Editor's note: The following text is from the "Brooklyn Standard-Union" newspaper August 21, 1891. Thank you to Contributing Scholar George A. Thompson for finding and cataloging this article. The language, spelling and grammar of the article reflects the time period when it was written.
On a Canal Boat. How Men, Women and Children Live Down in the Cabin – Babies Born and Die on Board – In Season and Out of Season the Cabin in the Family Home – The Hard Lot of the Women.
She was a small-featured woman, with very light blue eyes and her fair skin bronzed by the water. We were sitting on the roof of the cabin of her husband's canal boat, at the foot of Coenties Slip.
"Yes, miss," she replied to my question, "I live and my husband and children live down stairs in that cabin, year in and year out. Two of my children, one boy and one girl, were born downstairs. One of them, the girl, died there two years ago, while the boat laid up for the winter at the foot of Canal Street."
Here the poor woman's voice faltered, as she took an end of her gingham apron to wipe the tears.
"We thought the world of that little girl, Miss. She was as pretty as a picture, and gentle as a little lamb. I blame the doctor to this day for her death, that I do. The minute she was took sick my husband went for to bring him, and sez he, 'Oh, it's nothing, only the measles, so don't cher be alarmed."
"I believe in me heart that the poor little thing was a-dying then. She died the next mornin', an' – an –' we buried her in the cemetery along with his father (her husband's) and mother.
There was a hammock swinging between two poles on top of the cabin, near where we sat. In it lay a beautiful little golden-haired boy, fast asleep. It was the woman's baby, and whenever it was asleep up there she sat by his side, sewing or knitting, and keeping a close watch. It was a dangerous place for baby, for should he tumble out he would roll into the water.
"Jimmie, Jimmie," suddenly called the woman, "come up here and watch your little brother, as I wants to go downstairs."
Jimmie, who was evidently an obedient boy, … rushed upstairs from the cabin, banging the mosquito net doors after him as he came out.
"This is my big boy," said the woman, looking up fondly at Jimmie.
Boy-like, Jimmie barely glanced at me, contracted his brow and pulled the old straw hat down over his eyes as he took the seat his mother had vacated.
"Come now, miss," said the woman, "I will show you how we live downstairs." We went down six steps covered with bright oilcloth and brass tips, all as clean and shiny as could be.
The cabin was divided into three apartments – bedroom, kitchen and sitting room, in which there was an extra bunk for the grown-up daughter, who was away at the time. The kitchen was a mere hole, a stove and a few cooking utensils occupying the entire space.
The bedroom was a little larger. It contained a three-quarter bed covered with linen of snowy whiteness, and one chair on which lay folded a number of quits and one pillow, doubtless to be spread on the floor for the big boy that night.
The sitting or living room was about ten feet long and eight feet wide. The floor was covered with the same kind of oilcloth as that on the stairs; the furniture consisted of a bureau, two chairs, one rocking chair, of a green painted cottage bedroom suit, a round walnut table, a machine, and one extra brown chair. The woodwork was grained, and the ceiling and walls painted white. Two long closets, one for dishes and one for clothes, were built in one side of the wall; also a half dozen drawers. The walls were plentifully decorated with highly colored chromos, and these two texts: "Give us this day our daily bread." "Thou shalt not kill."
In that crowded abode, a man, a woman, a girl of fourteen, a boy of twelve and a baby two years old lived, as the woman said, "year in and year out."
I took the extra brown chair the woman offered me, which I presume they reserve for company. "Yes, mam, sometimes we do feel a bit crowded, but I reckon it's no worse than many of the folks who live in them awful tenement houses."
"Do you know, mam, I could never feel contented in one of them places? We lives by ourselves here with no neighbors to pry into our business." "Oh, yes, some of us go to church whenever we are ashore on Sunday."
"There is a Mr. McGuire that comes down here every Lord's day and preaches on the dock. He is 'Piscopal, I think, but he is a fine man all the same." "We are Catholic, but we believe in letting everybody enjoy their own religion. My husband and me ain't no ways bigoted."
"Oh, certainly, my children goes to school in winter. We always spend the winter in New York, and it is there that we send them to the public school."
"The children in New York are very rude. They have a way of teasing mine for living on a boat. 'And do yez eat off the floor?' they say to Mamie sometimes. Yes, them children behave very badly."
While the woman was talking the screen door opened with a jerk, and a girl dressed in a deep green woolen frock and a black straw sailor hat came down the cabin stairs.
"This is my daughter," said the woman. "She has been visiting in Brooklyn." The girl, who had a rather pleasant face, smiled at me without bowing, and then sat down and stared.
The woman, addressing the girl, said: "This lady wanted to see how people lived on a canal boat, so I brought her down. We like to have company once in a while," she went on, "for it's lonely enough at times, the dear knows."
The girl continued to stare, as she kept playing with the elastic on her hat.
The boat we were on ran between New York and Canada, [editor's note: via the Champlain Canal] and the woman, who was of a descriptive turn of mind, told me just how the trips were made.
It took forty-eight hours for a tug to tow them to Albany; from Albany they went to Troy, and then for sixty-eight miles the horses pulled the boat up the canal. On the other end of the canal a Canadian tug brought them to their destination. After telling me all this we went up on deck again, and there the woman explained how she managed her washing.
I saw a wash-board lying on the floor of a small rowboat that stood alongside of the hammock in which the clothes were washed. The "men folks," the woman said, usually carried the water, and she did the rest. Then clothes were dried underneath the canvas. I next asked the woman what her husband carried on his boat. "He carries different things," said she. "This time he carries what they calls 'merchandise.'" Just then a wagonload of rosin came to be packed on board. I left the family standing by the side of the baby, as I went farther up the deck, where I engaged in conversation with the captain of another canal boat.
I found him just as accommodating and as obliging as the woman I had talked with. "Certainly, mam, you can go down in the cabin. You will find my wife there, and she'll talk to you."
This man and wife were not so cramped as some of their neighbors, for they had no children. I found the man's wife a clever woman, but not nearly so philosophical about living on a canal boat as her neighbor. She told me that this was her third summer on the water, and that it was going to be her last. She spent most of her time making fancy work for her friends. Her apartments were clean as wax, and judging from the arrangement of the furniture, curtains and pictures, she was a woman of some refinement. She was a great sight-seer, too. She always made it a point to visit the places of interest in all cities where they stopped. She had been to a great many downs between Albany and Philadelphia. She had been married to the captain fifteen years, but she could never accustom herself to life on a canal boat. She would be happier on land.
On either side of the two boats were a dozen other boats, some loading and some unloading their freight, and on all of them were women and on most of them children. But the thought of human beings spending most of their time penned up as the women and children on these boats are obliged to be, recalls once more that timely question: "Does one-half of the world know or care how the other half lives?"
That more of these canal boat children are not drowned is a wonder, and that more of the women do not lose their times is equally surprising.
It is sad to reflect on the emptiness and monotony of their lives. – [original article written by Emma Trapper, in Brooklyn Standard-Union.]
(Editor's note: Canalboat families worked hard but some found life aboard these boats wholesome and at times pleasurable. While difficult to measure and compare, the standard of living among boat families on the canals was likely higher than that of many urban laborers.)
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