Franklin’s Top 15 Items to Take on a Cruise


January 15, 2014
by John L. Smith, Jr. Also by this Author


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Franklin's Return to Philadelphia, 1785. Source: Library of Congress
Franklin’s Return to Philadelphia, 1785. Source: Library of Congress

Between his voyages to England and France, Benjamin Franklin logged more transatlantic cruises than any other founder. In fact, in his lifetime, he took a total of eight cruises[i].

On his final 1785 cruise sailing from France to Philadelphia, Ben continued a letter he had started in 1784 in Paris to his friend Julien-David LeRoy. This very long letter eventually morphed into a 1786 paper called “Maritime Observations” and was published by Franklin’s own American Philosophical Society[ii] in their publication Transactions[iii]. In this mega-letter, Franklin predicted the propulsion of ships using steam instead of wind. He added additional data to his earlier research of the Gulf Stream’s water current temperature variability and its effect upon vessel speed and navigation.

Ben’s Cruise Checklist

But on a lighter note, Franklin also gave travel tips to future voyagers thinking about taking a transatlantic cruise, the average length of time being six weeks. Franklin stated that no matter what the ship’s captain said he had on board for food and drink supplies, like a frequent flier in today’s world, Franklin listed[iv] fifteen items “Passengers” should always bring with them:

  1. Good Water, that of the Ship being often bad. You can be sure of having it good, only by Bottling it from a clear Spring or Well & in clean Bottles.
  2. Good Tea.
  3. Coffee ground.
  4. Chocolate.
  5. Wine of the sort you particularly like, & Cyder.
  6. Raisins.
  7. Almonds.
  8. Sugar.
  9. Capillaire [infusion of maidenhair fern, used to treat coughs].[v]
  10. Lemons.
  11. Jamaica Spirits.
  12. Eggs greas’d.[vi]
  13. Diet Bread.[vii]
  14. Portable Soup.[viii]
  15. Rusk.[ix]

In typical Franklin style in caring about the less-fortunate people, he wrote that there’s always the small chance the captain actually stocked good supplies on board, “as to render some of the Particulars above recommended of little or no Use to you.[x]

So rather than over-indulging or letting the carry-on supplies go to waste, Ben reminded the reader, “…  there are frequently in the Ship poorer Passengers, who are taken at a lower Price, lodge in the Steerage, and have no Claim to any of the Cabbin Provisions, or to any but those kinds that are allow’d the Sailors. These People are sometimes dejected, sometimes sick, there may be Women & Children among them. In a situation where there is no going to Market to purchase such Necessaries, a few of these your Superfluities distributed occasionally may be of great Service, restore Health, save Life, make the miserable happy, and thereby afford you infinite Pleasure.[xi]

Pick Your Captain, Don’t Tell Anyone, and Don’t Swim With the Sharks

Aside from the 15 items Ben suggested to pack as cruise carry-ons, he had a few other tips. Regarding the ship’s captain, Franklin told the reader that one cannot always “make a Choice in your Captain.[xii] But he added that if you could, it would make all the difference in making the closeness of a very long cruise miserable or make it “so much the happier.”[xiii]

One particular travel tip of Franklin’s is as valid today as it was back in his time. He suggested not telling anyone you’re taking a trip until you’re completely packed. Then, if there is leftover time, go see them at their house. “When you intend a long Voyage, you may do well to keep your Intention as much as possible a Secret, or at least the Time of your Departure; otherwise you will be continually interrupted in your Preparations by the Visits of Friends and Acquaintance, who will not only rob you of the Time you want, but put Things out of your mind, so that when you come to Sea, you have the Mortification to recollect Points of Business that ought to have been done, Accounts you had intended to settle, and Conveniences you had propos’d to bring with you, &c. &c. all of which have been omitted thro’ the Effect of these officious Friendly Visits.”[xiv]

To stay freshened up on those long sea voyages, Franklin had a habit of waiting until a calm day when there was no wind pushing on the ship’s sails. Then he’d jump overboard and swim around in the salt water for a while. In one letter, he wrote there was, “… a calm that lasted all day. In the afternoon I leaped overboard and swam around the ship to wash myself. Saw several Porpoises this day.”[xv]

But a little more than a month later in the same voyage, Ben penned, “I was determined to wash myself in the sea to-day, and should have done so had not the appearance of a Shark, that mortal enemy to swimmers, deterred me; he seemed to be about five feet long, moves round the ship at some distance in a slow majestic manner …”[xvi]

The following day, Franklin’s only entry reads, “A fresh gale at West all this day. The shark has left us.[xvii] It doesn’t mention if Ben splashed into the Atlantic again that day. Franklin was a smart guy. Maybe he figured he could wait and just take his chances with sharks of a different nature at the upcoming Constitutional Convention.


[i] Edmund S. Morgan, ed. Not your usual founding father. Selected Readings from Benjamin Franklin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 96.

[ii] In Franklin’s day, the word “philosophical” was used to describe technology and science.

[iii] “Maritime Observations” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge, Volume II (Philadelphia, PA: Robert Aitken, at Pope’s Head in Market Street, 1786), 320.

[iv] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 107-108.

[v] “Capillaire” was colonial medicinal syrup of the 18th century.

[vi] “Eggs greas’d” may have been one of two techniques used for preserving eggs on a long ocean cruise. One practice was encasing hard-boiled eggs inside jars filled with rendered (clear) lard. The second may have been burying the eggs, “in charcoal or wheat bran, after greasing them a little with mutton tallow.” Lettice Bryan, Kentucky Housewife, (Cincinnati, OH, 1839) 224.

