Stewards of an Ocean Liner Above and Below Decks
by Winthrop Packard
About eight thousand stewards are afloat on the rolling seas of the broad Atlantic at this minute—fully half of them employed on the great ships of the International Mercantile Marine Company, the others serving on vessels owned outside of the American " merger."
Who are these men ? What is their life ? What are their daily duties and recreations ? They certainly constitute an interesting study.
Beyond a doubt, if you would know the class you must exploit the individual, on the principle of ex pede Herculem. Stewards in bulk I have seen on many steamships. On one at least I have been of the gang, signed on as a seaman—all stewards and stewardesses sign as such—in order to make note of my fellows in the original package.
And, of course, in the one trip I learned more about being a steward than in all the others when my point of contact was that of the passenger. As a result of my experience I may say boldly that the Southampton Boys, as I knew them on the St. Paul of the American line, are as fine a set of men as you will find in any business.
The first-cabin passenger is apt to look upon the steward as not exactly human. To him the steward is an automaton who serves deftly and silently, appears at the right moment, anticipates wants, and when not wanted keeps out of sight, but within call. If the steward does all this, and does it with tact and diligence, with a foresight that sometimes savors of the miraculous, he is a useful appurtenance of the vessel, and worthy of a ten-shilling tip at the end of the voyage.
But if you want to know the steward as a man you must study him in the " glory hole." Perhaps you are wondering what that is. Let me tell you about it ; though if you wish to know why it is called the glory hole you must put your question to somebody older than I am.
There is nothing especially glorious about it, though you will recognize it as a hole, and a deep one ; for, when you go down, the descent, like that to Avernus, is easy, and seems almost as far. The Jacob's ladder that leads to it, from far aft, is so steep that a mis-step might easily mean a sheer drop of forty feet or so.
There, way down in the bowels of the ship, you discover that the glory hole consists of five or six good-sized rooms, all filled full of tiers of gas-piping bunks where the sleepers lie side by side. Under these tiers of gas-piping bunks the stewards' boxes are stowed. There is no other furniture.
The glory hole is essentially a sleeping room, and the steward has little time for anything else when there. Yet the linen on the thirty-inch-wide bunks is good and clean, and the "hole" is scrupulously neat, for one man is detailed to keep it so ; and, indeed, it is inspected daily, along with the rest of the ship, by the captain, the doctor, and a train of lynx-eyed officers.
So that, woe to the man in charge if dust or dirt meet their vigilant gaze I An incandescent light burns there day and night, and through long pipes leading from the ventilators on deck a sufficient supply of fresh air comes in. All told, therefore, the glory hole is a pretty comfortable place.
Here the steward is " at home." Here you meet the real man. Here, when off duty, he hangs his hat, stows his box under the gas-pipe frame of his bunk, and smokes the pipe of contentment. If you will live in the glory hole for a trip, and eat in the pantry, you will find out how much of a man the steward is. Otherwise you will know only the outer garments of the class, for the individual is reserved beneath.
You will be likely to find, too, that he is a good fellow, perhaps not less gentlemanly than the man he serves, and certainly lacking neither in education nor knowledge of the world. There is a member of the English House of Parliament, today, who at one time served as a steward on a White Star boat.
Of course one need not infer from this statement that all stewards are lords in disguise, but it is a fact that college men and younger sons of English gentlemen take up the trade for various reasons.
The steward may travel far if he will, he has a chance to learn the ways of the world, and the experience teaches wisdom and diligence—things not to be despised in houses of parliament, or any other kind of house. To retain his position as steward on one of the big liners a man must be wise, tactful, and energetic ; otherwise he goes looking for another job at the end of the first voyage.
Stewards on these transAtlantic ships are selected with much care, often come with special letters to the management, and are, besides, subject to rigid scrutiny by their fellows. A man who has proved himself lazy, ungentlemanly, or a thief, may want to sign for the next voyage ; but, if the management does not drop him, it sometimes happens that his fellows will stand by and forbid him to sign.
To ship in the face of such a warning would mean mental anguish, and possibly bodily disaster, during the trip. Honesty is the first requisite ; and to the credit of the class it may be said that, careless as passengers usually are in leaving money and jewels exposed in their staterooms, it rarely happens that a steward turns out to be a thief. Once he has been even suspected his days of usefulness are over, and he leaves the ship at the first dock.
The many great liners plying to the ports of all the world from Southampton, England, have bred up a special class of stewards known in the shipping trade as " Southampton Boys," and these are reckoned the smartest and best in the business.
