Choosing to Have No Choice

Menus from the S.S. Lake Simcoe and Migration by Steamship

Menus, like these 1902 examples, represent the epitome of choice. Patrons who were able to pay for first-class, or ‘saloon’ accommodations aboard the S.S. Lake Simcoe would be able to choose whichever items were to their liking.

Three menus from the Saloon of the S.S. Lake Simcoe, 1902. Some foods listed might sound strange—like ‘corned ox tongue’—while some are more familiar, like ‘macaroni au gratin’ –better known as macaroni and cheese. Part of the Mary Williamson Culinary Collection. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

For the majority of passengers, however, no such choices were available. Out of the more than a thousand passengers crossing the North Atlantic on the Lake Simcoe, only 125 ate in the Saloon.[1] The rest ate below decks sitting at long tables; using tin cups and plates they themselves washed after their meal.[2] Most of the Lake Simcoe’s passengers received two meals per day, with little variety. Breakfast was coffee or tea with bread and butter, and dinner was a soup, pork, beef, or fish, with bread and potatoes. For them, dessert was only available on Sundays. [3]

The Rendell family, from Devon, England, crossed the North Atlantic on the Lake Simcoe in 1903. Letters[4] written by Alice Rendell, the matriarch of the family, detail their experiences on board as part of their journey from England to Saskatchewan. Seasickness was a particularly “dreaded”[5]concern for many of the passengers:

By the time the bugle sounded for late dinner the vacant seats told their own tale […] I am thankful to say I still kept up my reputation as a good sailor and was able to flit about and help some of the less fortunate. Yet the awful ground swell was fearfully trying, far worse than a rough sea.[6]

Passengers like the Rendells often travelled in cramped, dark, and smelly conditions. Many ships were configured to be used to transport cattle from North America back to Europe once their passengers had disembarked.[7] However, unlike herds of cattle, the migrants aboard the Lake Simcoe made the choice to cross the Atlantic, knowing the trip would be long and uncomfortable.

Like the Rendells, who settled in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, the Lake Simcoe was one step in many migrants’ long journey of settlement. The Canadian government offered settlers free 160-acre land grants in the prairie provinces. Flyers were printed in Czech, Swedish, Norwegian, German, and Croatian to promote Canada in European farming communities[8]. For many European families, uprooting and migrating to Canada meant they could become independent and own their own farms and businesses. Often selling everything they owned – land, cattle, and houses—they would begin the long journey to trans-Atlantic ports like Hamburg, Liverpool, and Queenstown. After crossing the ocean, they arrived in ports like Halifax, Montreal, and Saint John, and then set off again for thousands of kilometres in ‘colonist cars’, rough train cars built to house as many migrants as possible. Once in the western provinces, they worked to build communities and re-establish traditions brought with them from across the Atlantic. Though they weren’t able to choose what they ate aboard the Lake Simcoe, the evidence of their choices can still be seen today.


Christopher Shackleton is a current Master of Museum Studies student at the University of Toronto. As someone who previously lived in the same small town for his whole life, his five years living in Toronto have been an incredible learning experience about how migration has shaped the city.

[1]Gibbs, 1952.

[2]Brinnin, 1971.

[3]Brinnin, 1971.


[5]as cited in Foster, 2016.

[6]as cited in Foster, 2016.

[7]Taylor, 1939.

[8]Bruce, 2016.

The migrants aboard the Lake Simcoe made the choice to cross the Atlantic, knowing the trip would be long and uncomfortable.