaks – pretty good
Mutton Chops – bad
Pork Chops – none
Veal Cutlets – none
Smoked Salmon – none
Broiled Chicken – none
Fried Ham – plenty
Cold Meats – any quantity
Stews – not bad
Eggs in Omelettes – none
Eggs Boiled – none
Hominy – none
Mush – good stock?

Perhaps the reason Pease felt compelled to scribble down these observations was related to the cycle of life aboard ship. In Transatlantic, historian Stephen Fox notes that passengers typically went through five distinct phases during the transatlantic voyages of the nineteenth century.  “The first day or two of steaming might go quite smoothly, to the relief of the passengers, thus provoking the most cheerful expectations for the rest of the voyage,” recounts Fox. The second phase “began when the ship stopped hugging the shore and steamed out to sea…Many steeled themselves for the grim struggle not to surrender to the stalking, progressive discomfort they could feel rising within (as they slid) from queasiness into misery toward nausea…For most passengers, the worst ordeals lifted after a few days." 

While the first two phases were marked by curiosity and misery, the long third phase was one of relief. Passengers settled into a routine, an enforced vacation during which they especially enjoyed eating and drinking. During the brief fourth phase, “the limited diversions of the passage no longer looked interesting. The constant annoyances became more intolerable. Now a feeling of restless melancholy prevailed. Each day felt exactly like the last, and the next.” In fact, Pease seems to express the feelings of someone who has grown weary of the voyage. Happily, the ship approached land the next day. It was in this final stage that the waves usually subsided, prompting passengers to put on their best clothes and go on deck. “The last day—depending on ocean and weather—might turn into a playful lark…”2

1. Henry Pease (1807-1881), member of the Quaker Pease family of Darlington, UK, and director of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, founded the seaside resort Saltburn by the Sea (including its famous Zetland Hotel) in North Yorkshire in 1861.
2. Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships, New York (2003).

1 comment:

Jeanne Schinto said...

Fascinating, as always! What a lucky find, and boo to those collectors who want (insist on) pristine menus, without any jot or crease. Two thoughts: First, I am glad that they were out of a lot of the items, because it may mean there was far less waste than there is today, or is that yet another romantic notion? Somehow I don't think so...? Second, I am glad I have never been on a cruise. Have you and Julie?