They come from all over England, but especially from the southern counties, and many of them are Londoners. You may know them by a touch of the Cockney accent, their neatness, and general smartness of appearance and manner. Stewards from German, Belgian, or even French ports seem not to have the alertness and ready wit of these Southampton boys."
There must be something attractive in the conditions of this service, for the pay is not large. On the American line, for instance, the steward receives fifteen dollars a month, in addition to food and lodging, while at sea.
Out of this sum he must buy his own uniforms and pay his own laundry bills. He gives up, furthermore, fifty cents a trip to the " boots " who keeps his share of the glory hole clean, fifty cents in each port to the shore steward who serves his meals while the ship is at the dock, and pays fifty cents each round trip to have his box taken away from the ship and brought back—for he is discharged and signed on anew each voyage, as the government requires.
It will be very clearly seen that, after deductions have been made, the net amount is not very large. To make a living for the wife and babies at home the steward must receive tips from the passengers whom he serves. There is no arbitrary rule in this matter. Some passengers do not pay them at all, and probably suffer nothing as a consequence.
Custom decrees the minimum as ten shillings each—two dollars and a half—to the bedroom steward, the deck steward, the saloon steward, and also the bath steward, with perhaps a dollar to the "boots," besides the passenger's name on the subscription paper for the smoke-room steward, and for the organist or band.
With all this money flying about at the end of the trip, an alert and tactful man is apt to find that he has made more than his wages. In exceptional cases are still better chances, for sometimes a clever steward will see an opportunity to make himself more than ordinarily useful, and will therefore receive five or ten dollars, or even more, in grateful appreciation.
Thus Li Hung Chang, when he crossed on the American line, left two hundred dollars to be divided up among those stewards who had in any way served him, the men receiving from five to thirty dollars each.
The summer is the bonanza season. In the winter, when passengers are fewer, the family ashore must be kept on the proceeds of more fortunate trips. Thus the awkward or lazy steward soon finds the business unprofitable, and drops out.
Many of the Southampton Boys are wise in this matter of full trips. They sign on the trans-Atlantic ships for the summer ; then, in the winter season, go over to the China or South African and Australian trade, whose busy season is in the winter time.
Because of this shifting the clever steward becomes a much-traveled man, and knows the shipping ports the world over.
In the glory hole at night, when pipes are lighted for a short smoke before turning in, you may hear fascinating tales of far distant lands; of jackals that slip out of the jungle and board the ships lying at Garden Reach above Calcutta ; of romantic adventures at night in Arab Town at Port Said, " the hottest hell on earth " ; of the dust from coaling ships at Aden, so thick that it obscures the sun and makes the soup black while you bring it in ; of the darkies who dive for pennies in the clear waters of Colombo, and are chased by the watching sharks ; and you may learn the comparative value of the lunch places of Hongkong and Sydney or Cape Town.
Here, too, the true life of the steward shows through, and you discover oftentimes that he has tastes and aspirations which surprise you. I know one steward, who serves daily at table with expressionless face, who has at home a collection of original drawings by Dore and other artists that would delight a connoisseur. Another, signed on as a seaman at regular steward's pay, is the ship's organist, and is said to be a musician of far greater skill than many a more pretentious one who listens as a passenger.
For some reason it happens that the Southampton Boy often is musical I discovered this musical tendency on the first night out. The ship swung along to an easy sea while I slept in my bunk. At twelve I was roused by a clear baritone voice singing : " If you lik-a me And I lik-a you, And we lik-a both the same, I lik-a say, This very day, I lik-a change your na—a—arne."
The eight-to-twelve bedroom stewards' watch had just come below. In a moment a sleeper just at my right took up the chorus in a good bass ; then a- tenorjoined in, and more tenor and bass and baritone, till the Bamboo Tree was ringing out to a full, clear-toned chorus. This goodnight carol lasted for ten minutes or so.
Then the newcomers turned in, and silence reigned in the glory hole for the rest of the night, none of the sleepers seeming to resent being aroused for a midnight song. Except for brief moments like this, snatched from his sleep, the steward on the North Atlantic gets little leisure.
Yet he has his bit of sport occasionally. The boys get up a half-crown pool on the ship's run—just as the millionaires do in the smoke-room above—and late at night you will often see them sitting in at a little game, generally whist, seated on their boxes and using another box for a table.
But the life of the steward is no sinecure. The saloon stewards are called at five-thirty in the morning, mustered in the dining saloon, have coffee and rolls, and get to work. They are on duty in one way and another till eleven at night.
