Sunday, March 17, 2019

Life on an ocean steamer

‘This is a very fine steamer, and the ocean is so quick - at times today, as smooth a sea as I ever saw any where - that we dont seem to realize at all that we are on a rolling billowy sea - We have pretty good times, too, and dont think much about the way time goes. There is nothing quite like life on an ocean steamer.’ This is from a short lively journal kept by Cornelia Maria Clapp, born 170 years ago today, when travelling by steamboat across the Atlantic. She was one of North America’s first women marine biologists, and is remembered for being an inspirational teacher.

Clapp was born on 17 March 1849 in Montague, Massachusetts, the oldest child of two teachers. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (the forerunner of today’s Mount Holyoke College) in 1871 before becoming a Latin teacher at a boarding school in Andalusia, Pennsylvania. On returning to teach at Mount Holyoke from 1872, she became increasingly focused on zoology and is credited with developing a laboratory method of instruction that was highly effective.

Clapp went on numerous field trips; and she furthered her own education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse (New York) University, where she received a Ph.D. degree in 1889 (her dissertation on toadfish was published in the Journal of Morphology), and at the University of Chicago, where she took a second doctorate in 1896. That same year, she helped Mount Holyoke (by this time a college) start a department of zoology, and in 1904 she was promoted to professor of zoology - a position she held until retiring in 1916.

Clapp was also involved, from 1888, in the work of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, particularly in the field of embryology. She was the first woman to be given a research post at the institution, and she went on to serve as librarian between 1893 and 1907 and as the first woman trustee from 1897 until 1901 and again in 1910 until her death in 1934. Although she published little during her career, she is considered to have exerted a major influence in helping women to extend scientific knowledge and opportunity through education. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Women’s Museum of California,

Donna Albino, a student of Mount Holyoke College in the 1980s, has collected a large amount of textual and pictorial information about her alma mater. Some of this has been published in a book of historic postcards, and some can be found online. Among the handwritten books she lists on her web pages is a short travel journal kept by Cornelia Clapp in 1886. It consists of just 11 entries during a voyage by steamboat from New York City to Antwerp, Belgium, accompanied by other Mount Holyoke professors and students. Albino has transcribed the text of the journal; here are two of the entries.

30 June 1886
‘The biggest thing to record to-day is the visit to the lower regions of our floating world. Stone challenged me to go down to the fires and I went. Down, down down until we came to a horrid torrid climate, where 24 fires are constantly kept going, and there is an apparatus that records each pulse beat of the engine. It now stands 369524 and it will stand when we reach Antwerp 900000 -

The machinery is beautiful & we saw & went nearly the whole length of the shaft that runs the screw way down in the lower regions - This is a very fine steamer, and the ocean is so quick - at times today, as smooth a sea as I ever saw any where - that we dont seem to realize at all that we are on a rolling billowy sea - We have pretty good times, too, and dont think much about the way time goes. There is nothing quite like life on an ocean steamer.

Alice Bartholomew sketches, and we have become acquainted with an artist on his way over to study art, who is trying his hand on sketching some members of the party. There is a regular crew of teachers on board - Vassar & Smith are well represented besides Holyoke, of course ladies predominate - We have been reading Mark Twain’s description of the German language & Kingsley’s Water Babies. [. . .]

I am at this writing perched in my (upper) berth & ready to drop off to sleep at any moment - Goodnight.’

3 July 1886
‘The sensation to-day is the visit to the Steerage - The Capt. himself accompanied us - took us into the store room at the stern, & showed us the immense wine lockers, & the place where they carry the mails & money - This steamer is capable of carrying 1500 steerage passengers, but at present there are only about 300 passengers in all on board. (- cargo in steerage going East.)

This morning is the most beautiful one yet. Not a cloud in the sky, & the air so balmy & warm that not a wrap is thought of -

We are beginning to talk of land now. Next Monday even. at 9. P.M. we are expecting to see the Lizard light. There will be a crowd on deck then I surmise.

I found Mr. Williamson knew Brayton of Indianapolis & we have been talking him up this morning. He calls him a regular Bohemian - happy-go-lucky fellow - agrees with me in his ideas of him - I have been reading in “The Ocean Wave” this morn. and the following paragraph is awfully true - “Men of the highest genius seem to be transformed as soon as they get at a distance from land in a rolling vessel. There is an inability to control the mind while at sea, a difficulty in concentrating the attention on the task of even writing in one’s diary or reading even the most trifling fiction.”

No one of the party is the least big sea sick, and we now range over this great boat from stem to stern whiling the time away -

Last evening the regular dance on deck took place - gymnastic feats - leap frog & the like - a set of young men with the banjos have taken to serenading in the passage ways -, as it is difficult to get outside the windows!

The table waiter said to day that he never saw such a passage as this before - He has had us to wait on most regularly - not more than three have lost a single meal - It is simply delightful. (I repeat it again lest I should not have put it on every sheet of paper written.)

We sight ships occasionally - a single stroke of the bell in the bow gives the signal - but none have been within speaking distance. We take an extremely southern route - thus avoiding fogs off Newfoundland, icebergs and such! and certainly we must have struck one of the dry, still times in mid ocean -

At lunch to-day Miss Stevens gave me an account of the Reception at the Sem. I had not thought to ask her about it before & she told me of her pleasure in meeting my brother & Miss Metcalf - the first intimation that I have had that these persons were present in that occasion. What prizes were taken, I heard of some by a graduate of Ag. Coll. Stone remarked the other day that he wished my brother was aboard. He seems supremely happy - Miss Bartholomew has a fine sketch of him. A Wellesley teacher has turned up now on board - such a boat of school marms! -

We have just now come upon a steamer going the same way - It is about five or six miles away, I suppose but it seems quite like having company along - No. Ger. Lloyd. One week ago this hour we set sail - left the lovely New York harbor - on that charming afternoon.

The distance in the last 24 hours has been 335 miles. We have been guessing on it & Bryan & Carter hit it right -

Miss Hooker & I are talking of fees - We shall soon have to begin to live again - spend money that means - We take quite a rent [?] on ship board - Now I must start & read German with Miss Pettee - Clara Stevens talks of going to the German cities -’

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