Mealtime on a Whaling Ship

Overview and objectives

Overview and objectives

Learning Center by Tricia Altschuller, Sarah Budlong, Sara Meirowitz, and Robert Rocha

Students will examine the role of food in survival, community building, the development of language and celebrations by using the reference materials provided. They will map out a whaling voyage from the late 1800s and take on the role of agent to determine the amount of food necessary to outfit a ship for a voyage. They will play the role of galley cook and create a daily menu for the crew. They will decide how to celebrate an event on their ship. Finally, students will compare and contrast the use of food on the ships to its use in their lives. Additional information for completing the lessons can be found by Internet searches.

Enduring Understandings:

  1. People must adapt the foods they eat to conditions they live in.
  2. Even in difficult situations, food becomes both celebratory and symbolic of the community.

Essential Questions:

  • How well did the food on the ship provide the calories a sailor needed to do his work?
  • How much food was on a typical whale ship?
  • Did mealtime help build a community aboard a ship?
  • Did whalers develop their own language to describe their food?
  • How was food used to mark special events and holidays, even if the ship was in the middle of an ocean?


Four class periods (based on 45-minute class periods)


  1. Students will utilize historical data to enhance their math skills
  2. Students will investigate how access to food shapes diet, cultural celebration and interaction within a group
  3. Students will gain a greater understanding of the challenges of surviving a long voyage on a whaling ship, especially as related to procurement of proper nutrition.


Learning Center Set-up

Life onboard a whale ship was a challenge for all involved. Along with being away from home for months or years, the crew also had to endure the limited variety of foods available to them on their ships. Meals were neither nutritious, attractive nor varied. Most food provisions did not keep for very long or were spoiled by insects. What was served was often lacking in flavor or could be difficult to chew.


Class 1: Students Prepare for a Voyage

Class 1: Students Prepare for a Voyage

Teachers will lead a mapping activity for whaling voyage from the late 1800s as a whaling captain would have done. The destinations have been provided in a document you can access by clicking on the caption of the map. Teachers can decide whether to read the journey to their students or let students read and map on their own.

First Activity:

Begin by having students trace a whaling voyage (click here to download a written list of ports of call) on a world map. There are several blank world maps available on the internet. Calculate the distance and ask students to figure out how long a voyage may take. It is critical to the next activity that students estimate in years the length of a whaling voyage. Have students look at rations (see Class Two) and talk about what kind of food sailors had at sea.

Second Activity:

Since the trip is mapped out, it’s now time to determine how much food was brought on the trip.

The following information will help you:

A ship began its voyage supplied with quantities of food and water required by a legalized scale of provisions: salt beef and pork, hardtack, water, tea, coffee, molasses, as well as some fresh foods like potatoes, cabbage and livestock. The amounts of the basic supplies were regulated by laws revised periodically during the nineteenth century.

From an 1805 act of congress:

“Every American vessel, bound on a voyage across the Atlantic when she sails, must have on board, well secured under deck, at least sixty gallons of water, one hundred pounds of salted flesh meat, and one hundred pounds of wholesome ship bread, for every person on board; besides other such provisions, stores, and livestock, as may, by the masters or passengers, be put on board; and in like proportion for shorter or longer voyages.” Since this requirement is just for the Atlantic Ocean, for the purposes of the questions below, have the students increase the amounts of all of the provisions by a factor of 2.5 to account for sailing across the Pacific as well. For example, there would be 250 pounds of wholesome ship bread for the entire voyage for every person on board.

A typical crew consisted of approximately 30 men. They were the captain, first mate, second mate, third mate, cook, cooper, blacksmith, harpooners and the seamen. (Captains had access to additional provisions.) For the purposes of this activity, base your answers on a crew of 30.

Using the information provided above, have your students calculate the following:

What is the minimum amount of food needed for one person for one day on a ship?

What is the minimum amount of food needed for all of the men for one day while on the ship?

What is the minimum amount of food for all of the crew for the entire voyage?

Enrichment questions: How does this compare with food an average American eats today? How is your food rationed? Why would the government need to require the amount of food vessels take per sailor?

Class 2: Students Plan a Whaler's Meal

Class 2: Students Plan a Whaler's Meal


Questions to consider:

What did sailors eat at sea?

How was the food prepared?

What were the challenges of eating at sea?





First Activity:

Review the Sea Fare Vocabulary list (click here to download the list). 

Second Activity:

Review the Feeding the Crew bill of fare sheet (click here to download two bills of fare). Discuss the food sailors had at sea and the challenges the cook faced in preparing it. Ask the students to write down what food they ate for dinner over the past week. Have students compare their list to what sailors had to eat. Have students write a paragraph about the difference.

The following information will help you:

A sea cook dealt with a limited range of ingredients while at sea: salt meat, hardtack, dried peas or beans, molasses, potatoes and flour. He had to use a certain amount of each daily, which prescribed what he would cook. Variety of dishes was limited to the cook’s competence and energy, and to his judgment about what little he could use at his discretion. Some sailor’s dishes required a few more steps in preparation, and the crew of a ship with a lazy cook would never get them. The key ingredient available to the cook’s discretionary use was fat. This precious stuff added flavor and valuable calories to food. Sailors could usually identify the day of the week by the food they were served. There was some variation from ship to ship, but normally captains prescribed a regular rotation of beef, pork, and salt fish, accompanied with beans, flour, rice, and potatoes as well as hard tack. (See Feeding the Crew.) As part of their occupational identity, sailors developed a distinctive language that included food terminology. (See Vocabulary List.)