They eat breakfast at about ten, after all the passengers have breakfasted. They have the first-cabin food, but they eat it informally standing in the pantry ; and they waste no time about it. There is no opportunity for ceremony.
The lunch-counter method on board a liner would make a New York broker's clerk quite at home. In the same way lunch is served at about three, and dinner at eight.
Between whiles there are the tables to be laid, and cleared, and relaid, the silver to be cleaned, the- salbon to be swept and put in order, and a host of minor things to be attended to—all under the watchful eye of the second steward, who is responsible for them. The deck stewards are continually on their feet during the same hours, serving tea or bouillon between meals, and attending to the wants of the idle and the indisposed in the steamer chairs.
The bedroom stewards have similar hours, and watch must be stood at night in turn—from eight to twelve, twelve to four, and four to eight—looking to the safety of the part of the ship under their charge, and ready to answer calls from the various staterooms.
These are the stewards with whom the passengers come most in contact. But they are only a part of the force. There are the pantrymen, the dishwashers and scullions, the cooks, bakers, butchers, and storehouse men, the linen-keepers, and the " boots."
A host of these, employed in the inner workings of the ship below decks, have little chance to receive tips, and must live by the regular wages alone. In some instances this is but the regulation fifteen per month, but in the majority it is more. The cooks receive from sixty dollars a month to twenty-five, according to their skill and importance ; the bakers from forty to eighteen, and so on.
Even the second steward, who is commanding officer directly in charge of this host of men, receives but fifty dollars a month ; but he is in direct line of promotion to the post of chief steward, an office much coveted, carrying an excellent salary—as sea salaries go—amounting to fifteen or eighteen hundred a year, and ranking as one of a good deal of dignity and importance. Indeed, the great men of an ocean liner are the captain, purser, chief engineer, chief steward, and doctor.
The comfort of the passengers depends, perhaps, more on the vigilance and executive ability of the chief steward than anyone else. He it is who orders the supplies for the voyage, has a minute knowledge of what the store-rooms and refrigerators contain, and sees that the menu for each meal is ample, well cooked, and daintily served.
He makes arrangements in port for the entire trip, plans each day's meals at sea, and, with the assistance of the chief cook, gets up the menu-card. You will find him mornings in his office, just off the grand staircase, making up his books and records ; but during the rest of the day he is all over the ship now taking a look at the storerooms far below to see that groceries and provisions are rightly served out to the cooks, now inspecting the refrigerators to note the temperature, and again watching the butchers with precise knowledge of how meats shall be cut, and seeing that they are delivered to the cooks on time and in the right quantities.
All these things he is responsible for ; but that is by no means all. He must also keep a minute record of all transactions of this sort, and must have a watchful eye upon the passengers to note that his lieutenants among the men are giving them prompt and cheerful service.
He has a record of every passenger traveling with him, and all the details connected with his journey. If you sailed with him last year or twenty years ago, he can refer to his books and tell you the date of the voyage, its duration, your room and seat at table, and just what stewards served you.
To be a chief steward on one of the great liners is, of course, the ambition of every earnest steward on the sea. Next to that position he looks with eyes of desire upon the post of the smoke-room steward. Indeed, many would prefer the latter. It has less dignity and importance,
but there is often more money in it. It was a White Star purser—no less—who told me he would rather be the smoke-room steward on a popular flyer than hold his own position. The smoke-room steward's berth is a hard one; he must be deft, tactful, vigilant, and untiring ; he is on his feet from dawn to midnight. But he reaps his reward, for the tips are many on a ship full of millionaires.
The rank and file of stewards have to satisfy their souls with a less lofty ambition. In the glory hole you will hear them outlining their plans. One man knows a little fried-fish shop in the purlieus of London, where there are pleasant state-rooms on the upper deck for the wife and babies.
If travelers are plenty he will buy this shop in a year or so, and retire from the sea, so that his children shall grow up knowing him. Another aspires to own a pub " where Bessie might tend bar, and where he knows that many seafaring men would drop in for lunch and refreshment.
And there are ambitions beyond this, too. More than one has his eyes on the States, where money is plentiful and all men are equal. He knows this equality is real, for his Yankee mates have told him so. Many a young fellow among the stewards is saving money for a better education, and for a chance to get up in the world.
Long before the voyage is over you will learn to have a genuine liking and much respect for these honest, tactful, willing servitors on the high seas—that is, if you will bunk in the glory hole and eat in the saloon pantry, where only you can truly come to know them.
"Stewards of an Ocean Liner Above and Below Decks", The Booklovers Magazine, The Library Publishing Company, (Philadelphia), Volume III, Number 5, May 1904