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The Sway Of The Grand Saloon
In the sumptuous history of transatlantic passenger travel it wasn’t all mahogany panelling and ten-course meals. Consider, for instance, war and seasickness
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
A little pellet worth its weight in pitchblende had suddenly made obsolete all previous remedies for the prevention, cure, or endurance of mal de mer . These included the following: bismuth, soda, salol, opium, valerian, a combination of Beltafoline and soluble camphor, chloral, chloreton, “a little soup with cayenne,” morphine with atropine, a slice of fat pork fried with garlic, “patience and a good walk on shore,” hyoscine hydrobromide, a pint of sea water “in one gulp,” phenacetin with caffeine, arrowroot and wine, sodium amytal, tomato sauce, mustard leaf, animal magnetism, trinitrin and cocaine, veronal, a spinal ice bag, luminal, small doses of tincture of iodine, mustard pickles, lemon and ginger, toasting the ear canals, caviar, cannabis indica, Worcestershire sauce, sodium nitrate, chewing gum, musk pills, dry toast, a belladonna plaster on the stomach, vinegar and water in sips, capsules of sodium phenobarbital.
“How pure and sweet the air would be at sea,” said one lyrical observer, “if it were not for the repeated vomiting of bile, whose effluvia are extremely volatile and settle down at once in the curtains, floor, ceiling, paint, sofa and beds of the cabins.” To cope with the effects of “ship’s smell” and that disposition to immediate surrender it all but guaranteed, many people after 1908 depended upon a little pill that came, somewhat inappropriately, from Detroit. This was Mothersill’s Seasick Remedy, certified “not to contain cocaine, morphine, opium, chloral, or any coal-tar products.” Mothersill’s, according to its makers, had received unqualified endorsements from such people as Bishop Taylor Smith, Lord Northcliffe, and hosts of “doctors, bankers and professional men, as well as leading clubwomen,” all of whom had presumably been tranquillized and edified by the pill while “sailing the English Channel, Irish Sea and the Baltic.” The cost of a box that would last the entire transatlantic voyage was one dollar. During World War I the firm’s promotion reached out particularly to mothers of servicemen. “To Prevent Seasickness,” read the advertisements, “and insure him a pleasant voyage, be sure to remember to put in his bag a package of Mothersill’s Seasick Remedy.”
Like every other remedy, Mothersill’s for the most part worked only for those who thought it did. These were not apt to be among the serious sufferers, and many a box of the stuff lay barely touched beside the pale hands of the stricken.
Although later investigations would show decisively that psychogenic factors were of small account, the most time-honored method of treating seasickness was entirely verbal: you simply told the victim—in a tone of voice implying that some slackening of moral fiber was involved—that it was all in his mind. Sympathy for the man or woman who is intractably supine and viridescent is, like gratitude, an emotion noted for its short term. Sometimes it has no term at all. Mark Twain, observing anguish all about him, handsomely states the case for those who are not only unsusceptible to the malaise but who also lack any shred of human feeling. Said Twain of his unfortunate shipmates: I knew what was the matter with them. They were seasick. And I was glad of it. We all like to see people seasick when we are not, ourselves. Playing whist by the cabin lamps, when it is storming outside, is pleasant; walking the quarter-deck in the moonlight is pleasant; smoking in the breezy foretop is pleasant, when one is not afraid to go up there; but these are all feeble and commonplace compared with the joy of seeing people suffering the miseries of seasickness.
On the other hand Irwin S. Cobb’s bout with seasickness made him philosophical. “As in the case of drowning persons,” he noted, “there passed in review before my eyes several of the more recent events of my past life—meals mostly.” To the elderly Canadian humorist Thomas Chandler Haliburton, rejuvenated by a voyage on the Great Western , seasickness was a frustration: How I should like to make love, if it was only for the fun of the thing just to keep one’s hand in; but alas! all the young girls are sick—devilish sick, and I trust I need not tell you that a love-sick girl is one thing, and a seasick girl another. I like to have my love returned, but not my dinner.
The distress of another early steamship passenger is expressed with sincerity and erudition. “I felt, rather than saw my enemy approach,” he said. “He came upon a tall wave, with a white ensign, and a sparkling lance. His first blow was aimed at the very point of the system where the Ancients seated courage.” When his ship—Cunard’s paddle-wheeled Asia —came within sight of icebergs, his companions urged him to come see. He said: But if each iceberg had been as radiant with gold and orange, green and violet, and prismatic generally as Trinity Church windows, with a Polar bear surmounting each glittering pinnacle, the scene would not have aroused my sense of the beautiful. If there is to be found beauty or sublimity upon the ocean, the mental tentacula must reach out and find it. But when they are paralyzed and shrunken by this everlasting sea-sickness—where is the sub—, I beg pardon. Eureka! It is the sublimity Burke discovered in Spencer’s Cave of Error,—the nauseate sublime! Its monosyllabic expression is simply—Ugh!