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Research info help needed for Steamboat menus

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    Research info help needed for Steamboat menus

    Hello all!

    I am currently taking a Bibliography and Research class for college and have already been given the midterm. One sections deals specifically with paddle-boats/steamboats.

    We are instructed to find out what people would have eaten aboard these ships: (1) rich travelers, (2) regular fare passengers, (3)ship officers, (4) regular crew, (5) important dignitaries.

    I'm sure there's more that I could ask, but these are the first things off the top of my head, and I'm at a loss as to where to find information. Any books, or websites, with specific information you could recommend would be greatly appreciated! Thank you so much!


    Oops, I should have clarified about the date as well. I'm looking for steamboat information during 1840s through 1860s. Sorry about that!


      I'm sure you will be hearing from those who have better access to that information, but you might want to expand your time period to include the 1870's, when some of the grandest of steamboats were built.


        Your professor must have taken a class from George Ellsworth at Utah State. He gave the kids some hard things to find when I was a half time librarian in the Reference room and halftime curator of Man and His Bread Museum.

        Anyway here are two sightly helpful references. Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi by William J. Petersen and Steamboats on the Western Rivers by Louis C. Hunter. Look in their indexes under food. I tried food and dinning in several other books that had indexes with no luck. I think the subject of Menus has come up in this series So have a look at past postings.

        Sorry most general books didn't get around to what was eaten. or the indexer didn't think it was worth adding to the index. So your best bet is to find diaries of passengers. mainly those of women. If I remember right in Wagon Train Women There is an account of a woman traveling as a deck passenger and I think she may have has some comment on what she and her kids had to eat. I think it is in the book for 1852 and Lucy Rutledge Cooke's diary. Good Luck

        Utah Riverrat


          *RE: Steamboat food/Menus Etc.*
          Hi, Bonnie & Steamboating colleagues:
          Your project is a fascinating one focusing on an aspect of steamboats/steamships that has only recently been researched in depth. This topic discussed on in recent years with much in-put. I draw you to the work and book by Cynthia Nobles who has published a work on steamboat cooking focusing on the DELTA QUEEN. Capt. Doc Hawley and I assissted in her initial research with Doc doing final editing. Others on this web also contributed. Remember, steamboat cuisine then not all that much different that what was offered in leading hotels, clubs and restaurants of the day on shore. Those old boat cooks were masters of the art using coal fired cook stoves with limited means of refrigeration, preservation. Washing of all done by hand in the 'cook house' scullery before automatic dish washers were invented. Many boats, in season, purchased fruits, vegetables, chickens, hogs, beef etc. when stopping at wharfboats or landings. Doc Hawley and a number of us remember this years ago on the DELTA QUEEN. Corn, beans, tomatoes, greens would be purchased with some of the galley crew on the lower deck shucking corn, snapping beans. All breads, rolls, cakes then and before baked aboard. There were meat thermometers then for cooking but the method for most cooks was to 'sniff, probe' to determine the cooking time. The term 'Steamboat Round of Beef' so common was no different than similar cuts of beef roasted ashore. The term came from English steamships along with being served in railroad dining cars here of the day. I uncovered a few period recipes on how the beef was cooked and what 'cut' it was with weight. Some 'Steamboat rounds' could weight up to 40 lbs. with most lesser in weight. In season fresh fowl, fish, clams, oysters etc. could be included. Milk would also have been loaded in the home port or purchsed along the way. The 'night boats' from here to Louisville and return mostly loaded provisions in Cincinnati or even Louisville. Most night boats ran a distance between 125 and at most 200 miles before turn around. Tending to soiled cabin or table laundry another issue to be discussed.

          Menus as such didn't always exist on the old boats except for special events like 'Steamboat Open House,' holidays, visiting dignitaries, company officials/stock holders, christening days, maiden trips. Food selections were given orally with the passenger picking; yet some old menus do crop up in collections. There is mention of 'buffet service' on some of the boats but most food served by the waiters from dishes, bowls etc. to each seated person with much style and fan fare. The famed ANCHOR LINE out of St. Louis did in time experiment with a kind of 'open seating' for passengers wishing to dine at their convenience as a number boarded or left the boats at different landings during the day. The old term 'lunch' implied any snack during the day or late at night. Most daily meals spread on the long tables down the middle of the cabin. Cold iced punches with or without liquor were special offerings with some recordings of their ingredients. As early as the 1830s European travelers on our steamboats were amazed/impressed with the food selections but less pleased with the 'classless' system of being seated together at the long tables. Southern fried chicken was a novelty to many English and continental Europeans they delighted in. Some English travelers here commented that the black waiters on steamboats more refined with polished manners than the often rough provincial passengers they served. More on this in time if you need help. No doubt others here can add their information. Well, what do I know?

