Winter Life on Canal Boats, 1915

By The Red Hook WaterStories team

Residents of Erie Basin Celebrate the Holidays in Much the Same Fashion as Folk Ashore.

Near Christmas time, 1915, a female reporter and an illustrator for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, visited a few of the many canal boats and barges moored for the winter in Erie Basin “in search of a story about holiday preparations and winter life.”

In a first person and seemingly naïve telling, she recounts her conversations with two wives, one living on a barge, and the other a canal boat.

With a focus on how the homes looked and were kept up she quotes the woman living on the barge as saying:
“I got a new spread for the bed and a lot of other little things, but I like to wait for the holidays to hang them up,” she continued. “It feels more like Christmas to see new things handing around. You should have seen my bedroom on the other boat. The walls were bright blue, the border the most wonderful pink flowers and ceiling was pea green.”

The article asserts that those living on the barges and those on the canal boats saw themselves as being in different social classes.

“The women on the canal boats didn’t bother much with the women who live on the barges” the lady of the barge is quoted as saying.

The reporter’s hostess on the canal boat she visited was said to say “that there was the same neighborly amount of calling done between housewives of canal boats as there was between those on land – that is during the daytime. At night they generally stayed at home. “

The challenges of going to school, when home is not always in the same place was also touched on by the lady of the canal boat and her daughter.

The reporter concludes that “everywhere along the water front were evidences that Christmas and New Years are observed by the floating population in much the same manner as in the more permanent home of the streets and avenues of Brooklyn.”

Full article text:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 26, 1915

WINTER LIFE ON CANAL BOATS
Residents of Erie Basin Celebrate the Holidays in Much the Same Fashion as Folk Ashore.

GUESSING the right house when you only know the street Is a simple task compared with reaching the right pier when you only know the general location of the docks and are In search of a story about holiday preparations and winter life aboard the canal boats and barges moored In Erie Basin.

The Eagle reporter and illustrator went from one dock to another a couple of days before Christmas and perhaps they would be wandering yet If their attention had not been attracted by the familiar index of family life and home—two women hanging clothes atop of a couple of barges and passing the time of day with one another.

The reporter would very quickly have made herself a third party to that conversation, but she was confronted with two rather serious difficulties.  In the first place she did not know whether or not it was a breach of dock etiquette to shout across for an invitation. Then again never having gone a-visiting over the tops of boats she didn’t know how to reach the conversationalists.

Boatman Escorts Visitors To His Barge.

But, as usual, gallant men came to the rescue.

“Do you think your wife would mind if you took me over to your barge?” asked the reporter.  “You see we’ve been looking at the outside so long that we would really like to have a glimpse of the inside.”

“Sure.  Jump down,” said he, hospitably.

But friend wife was very perturbed over this unexpected visit.

“Oh, dear, why didn’t you tell me that you were going to bring company?” she asked her husband.

“Honestly, I didn’t know it,” was the reply.  And the wife, turning to the strangers said:

“Sure you can come in,” as she disappeared behind a curtain in a doorway, “But I ain’t got my new curtains up yet,” she informed the visitors still keeping to her retreat.

And so the man was left to do the entertaining, supplemented by occasional remarks from the wife, who was “dressing up” in hasty fashion behind the curtain.

“What a very little cabin,” remarked the reporter, and before the husband could answer his wife commanded:

“Tell them all about the other barge we live on, where he had  all that elegant eoleum.”

And so the man described the elegant “eoleum,”  the rockers and other little conveniences that they had in the other barge.

New Curtains Put Up For the Holidays

“But tell them that I ain’t got my new curtains up yet, will you,” pleaded the woman,” as she invited the reporter into the privacy of her bedroom, adding,  “Don’t mind how I look, will you.”

“I got a new spread for the bed and a lot of other little things, but I like to wait for the holidays to hang them up,” she continued.  “It feels more like Christmas to see new things handing around.  You should have seen my bedroom on the other boat.  The walls were bright blue, the border the most wonderful pink flowers and ceiling was pea green.”

“Don’t you mind this constant  -er- floating?” asked the reporter, as she noticed the woman’s rather pale face.

“No, I’m of a contented disposition,” was the reply.  “Besides you can look out of the window here, too,” which really settled the question for her, for it is exactly what she would have done had she lived in a tenement in the heart of the city.

“Reach me my comb,” she called out to her husband; “it’s on your shelf.

This is my shelf,” said the wife, pointing out a long shelf,  “and that,” pointing to a little corner of a plank which one could see through the curtain, “is His shelf.”

The man grinned as he heard her, which shows that the man in the barge cheerfully acquiesces to the same plan of “equal division” as the man in the apartment house.

Barge and Canal Boat In Different Social Class

“But didn’t you see the other women on the other barges or boats?” asked the interviewer.

