This section is from the book "The Steward's Handbook And Guide To Party Catering", by Jessup Whitehead. Also available from Amazon: Larousse Gastronomique.
Those old-time Mississippi steamboat stewards were fine models of executive ability; they were remarkable men in their way, and are worth a passing description, for we shall never see their like again; the same state of their business will never exist again, for they were without the telegraph, practically without mail or express, since their boat carried the mail and they could hardly send word ahead, and the express reached only the railroad points which were limited then to the northern cities. They were models for the summer resort steward whose hotel is off the regular lines of travel, in a difficult country, destitute of local markets and with slow and uncertain means of communication. Indeed those stewards were generally resort men themselves, for the boating season was in winter and spring, and the best of them had summer engagements at the various fashionable "Springs " to pass away the time when the rivers were low and the crops were not ready to be moved, These stewards had entire charge and control of the victualling department and hiring of help and rate of wages to be paid.
The captain held but one powerful restraint upon them; he and the chief clerk, who was the cashier and paymaster, kept up a rigid comparison of the bills for each month and for the same months of former years, and, in a general way, the steward who could run the boat with the smallest monthly bills was the man they wanted for that position. While this fear of running up a monthly expense account that the captain wouldn't stand, was a great check upon the entire steward's department, the men who were smart enough to be stewards were fertile in expedients for dodging a direct comparison, and often made their dearest months seem the very contrary, either by collusion with the merchants or by special excuses plausibly presented. The captain did not know the waiters nor whence they came, nor did he know the cooks, unless by chance he had one of some repute, but if this steward required twenty waiters and seven cooks and another could run the boat with fifteen waiters and five cooks, the cheaper man had the better chance of the position.
These are the same checks and balances which hold good in the hotel of to-day, and everywhere, but there were other checks in the thorough first-class steward's favor, for the captains were desirous of a good reputation for their craft and had rivals in the business, and the dearer man often had his day to be on top regardless of expense. Where the special ability of this class of men was best shown was in the provisioning of the boat in advance, and so managing that every succeeding day's dinner would be better than the last, and the last dinner of the trip was complete with every luxury of the season, although it might be seven or eight days since they left the city and the markets, and there was always a degree of uncertainty as to how many passengers might come on board at the various towns and landings of a ten or twelve or fifteen hundred mile trip. The boat's crew of deck hands and firemen, amounting to anywhere from twenty to sixty or seventy men, were also provided for by the steward, and calculations for them had to be made as well as for the cabin, just as the hotel steward has to provide separately for a large portion of "the help".
Going down stream they left orders at certain landings for the boat storemen to have so much milk, chickens, eggs, or such things, ready by a certain day on their return; for the rest the trusted to their well-managed ice-chests and store-room. The steward hired the stewardesses, who is the same as the hotel housekeeper, and she generally hired two girls to help her. The steward, likewise, hired the porter and barber, but had nothing to do with the barkeeper, nor engineers, or mate's crew. There was a pantryman, who did not wait at table; the fifteen or twenty waiters were divided into berth-makers (instead of chamber-maids), lamp-trimmers, knife-cleaners (for plated knives had not yet come into use), napkin-folders, and the usual side work, and they filled in all their time besides in scrubbing paint, except the short interval in the afternoon.
These waiters had to carry all the stores on board from the wharf, whether at the city starting point or at way landings, so that the steward and those he hired and controlled carried on the entire hotel department of the boat without aid or interference from anybody. Steamboats are still running under much the same rules. This is spoken of in the past tense, because it refers to a time when the passenger trade was so good that the steamboat table was as good as money and skill could make it, and the time on each trip was long enough to make the steamboat more like a hotel in some out-of-the-way place than the lightning-express boats of to-day can possibly be; and, besides the best of their time was from ten to twenty years B. W., which means before the war. So, presumably, those old-time stewards are all dead and cannot object to the statements contained in the next chapter.