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The Gender of Steamboats

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

By custom, some 99.2 percent of the Mississippi River steamboats in the nineteenth century were feminine in gender. The "Jessie Bill," she was a mighty fine boat. And the "Robert E. Lee," she was, too. A handful of steamboats, the other eight tenths of one percent, were all its, and none of them were mighty fine.

Why was a steamboat referred to as "she"? There was no single answer; each steamboatman had his own explanation—and most of them were complimentary. "Because a steamboat moves with such grace and quiet dignity," one captain would tell you. "Oh, no," another would respond. "It's because no two of them act alike." And so on.

A few of the explanations were a bit more sexist, as might be expected of men back in those old days. Such a captain might tell you that a steamboat was a she "because it needs a little touching up with paint every so often in order to look right." Others thought a steamboat was she "because it takes a smart man to manage her."

There was a more technical explanation than these. Until very recently, every American vessel's annual license had to list someone as the "Ship's husband," an official term for the manager-owner. By this logic, a steamboat was a she because her title was not complete without a husband.

But what about those few its traveling the river? I haven't forgotten about those. No two steamboats were alike; each grew out the imagination of her individual builder. Yet most of them, large and small, frilled and plain, moved up and down the river with grace and romance.

Now and then, very rarely, and always by accident, a boat ended up so homely and awkward, so out-of-proportion and ungainly, that it was just absolutely plug ugly. No one used the feminine in speaking of these boats; that boat was an it.

You see, steamboating had grown up on the southern Mississippi, and many steamboatmen were still from there. If they were a touch sexist, they were through and through gentlemen.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.