Sunday, January 16, 2011

James Monroe, Mississippi Steamboatin, and "Food Piled High on a Long, Linen Cloth"

So did you know that James Monroe was the first president to ride and possibly dine on a steamboat? By the 1820s, steamboats were in use on most of the major rivers, canals, and waterways in the United States.

Historians say that the steamboat completely revolutionized shipping. For the first time in history, people "didn't have to rely on unpredictable currents and winds and could travel to any port at any time." Plantation owners in the southern states of Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana, for example, could cheaply and easily ship cargoes of sugar, cotton, and other goods upriver on the Mississippi rather than send it around the tip of Florida and up the Eastern seaboard as they had previously done.

Steamboats also provided a luxurious way for wealthy passengers to travel. In Mississippi Steamboatin’, Herbert Quick described the palatial setting and abundance of food served on later steamboats:

The palatial setting of later steamboats attracted pleasure-seekers and wealthy travelers...More comfortable than their 'settin' rooms,' more ornate than their prim and uncomfortable parlors...they saw the steamboat's cabin as a bewilderingly beautiful palace. The...glistening cut-glass chandeliers; the soft oil paintings on every stateroom door; the thick carpets that transformed walking into a royal march; the steaming foods piled high on the long linen cloth in the dining room, with attentive waiters standing at the traveler's elbow, waiting with more food, and gaily colored desserts in the offing - neither homes nor hotels...were ever like this.

Between 1814 (three years before Monroe took office) and 1834, steamboat arrivals in New Orleans increased from 20 to 1,200 each year. For the next half century, steamboats were the main transporter of American goods, and tiny river towns grew into thriving cities “when steamboats began to make regular stops at their docks.”

FAST FACT: If you've ever watched steam rise from a cup of hot chocolate or coffee, you might think that a steamboat is propelled by steam. That makes sense, but that isn't exactly how a steamboat works. In a steamboat's engine, wood or other fuel is burned to heat water in a boiler, and the steam that rises from the water is forced through small spaces (piston cylinders) to increase the speed at which it escapes, similar to the release of a valve on a pressure-cooker. The concentrated steam then hits and moves a paddlewheel which, in turn, propels the steamboat through water!

Credit: James Monroe, oil on canvas by Gilbert Stuart (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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