Steamboat Dining in the 1820s
Editor's note: "Three Years in North America" by James Stuart, Esq. was originally published as a two volume travelogue in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1833 describing a journey taken in the late 1820s. In this section the British travelers describe meals on the steamboat "North America" as they travel up the Hudson River. Many thanks to volunteer researcher George M. Thompson for finding and transcribing this historic travelogue.
Steamboat "North America" b/w photograph of painting by Bard Brothers. There were two steamboats named "North America". The one described in the travelogue is the first and ran for 10 years. This may be an image of the second "North America" built in 1839. Donald C. Ringwald Collection, Hudson River Maritime Museum
(p. 40) The North America is splendidly fitted up and furnished; the cabinet work very handsome; the whole establishment of kitchen servants, waiters, and cooks, all people of colour, on a great scale. ***
(p. 41) We had breakfast and dinner in the steam-boat. The stewardess observing, that we were foreigners, gave notice to my wife some time previous to the (p. 42) breakfast-bell at eight, and dinner-bell at two, so that we might have it in our power to go to the cabin, and secure good places at table before the great stream of passengers left the deck. Both meals were good, and very liberal in point of quantity. The breakfast consisted of the same article that had been daily set before us at the city hotel, with a large supply of omelettes in addition. The equipage and whole style of the thing good. The people seemed universally to eat more animal food than the British are accustomed to, even at such a breakfast as this, and to eat quickly.
The dinner consisted of two courses, 1. of fish, including very large lobsters, roast-meat, especially roast-beef, beef-steaks, and fowls of various kinds, roasted and boiled, potatoes and vegetables of various kinds; 2. which is here called the dessert, of pies, puddings, and cheese.
Pitchers of water and small bottles of brandy were on all parts of the table; very little brandy was used at that part of the table where we sat. A glass tumbler was put down for each person; but no wine-glasses, and no wine drank. Wine and spirits of all sorts, and malt liquors, and lemonade, and ice for all purposes, may be had at the bar, kept in one of the cabins. There is a separate charge for every thing procured there; but no separate charge for the brandy put down on the dinner-table, which may be used at pleasure. The waiters will, if desired, bring any liquor previously ordered, and paid for to them, to the dining-table.
p. 43 Dinner was finished, and most people again on deck in less than twenty minutes. They seemed to me to eat more at breakfast than at dinner. I soon afterwards looked into the dining-room, and found that there was not a single straggler remaining at his bottle. Many people, however, were going into and out of the room, where the bar is railed off, and where the bar-keeper was giving out liquor.
The men of colour who waited at table were clean-looking, clever, and active, -- evidently picked men in point of appearance.
We had observed a very handsome woman of colour, as well dressed, and as like a female of education, as any of those on board, on deck. My wife, who had some conversation with her, asked her, when she found that she had not dined with us, why she had not been in the cabin? She replied very modestly, that the people of this country did not eat with the people of colour. The manners and appearance of this lady were very interesting, and would have distinguished her anywhere.
James Stuart. Three Years in North America. Vol. 1. Edinburgh, 1833.
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