Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Relaxing at Sea

Aside from alcohol, the habit of choice among seaman during the Great Age of Sail was tobacco. Time off, what there was of it, at sea often meant enjoying a pipe or a cigar. One can find examples of this habit all over the written record - Dampier, Exquemelin and others mention pipe smoking among the buccaneers, for instance. It also shows up in nautical fiction; both Hornblower and Aubrey were known to enjoy a cigar now and then.

According to Peter H. Spectre in his A Mariner's Miscellany the habit had an edge of the caste system to it. Simple seamen were more likely to indulge in pipe smoking - when they were allowed to smoke - while officers preferred more expensive cigars. Seamen generally mixed their own pipe tobacco, and Spectre generously offers a recipe for same:

Mix 72% Burley tobacco with 25% Virginia and 3% Latakia. He also advises:

To prevent the tobacco from burning rapidly in windy conditions at sea, the cut should be coarse - cube, or moderately thick flake.

This was a critical issue not only from the standpoint of waste but also for fear of fire. Sparks on a wooden ship covered with tar and carrying black powder were a fearsome threat. Losing one's wooden island in the middle of blue water was unthinkable, so certain areas - the galley in particular, where fire was a necessary evil - were designated for smoking.

When the sea and/or wind made smoking impossible or unusually dangerous, tobacco was often chewed. So called "plug" tobacco was mixed by the user, formed into a cake and wrapped in canvas. The user would then cut or tear a piece off for chewing. Once again, Spectre offers a recipe which actually does not sound as unappealing as one might imagine:

Tobacco leaves were soaked in honey, molasses, or other flavored syrup. A hole as drilled into a baulk of wood - hickory was preferred, but other species served in a pinch - and the sodden tobacco was forced into it (hence the word "plug"). Once the tobacco had cured, the plug was pulled from the hole and wrapped in canvas, ready for use.

Though the smoking of pipes on a fine day would have been possible while applying one's self to work like mending sails or making rope, chewing would have been more convenient. Either way it was a habit that seamen fell into easily. And one that was probably hard not to pursue by land as well.

Header: The Smoker by Adriaen van Ostade c 1640 via Wikipedia


Blue Lou Logan said...

I have to remember this as a detail for Logan. Not necessarily that Logan smokes, but that his cronies would have, almost to a man. It's easy to forget in this era when smoking has, at least in terms of political correctness, been deemed bad or inappropriate, that tobacco was something most everyone did. It was the cornerstone of the early American economy, along with rum and hemp. There is a cool, funny book about it called _The Sotweed Factor_ (sotweed being tabacco) I read for my first historical archaeology class (Jim Deetz again).

Pauline said...

You make an excellent point about moderns forgetting how integral a part of everyday life tobacco was, particularly here in the New World.

Now that we have demonized it almost universally, we tend to leave it out of - for instance - historical fiction or make only the "bad guys" tobacco users. Kind of the way so many main characters in similar books are abolitionists, even though they wouldn't realistically have been.

Capt. John Swallow said...

Great historical post...and excellent recipe for a tobacco mix! Sounds alot like the mix I acquired last in New Orleans in a fine tobacconist in Exchange Alley...though I must admit they had a very narrow selection.
Thankfully here in the Canadas there are a few extremely well appointed tobacconists - and one is on the lands o' the New Credit Reserve o' the Mississauga Nation (relatives o' the Ojibway and neighbours to the Haudenosaunee). The other in the old town o' Newark...now known as "Niagara-on-the-Lake".

Pauline said...

Thankee, Captain and some good advice for travelers seeking the best in the way of tobacco around your neck o' the woods. I thought Lou's point was well taken, too, regarding our forgetfulness on this subject. Most of our ancestors enjoyed a pipe now and then, if not more frequently.

Dale B said...

A while back I was doing a bit of research about a Naval Hospital that was built on Egmont Key, at the mouth of Tampa Bay, during the Civil War. A Yellow Fever epidemic had struck the squadron. One of the Captains was charged with visiting each of the ships every morning to take off the sick men. He stated that he chose only men who were heavy tobacco users as is boat's crew, as he was sure the creatures who caused the fever would avoid the vile breath of the men.

Pauline said...

Dale, that is an awesome piece of history. Thank you so much for sharing it here.

Capt. John Swallow said...

Indeed, Mister Dale - a grand tale, one ye can be sure we'll carry & share!

Timmy! said...

Lot's off good info in the post and the comments. Thankee to all for sharing.

Another good book that talks about the early tobacco trade (which was the first cash crop in North America as Lou pointed out) is "Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America" by Giles Milton

Pauline said...

It is so much fun to have so many knowledgeable people giving freely of their experience around these parts. And you're right Timmy!; that is a great book that I can highly recommend.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Ahh, relaxation at sea..... I don't have a recollection of it, per se: we were out in the South China Sea. Been out for several months, standing eight hours of watch a day (plus one's normal job for another eight!!). Needless to say, we were tired.

I had the midwatch as Officer of the Deck, and I was out on the starboard bridge wing. I remember walking in toward the pilothouse and approaching the coaming. I stepped over and continued inside.... next thing I knew, I was about ten feet farther, over toward the binnacle. I had fallen asleep walking!!!

Needless to say, that scared me right awake! Prolly couldn't sleep the next day, either ;-)