“No,” was the rather curt reply as she combed her hair.  “I’m Dutch and many of the others are Canucks.  Besides,” she explained, “the women on the canal boats didn’t bother much with the women who live on the barges.”

“But some of the people have a real good time,” the man informed the reporter as he re-entered the cabin while the wife, now that her hair was fixed, condescended to draw the curtain aside and become part of the group.

“You needn’t think that just because we live on a barge that we ain’t got anything.  Why, right over in the next boat there is a piano, and some have phonographs.  If you don’t believe it you can go right over and see,” he added.  But he was assured that not for one moment would anyone think of doubting his word.

“Of course, when we stay in one town we can always go out,” said the man, rambling on.  “Just as long as we see that everything about the barge is safe.”

“These are the only two cabins you have, aren’t they?”

“Yes,  and we are comfortable enough—people who have children don’t get very much more room—sometimes, though, they get an extra little cabin.”

Little Sickness Aboard Canal Boats

 “What would you do if you were being towed up a river or canal and someone aboard should be taken seriously ill?” was the somewhat pessimistic query of the reporter.

“Well, in the first place, people who live in this kind of life are very healthy.” Replied the wife.  “In the second place, we can always send a tug out to the nearest city or town.  In the meantime we have first aid equipment.”

“We don’t have to roam about so much as some other barge folks,” explained the husband at this point, “because, you see, I work for one company.  But I knew a man who owned his own boat and he used to hire out to different companies. .Well, his children would start off to go to school in the morning In one place, and first thing you know he would have to telephone to them at school and-tell them in what town he would anchor for the night. – And that is how the children were educated, going from one school to the other, according, to the place where the barge was ordered.” –

The visit to this, particular barge ended with an inspection of the Christmas wreaths and holly which the wife announced would be put in place as soon as the all-important curtains were adjusted.

Next call Made at Canal Boat.

 Starting out for their next call, the reporter and illustrator, after meandering awhile along the top of several bats, we met a little girl.  In reply to questions from the visitors she said she was 11 years old and was in 5A class.  She started school in Buffalo and is now attending school in this borough.

“Do you suppose mother would mind if we came in to see her?” asked the reporter when she learned that the child lived aboard one of the canal boats – the aristocrats of the fleet.

The little girl guided the strangers over a few more boat tops until she reached her home, where her mother – a refined American, with a well modulated voice – greeted the visitors with as much courtesy and self-possession as if she were a hostess in a private home in a fashionable section of Brooklyn. On her head she wore a quaint three-cornered cap in black and white, with apron to match.  She was in the midst of holiday feast preparations as the aroma of stewing cranberries testified.

Her husband, she explained, was an engineer, and she had lived on the boats most of her married life.  She had a home in Elmira.  Formerly she got up there for a few months a year, but of late she informed the visitors this change of abode had not been possible.

Home-work on Boats as well as on Land.

By this time, Helen, the 11-year-old daughter, had gone over to one of the drawers which lined the walls of the cabin and had taken her school books out and was already seated at a table diligently doing her lessons.

“Isn’t it hard to give the children a good education when you live this way?” asked the reporter.

“Well, I left my oldest daughter up the State,” the mother replied.  “She went to Normal School, and is teaching now, in about another year I suppose I shall have to be separated form Helen.”

Women on canal boats are not as talkative as those on barges and this hostess volunteered little information about herself or her life afloat.

In answer to some queries she sad that the canal boat housewife soon learns how to supply the exact amount of food required for the family.  In summer, by means of a certain contrivance, the water is kept cool but in the winter it is merely left stored in barrels.

Always Comfortable on Canal Boats.

To the query “Isn’t it hot in here in the summer?” came the cheerful reply, “ No it is always cool and comfortable.” And the cabin certainly looked comfortable.  The kitchen had been partitioned off and the only other room which was comparatively large had been fitted up very cozily as a sort of living room, with the two sleeping couches very neatly covered.  “Some of the people,” said the hostess, “have bunks built into the wall.  And everyone aboard  a canal boat or barge has a storehouse of some kind.”

As to visiting, the hostess of this particular boat said that there was the same neighborly amount of calling  done between housewives of canal boats as there was between those on land – that is during the daytime.  At night they generally stayed at home.  “Night visiting wasn’t so pleasant, she added with a laugh.

“Can you sleep soundly while you are being towed up the river or canal?” the interviewer wanted to know.

“No,” was the answer, which had the first note of complaint in it that had been heard during the whole conversation.

“In spite of all these years the whistles always wake me.  I know the meaning of the whistles and whenever I hear the whistle that tells us to go back I wonder if we haven’t bumped something.”

Holiday Preparations All Along the Water Front.

The holiday preparations were less obtrusive aboard the canal boat that on the barge, but everywhere along the water front were evidences that Christmas and New Years are observed by the floating population in much the same manner as in the more permanent home of the streets and avenues of Brooklyn.

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