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Mess: Officer vs. Enlisted

As with berthing, officers and enlisted sailors took their meals separately. Officers put up money for their food, which was purchased and prepared by stewards. Enlisted fare on board ship during this period was an inconsistent affair. The Navy provided a portion of the sailor's diet, but it was generally not terribly appetizing. Sailor Frederick Wilson wrote in his diary in 1899:

The spuds were black as tar when broken open, and the coffee was no coffee at all as far as taste went. But the meat!! Salt horse of Revolutionary birth, and the vintage 1776. It made its presence known by its aroma. Thought I was in a soap factory or fertilizer place. It looked dubious last evening. I saw several cooks taking theirs to the galley on strings. Looked for all the world as if they were going to feed an alligator or lion, or bait a shark hook. It was green in places. Yes, this is the modern navy with its old 1812 ration.

Chief Petty Officers had better food than recruits, who often went hungry. During this transformative period, the Navy eventually upgraded ships with refrigerators, and improved its logistics infrastructure to provide fresh food to sailors at sea.

Click images for enlargements, click captions for source information.

Officers and enlisted sailors took their meals in separate spaces. Officers enjoyed the privacy of the wardroom, an area off-limits to enlisted sailors. At left is the wardroom of the cruiser USS Brooklyn. Officers sit around a table complete with tablecloth and nice dishware. Stewards — usually African-Americans or foreigners — stand at the ready. Enlisted sailors ate their meals on the berth deck where they slept, or on tables on the main deck. They used portable tables and benches that could be stowed when not in use. At right, enlisted sailors on board the gunboat USS Elcano eat a meal. They are crowded onto benches, eating at a small table wedged between equipment on deck.

The two groups of men on board ship used separate dishes and silverware for their meals. At right, sailors on board the cruiser USS Olympia sit for a meal, with worn dishes and bowls on the table before them. Note that their table is suspended from ropes, and that one sailor on the left is sitting on the deck for his meal. Officers, on the other hand, had fine silver and china available for their meals. At left, Marines guard the wardroom silver service of the battleship USS Kansas, which had been donated by the ship's namesake state.

Preparation of food was handled separately for officers and enlisted sailors. Officers relied on the service of stewards, who cooked meals, served them, and cleaned up afterward. The photo at left shows the wardroom pantry on board the cruiser USS Brooklyn. A young African-American boy in formal attire serves as a steward. The pantry is lined with fine dishware. Fresh fruit, jarred foods, and even champagne are at the ready. Enlisted sailors ate meals prepared by men selected from their ranks to serve as berth deck cooks. The enlisted sailors would be split into a number of separate messes on board ship, each with its own cooks. These cooks went ashore with ration money (the Navy allocated most of the money for this) while in port to purchase food. Sometimes — being ashore so rarely — they would succumb to temptation, and lose the money in a drunken romp, leaving the men to subsist solely on unpleasant preserved goods until the next port call. At right, berth deck cooks on board the USS Ossipee pose for a photo. This photo gives a good indication of Navy fare when this photo was taken, in 1887. Canned meats can be seen, along with bread, potatoes, and grilled sausage. Specific food items were held aside for officers, as a complaint from Frederick Wilson in 1900 attests to. “The caterer asked about some pickles for the mess, but was told they were reserved for the officers. Everything is reserved for the officers, especially if it happens to be a prime article.”

For additional images of mess spaces and sailors eating on board ships of the New Steel Navy, click here.

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