Once food was brought on board, there were many challenges associated with keeping it in good condition. A ship, unlike a house ashore, did not have ideal storage facilities. Seawater, insects and rodents could easily invade supplies. Many sailors left accounts of knocking weevils and maggots out of the hardtack or soaking it in their tea to kill them, then skimming off what floated up. The meat, if not actually spoiled, was often described as being so hard and dry the men could carve figures in it.


Third Activity: 

Using the Menu Options and Calories handout (click here to download a copy of the handout), create a menu for one day. Base the menu on a minimum daily requirement of 3000 calories a day. Is such a menu possible? Have students comment on the challenges of creating such a menu.


Fourth Activity: 

Using the recipes in this Learning Center (click here to download the recipes), make and eat plum duff in class. Discuss the occasions this might have been served onboard the whale ship.


Class 3: Students Examine the Role of Food in Celebration

Class 3: Students Examine the Role of Food in Celebration


Questions to consider:

What challenges did dining at sea present?

How was food used in celebration at sea?

How was food used to mark birthdays, holidays etc?





Ask students to write a brief descriptive paragraph about the food they had at their last birthday or holiday. Have students identify what part of the meal was special and not served most other nights. Then have students discuss how celebrations might have happened at sea.

The following information will assist you:

Special occasions brought better or extra food. Birthdays and a whaleship’s thousandth barrel of oil were occasions for celebrations. It was an American whaling custom that for every thousand barrels filled with oil, the men would be treated to a big batch of doughnuts fried in whale oil.

Doughnut-making requires three scarce shipboard food resources: flour, sweetening and lots of fat. Doughnuts were a common sweet treat at home, and one that the sailors would have missed very much. The tryworks were ideally equipped for doughnut making, being full of fat and having skimmers right at hand to fish them out.

Doughnuts did not always have holes. Early doughnuts were like “nuts” made of “dough”, dropped into hot fat. For the whalers’ doughnuts, the cook mixed the dough and the men did the frying, dropping small pieces into the boiling oil, then skimming them out by the tub or basket full.

Shipboard doughnuts were probably made without eggs, relying instead on chemical leavenings. Landsmen’s doughnuts were sweetened with sugar, if not loaf or white sugar then some variety of brown, which was more likely to be used on shipboard.

Enrichment questions: How is food used in your family for celebrations? What special food do you get on your birthday? What kinds of foods are served at holidays?

Class 4: Food for the Captain vs. Food for the Crew

Class 4: Food for the Captain vs. Food for the Crew

Questions to consider:

How did food vary by class?

What kind of food did a captain eat versus a whaler?

What were differences in dining in the forecastle (fo’c’sle) where the crew ate, versus the cabin, where the captain ate?


Have the students look at the menu options for the cabin (click here to download the crew's bill of fare and click here to download the captain's menu). Ask them to think about how the cabin menu differed from the fo’c’sle.

The following information will assist you:

There were two societies aboard ship, one in the cabin and the other in the fo’c’sle. The difference between these societies in their food and manner of eating was striking. Food in the fo’c’sle was an extension of the ship’s discipline and a daily reminder of the shipboard hierarchy. The quantity and quality of the food was an extension of the owner’s principle of maximum production for the least cost. Sailors ate communally and this style of eating helped create and maintain cohesiveness in the watch.

Meals for the cabin were prepared from the same basic provisions but with differences in quality and quantity. In addition to the salt beef and salt pork of general provision, the cabin had small stores of nice foods: in preparation for the Morgan’s’ first voyage in 1841 a loaf of sugar, olive oil, cinnamon, cloves, hams, chocolate, pepper sauce, various liquors, wine, and lemon syrup were included in the cabin stores. Additional cheese, butter, and pickles may have been shared with the fo’c’sle on special occasions but most was eaten aft.

Have students compare these meals with the crew menu. What differed?



  • Accuracy of students’ mapping of a whaling voyage
  • Student responses to math problems and other questions
  • In-class participation in discussions
  • (Optional) Assess engagement and reasoning level in the enrichment activities

Academic Standards

Academic Standards

National Standards:

1. Geography Standard 5: Environment and Society

2. Geography Standard 6: The Uses of Geography

3. Language Arts/English Standard 2: Understanding the Human Experience

4. Language Arts/English Standard 9: Multicultural Understanding

5. Mathematics Problem Solving Standard 3: Apply and Adapt a Variety of Appropriate Strategies to Solve Problems

6. Social Studies U.S History Standard K-4.3 The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the People from Many Cultures Who Contributed to its Cultural, Economic, and Political Heritage

7. Social Studies U.S History Standard 5-12.4: Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

Massachusetts Standards

1. English Language Arts Standard 2: Students will pose questions, listen to the ideas of others, and contribute their own information or ideas in group discussions or interviews in order to acquire new knowledge.

2. English Language Arts Standard 4: Students will understand and acquire new vocabulary and use it correctly in reading and writing.

3. English Language Arts Standard 9: Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background

4. English Language Arts Standard 13: Students will identify, analyze and apply knowledge of the purposes, structure, and elements of nonfiction or informational materials and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding.

5. English Language Arts Standard 19: Students will write with a clear focus, coherent organization, and sufficient detail

6. Mathematics Standard 4.D.3: Construct, draw conclusions, and make predictions from various representations of data sets, including tables, bar graphs, pictographs, line graphs, line plots, and tallies.

7. Mathematics Standard 4.M.5: Identify and use appropriate metric and English units and tools to estimate, measure, and solve problems involving length, area, volume, weight, time, angle size and temperature.

8. Mathematics Standard 4.P.5: Solve problems using proportional relationships, including unit pricing and map interpretation.

9. Social Studies Concept and Skill 2.5: Read globes and maps and follow narrative accounts using them.

10. Social Studies Concept and Skill 4.7: Give examples of limited and unlimited resources and explain how scarcity compels people and communities to make choices about goods and services, giving up some things to get other things.