Where Salty Breezes Blow

The following text is an unedited transcript originally published in Harper’s Young People on September 10, 1889.

All aboard that are going! Clear the gang-plank!” shouted the Captain, as we stepped on board. Flags were floating from everywhere, the river sparkled, the sun shone bright, and all about us on the deck were babies, babies, babies, babies. How many? One, two, three; oh, twenty, fifty, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred, five hundred—how many more I could not tell. They were everywhere, and of so many kinds. Babies with long gold ear-rings hanging down over their shoulders, and blue cloths twisted about their bodies and legs. They were Italian. You knew by the ear-rings and the while shining teeth of the mothers, who nodded and smiled and walked about, with shawls of every color blowing this way and that. Then there were babies just toddling about in bare feet, and some so small that they looked like little bundles. They were on the benches and on the floor. You had to step carefully, or you would have walked over them. Then there were babies so very sick, who lay with closed eyes and white faces so still that you felt your heart ache, till you saw a pretty nurse, in dainty dress and cap, lift the baby in her arms and carry it away to one of the little cribs in the ward. And sometimes there were mothers and grandmothers wandering about with babies who did not belong to them, for anybody who knew a sick child or a small one that wanted fresh air took it up in her arms and brought it down to the boat. And that was what it was all about—fresh air for the little babies sick in town.

Harper’s Young People was a children’s magazine published between 1879 and 1899. It contained fiction, non-fiction and illustrations, and was written to appeal to children six to sixteen years old.

Article describing a sail aboard The Floating Hospital, then operated by St. John’s Guild, in the September 10, 1889 issue of Harper’s Young People, an illustrated weekly magazine for children.

When you look pale in the early summer days, papa and mama say, “We must get away with the baby,” or “The children ought to be in the woods,” and without your thinking much about it you find yourselves in the green fields or down by the sea, where you play all day, and sing and shout, and come home again healthy and brown. But here in this great big city of New York, no matter how pale some of the babies are, they cannot get away. Their mothers must cook and wash and their fathers must work, and once there was nothing for them to do but to wait until night came, and hurry down to the docks, holding their babies up in their arms to catch any breeze that was blowing. For they all lived in streets that were crooked and narrow and the one window in the room was too small for much air, and that which came in was hot and heavy with the smells of the streets.

But now there is the boat!

You can find it early in the morning on certain days on the East River at Twenty-eighth Street, or at other times on the Hudson at Forty-third. There I found it one day, lying clean and sweet and fresh, with flags waving, and all those babies on board. So I stepped on too, and sailed with them down the bay.

First, let me tell you that this boat belongs to St. John’s Guild, and that every summer for many years it has carried the babies just this way. Once a boat, the River Belle, was burned, and all that was left of it they took and built over into this barge. Now they have a deck as big as—oh, bigger than the largest hotel dining room you know, and here the babies play while the mothers sit on the benches.

St. John’s Guild appealed for donations to support their summer sails and medical care via advertisements in most New York City newspapers. Here is an ad that ran in the July 25, 1939 edition of The New York Times.

The fourth Floating Hospital ship, the Lloyd I. Seaman, sailed from 1935 to 1973.

From up-town the boat sails to one of the lower docks at Fifth Street or King Street, and here are more babies yet; a hundred more, two hundred, three hundred, they say. And such a hurry, such a crowding and pushing to get on board! The policeman helps, and so do the dock hands, for the mothers come with two babies in their arms and three more holding on to their knees, and somebody calls out of the crowd to one of them, “You are stepping on one of your children,” and somebody else picks it up, and everybody goes on laughing, even those who have very sick babies. Then the boat sails again, this time out toward the ocean. The babies begin to grow very hungry, the winds bring color to their cheeks, and up on deck comes a man with milk warm and sweet, just as much as anybody can drink. And they drink a great deal.

How much? Sometimes two hundred quarts in a day. They come up to the can in long lines, holding up pitchers and bowls and tin cups, and everything they hold is filled as often as they want it. This is done twice a day. After the morning milk comes the dinner. I had seen the women peeling the new potatoes and the onions early in the day, and the great baskets of meat as they were carried on. And now that they are cooked, how good it smells! I grow hungry myself, and want to sit down by all the babies and mothers only there are so many all about the tables I do not know where to choose. So I go upstairs and look into the two cool rooms at the end of the boat, where the very sick babies are lying in their cribs, and the lovely nurse is looking over them.

An illustration from the September 12, 1874 issue of Harper’s Weekly, accompanying an article about The Floating Hospital of St. John’s Guild and its summer excursions “the object of which is to enable mothers to take their sick children from the noisome dens in which so many live, out upon the waters of river, bay, and sound, where they may breathe the pure air that re-invigorates their bodies.”

When the boat stops, away out near the ocean, the babies who are very sick are carried down into a small boat and rowed to the Sea-side Hospital. The green trees grow up close to the windows on the one side, and the open water up on the other and here the babies can stay as long as they want If their mothers have no one at home with whom they can leave the other children then the whole family come together and stay.

All of this is what happens when the St. John’s Guild boat goes out; but there are other that sail in summer, like those in our picture, where the children are all happy and daintily clad, and one of them, if she be very happy, wins everybody’s heart. She will dance or sing for them, talk to any one, and be like a sunbeam all day. There are babies sailing every day, on big ships and small, on boats on ferries, and even on rafts, for everybody loves them, and everybody wants to make them happy in the summer-time, only I have told you most about those you might never know yourselves. For it is just as well to know how the rest of the world live, and how many people have to go without the things that we have every day.

All these poor people are helped by others who have a little more money than themselves, but I do not see why some of the young people could not help too. I asked all about it, and found out that twenty-five cents would pay for one child going off for a day, and two dollars and a half would keep a baby at the hospital for a week. Of course, the poor people, you must remember, do not have to pay anything, but somebody does. Little children out in the country, having so much to make them happy would be all the happier, I am sure, doing some small thing for these poor little babies here, who never have been out in the woods in their lives, nor smelt wild flowers, not know what it is to lie in a cool, sweet room at night. Three, four of you might make up a club and think about it.

Written by Lillie Hamilton French

Community support, whether through monetary donations or volunteering, was as vital to The Floating Hospital during its first sails as it is today. At the ship’s heart were its volunteers, who helped serve the families that took advantage of the sea cruise and the healthy provisions they found on board—pure luxury for those living in crowded tenements lacking fresh air, clean water, and nourishing food. Individual donations fueled our work then, too; in 1889, twenty-five cents funded a day cruise and medical care for a child—a gift most who read Harper’s could afford. Our fundraising ads, placed in most New York City newspapers in the summer of 1939, promised that a mother and child could come aboard (and be treated) for the reasonable sum of one dollar for both. Treatment and relief cost far more today, yet we still rely on individual donations and support to provide the comprehensive services our patients need.

We will always be committed to providing healthcare, health education and relief to anyone who needs it, with no restrictions, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration or insurance status, or the ability to pay.

This post featured in our monthly newsletter from January/February 2023.

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Other posts from this newsletter:

Celebrating Endings

The Gift of Candy Cane Lane

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The Floating Hospital provides high-quality healthcare to anyone who needs it regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration or insurance status, or the ability to pay. By providing unrestricted medical care in tandem with health education and social support to vulnerable New York City families, The Floating Hospital aims to ensure those most in need have the ability to thrive, not just survive.


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