          R. Dale Flick
          Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati.


            Bonnie: The steamboat ARABIA was snagged in the Missouri River in I believe 1856. Some years ago said boat was found under many feet of earth that is now a corn field. Much of the boat's cargo and part of the boat itself was salvaged. Among the artifacts recoved is an original menu for the cabin passingers. Search their web site to see if you can find it. If not, a phone call to the museum should get the answer. I took photos of the menu some years ago on a visit to their museum in Kansas City...but finding it would be a problem. You should find exactly what you want there and as I remember the menu was pretty fancy. If I remember correctly back nearly sixty years, Herbert and Edward Quick in their book MISSISSIPPI STEAMBOATIN' (Henry Holt 1926) had comments on food served to cabin passengers on steamboatsand and how the remains of the fancy food was served to the deck crew like slopping the hawgs! I found this while doing a term paper for English Composition in 1953 I have a copy of the book but there is no index so if you cannot find a copy I will try to find the passage for you. Cap'n Walnut

            ps: I think that Dale is right on as to what you will find when the menu...think fancy hotels ashore. ts


              Wow! Thank you all so so much because these book suggestions already help a great deal! I'm beginning to feel better about this project. The information y'all have is invaluable. Thanks again!!


                I know I have seen menus in the S&D Reflector or somewhere. It's just that I have to dig this stuff out and haven't had the time. It's a nice day so maybe I can find something in one of our garages.


                  Here's one. Go to and search for Old Times on the Upper Mississippi by George Byron Merrick. They have the book on line so go to page 126, which is Chapter XVI, Mississippi Menus. This is a first hand account, six pages to add to your research. That one was easy. I will continue looking.


                    Actually, you might want to read the whole book, which is in paperback, once you finish your research.


                      Life on the River, Wayman, 1971, yielded a photo of a menu from the Steamer Magnolia in 1846. It was credited to the Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis. I tried scanning it and it is fairly legible. I don't think the Boatmen's Bank has that collection any more, but I went to the website Missouri History Museum which has a Steamboats and River History Collection. Couldn't find the Magnolia menu, but ran across a menu from the steamboat Missouri, 1847 Jan 10, in Box 1, Folder 11. It was just a listing, but they may have an image available, just not on line. Maybe I could email you the scan of the Magnolia menu if you'd like. That's it for now.


                        Here are a couple of comments.

                        Dick Bissell's mother said that the fancy steamboat food was "slop."

                        Captain Frederick Way, Jr. wrote: Give one old those old-time cooks a gallon of lard and five pounds of sugar, and he could make anything on those fancy menus.

                        My comment is: towboat food was usually good and well-prepared and leaned toward meat and potatoes, hog-jaw-and-hominy and plenty of desserts, usually pies. As for the gourmet food served on the Delta Queen boats, I'd rather eat with the crew. Those string beans made of green-dyed sash cord do not appeal to me.


                          hogs at the trough

                          Well, some of us pined for dining room leftovers, especially if there was a creme de menthe parfait involved. If the DQ was docked and one was not impressed with the look and smell emitting from the crew mess steam tables, as was quite often the case, there were restaurants in almost every town to fall back on. As you mentioned, grease and fat prevailed. Under way, one could get a little box of Raisin Bran, milk, and a banana if all else failed. And the late night engine room popcorn concession was a winner. This is all coming from someone who loves to eat, and I'm making myself hungry.



                            those elaborate steamboat menus for the cabin-class (or first class) passengers must be read with a trifle of circumspection. Most of the clientele were reared on and lived on plain foods. Few of them read or spoke French. Thus the boat's cooks could get away with murder. Europeans were dismayed and even shocked when Americans ate the courses out of order, mixed foods, ate with knives or concentrated on desserts to the exclusion of other viands.

                            This is not to say that the food was totally bad or that all of the passengers were ignorant, but the general level was low. Food was prepared hurriedly and in cramped cookhouses. Meats were slaughtered and dressed on the boat, for there was little or no refrigeration. Cleanliness was still in the future until The Jungle and other books had their effects.

                            As for the deck crew, their food was the left-overs from the cabin. It was served in tin pans and no allowance was made for appearance or delicate appetites. Deck passengers either brought their food with them or scurried up the hill at landings to buy it, for deck passengers bought only transportation from the boat.

                            The three classes were: 1) cabin passengers and officers, who ate the best the boat could afford; 2) deck crew, who ate left-overs; 3) deck passengers who got no food service at all.


                              Like a bunch of ....

                              The chow featured on the AVALON was plenty of fried chicken, greens, and white beans - foods that I still savor, today, as they remind me of those salad days when I was young and living the dream life - steamboating on the great rivers. When I asked Cap'n Doc why we had those wonderful morsels so often, he replied simply, "Cheap."

                              Then there was the episode aboard the DELTA QUEEN, during the early '70's, when the company was trying to appease the African-American members of the crew during those hectic days of racial unrest in those turbulent times and the fare served in the crew's mess consisted of sow's ears, collards, and such that the Cincinnati office figured would be what the majority of the crew wanted to find on the steam table. After a time, a deadheading travel writer, who was enjoying the fancy feasts served on the ironwood deck, above, asked Captain Howard Tate how he "found the food served on the DELTA QUEEN." Without hesitation Tate shot back at the startled woman ... "LADY, THEY SLOP US LIKE A BUNCH OF HOGS!"