Seafaring Women in the Maine Women Writers Collection

by Robin Anne Russell

Sea voyages were not only the realm of men during the American great age of sail. Women in surprising numbers also chose to voyage on the deep blue sea with their sea Captain husbands or sometimes simply as passengers on the ships.

Historical Background:

Traveling by sea was not an easy task for women to undertake. While on a transatlantic vessel, they were often the only woman on the ship, and likely would not see another woman for up to six months at a time. For the most part, women could only associate with their husbands, the mates and stewards of the ships, fraternization with the rest of the crew was unacceptable behavior. Household chores such as laundry and sewing clothes became arduous tasks for a wife to perform. Sewing needs were planned for well in advance to carry sufficient supplies. Fresh water was scarce and a precious commodity, not to be wasted lightly for the washing of clothes.

Women and the sea were sometimes at odds with each other. One area of contention was the mode of dress required for women of the 19th century. Women wore multiple layers of clothing, corsets, bustles, tight shoes, and traveled to areas of intense heat, such as the Pacific making for very uncomfortable situations.


Description of collection:

The Maine Women Writers Collection has some interesting books and diaries of women who chose to travel on the ocean in the mid to late Nineteenth Century. Of particular interest is A Seafaring Legacy The Photographs, Diaries, Letters and Memorabilia of a Maine Sea Captain and His Wife 1859-1908, a book by Julianna FreeHand about Sumner Pierce Drinkwater and Alice Gray Drinkwater. This book covers the Drinkwater family history of sailing on Coaster vessels and when that market became unprofitable their longer deep sea voyages. This book has great variety for it includes not only reminisces from Alice, but is interspersed with information given by Sumner as well.

Also found in the collection are six diaries by Isabelle Maria Hoffses 1862-1908. The diaries include Isabelle’s thoughts of her two sea voyages which she took in 1880-1881 in an attempt to improve her health. The entries are clearly written and witty showing in some regards what it was like to be a passenger on an extended sea voyage. Excerpts of the diary entries for October 3, 1880 are below:

Sunday P.M. Oct. 3rd
“My sense of smell is so keen and my stomach so weak that I almost loath myself.”

“I have not, as yet really wished myself at home, but the thought sometimes occurs to me that people are very foolish to brave the perils of the ocean, when they can live so much more comfortable on land.”

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