[vii] “Diet Bread” of the colonial era is generally thought to have been a small sponge cake-biscuit eaten by the upper class.

[viii] “Portable Soup”, also called “Pocket Soup” was the colonial version of bouillon cubes. The expeditions of both Captain Cook and Lewis and Clark carried along dehydrated “portable soup” with them.

[ix] “Rusk” was a dry, hard biscuit of colonial times. We know it today as Melba toast, Biscotti, or Zwieback.

[x] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 108.

[xi] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 108-109.

[xii] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 107.

[xiii] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 107. Edmund S. Morgan thinks this “pick your captain” part of Franklin’s letter comes from the doubtless number of bad captains Franklin had sailed with over the decades. But in this 1785 voyage, Franklin’s final trip, he apparently had the pleasure of sailing with a particularly good captain, Thomas Truxton, commanding the packet ship Franklin was on. Truxton had been a privateer during the Revolutionary War and was known as one of the most able seamen that the new United States of America had. Truxton would go on to become a U.S. Navy commodore sailing the famous frigate U.S.S. Constellation.   Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 98.

[xiv] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 107.

[xv]Journal of Occurrences in My Voyage to Philadelphia on board the Berkshire, Henry Clark, Master. From London”, Sunday, August 6 (excerpt),   vol. 1:72; accessed January 10, 2014.

[xvi]Journal of Occurrences in My Voyage to Philadelphia on board the Berkshire, Henry Clark, Master. From London”, Wednesday, September 21 (excerpt),   vol.1:72; accessed January 10, 2014.

[xvii]Journal of Occurrences in My Voyage to Philadelphia on board the Berkshire, Henry Clark, Master. From London”, Thursday, September 22 (excerpt),  vol. 1:72; accessed January 10, 2014.



  • Very interesting! I wasn’t aware of these travel suggestions. I guess on a 6 (or more) week voyage time does hang a little heavy on the hands of a man like Franklin. This is the result. Well done!

    1. Thank you, Hugh! That means a lot coming from a historian as yourself. Who knew that multi-talented Ben Franklin would also develop a list of self-carry-on items that, for the most part, is as true today as 230 years ago?!

  • I just love the practical Ben Franklin, the colonial Renaissance Man. I note he didn’t suggest an ample supply of writing supplies. Perhaps it was such a ‘given’ with an educated mind like Franklin’s and others’ that it was unnecessary to mention.

    1. In earlier works, I have seen “dieta” used when talking about a day’s journey and there may be the travel connection with “diet bread.” I don’t think that’s the case here, however.

      Many in the period used “diet” when talking about their way of living life–much broader in scope than how we use it today. By the late 18th century, the term had begun to be limited to only a portion of that regimen and to take on its modern meaning–watching what we eat. I have seen reference to “diet drinks” which refer to medicinal fluids taken over a long period of time to address minor conditions but have not encountered “diet bread” so I took a look at Wharton’s dictionary from 1763-4. The section under “diet” includes a number of paragraphs talking about healthy foods and says, “The principal and most general aliment is bread, whereof the crust is esteemed most easy of digestion, the crum being more oily and heavy. … From this view of the materials of diet, it appears, that the best way to preserve health, is to live upon plain simple foods, lightly seasoned, and in a quantity agreeable to the age, strength of stomach, sex, constitution, and chiefly to what nature has by experience been found to require.” From what I know of Franklin, this is most likely the sense in which he is using the term.

      Hope that helps you.

    2. A recipe for “diet bread” appears in the confections section of several 18th-century cookbooks; it reads as follows:

      Diet Bread. Take twelve eggs, weigh them, and in the other scale put the same weight of sugar, and then of flour. Break your eggs, putting your yolks and your whites in two different pans, put in the sugar where the yolks are, and mix them well till it makes a paste very white; then whip your whites of eggs in the other pan, and proceed for all the rest of the preparation with your paste, as we directed in speaking of the palais royal biscuits. When your paste is quite ready, put it in your tin mould, which are made on purpose, some of a pound weight, some half a pound, and some a quarter of a pound: rub them well on the inside with butter, and proceed for the rest as before mentioned.

      To clarify the cross-reference, the recipe for Palais Royal Biscuits reads:

      Palais Royal Biscuits. Take eight eggs, break them and put the yolks in one pan, and the whites in another; then weigh half a pound of sugar, which you are to put in the pan where the yolks are, beat well your yolks and the sugar together with a spoon, till it makes a white paste; weigh six ounces of flour which you put on a white sheet of paper; when your yolks of eggs are well beaten with the sugar, and your flour weighed, and put on a sheet of paper, take a small whisk, beat well your whites of eggs, till they come up like a syllabub, and are so hard that your whisk can stand upright in them; then take your yolks which are like a paste, and put them with the whites, and mix them in turning them gently with your whisk. When both the yolks and whites are well mixed, take a sieve, put your flour in it, and sift it gently over your mixture, and continue stirring till you fee all is well mixed, and there is no lump of flour in your paste; when your composition is finished, have little paper moulds made long and square, fill them with that paste, and sift on the top of each of them a little of fine pounded loaf sugar, which is called the icing of them, then put them in the oven.

      We can’t say whether this is what Franklin had in mind; the term “diet bread” also appears in some books on horse keeping, in which it sounds more or less like an energy bar for horses in particular training regimens. Whatever Franklin meant, the term “diet” in his era didn’t have the same connotation of weight loss that it does today, but instead was usually meant something more along the lines of “medicinal”, or “healthful.”

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