Immigration · Vinegar

Why Vinegar?

As many of you are celebrating the Memorial Day weekend with backyard BBQs, eating various meats slathered in BBQ sauce, my mind turns to vinegar. Many types of BBQ sauce are made with vinegar. But why were our immigrant ancestors required to have vinegar on the boat when they came over here? I highly doubt they were cooking up BBQ sauce.

You know, you don’t have to read this post. If you have a weak stomach, I suggest you turn back now. Go back to eating your ribs!

Oh, you’re still here…. consider yourself warned.

On January 1, 1820, the first United States law pertaining to immigrant’s rights went into effect. A happy by-product for genealogists was the creation of passenger lists. Every ship captain entering a U.S. port was obligated to create a list of the passengers onboard that detailed their name, age, occupation, country of origin, and destination. Customs officials collected these lists and ultimately, they made their way to the National Archives. Today a researcher may view these lists on microfilm or on websites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch.

But that is not the point of this post. This law also required that any ship leaving a U.S. port bound for Europe have provisions for its passengers. Each ship was to minimally carry the following items per passenger:

  • 60 gallons of water
  • 100 pounds of salted provisions
  • 1 gallon of vinegar
  • 100 pounds of wholesome ship bread[1]

I completely understand the water, salted provisions, and bread. Why require a gallon of vinegar per passenger?  Just drawing from my own experience with vinegar, I know it is used to flavor or pickle foods. I might have mentioned BBQ sauce.

I know that many sailors suffered from scurvy on long bouts at sea. In fact, Captain James Cook wanted his sailors to eat sauerkraut to combat this disease. Sauerkraut was often made with vinegar. They refused until Cook allegedly ordered that this doubtful substance be only served to the cabin passengers. Seeing that they were “missing out,” these sailors soon began to accept sauerkraut into their own diets.[2] Reverse psychology is a powerful tool with kids, too!

And vinegar is used as a cleaning agent. Could this be why each passenger was provided with one gallon of vinegar? Then I found this account (albeit undocumented) in the learning section of the Museums Victoria website. Could this be a clue?

“The toileting process became much worse in storms, or during the night, when passengers in steerage were locked in and no lights were allowed. Accidents were messy affairs. As people did not understand the basic rules of hygiene . . . rags or clothes were soaked in vinegar and hung on the back of the toilet door to be used by all.”[3]

Remember, I tried warning you! In the meantime, I continue to verify the origins of this account. Maybe in a future post, I’ll cover that “wholesome ship bread.” If you’ve hung with me this long, happy Memorial Day!

[1] United States Congress, U.S. Statutes at Large, Stat. 3:488; digital image, U.S. Statutes at Large ( : access May 2017).



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