The Steamboat Times website has collected some interesting photographs and stories of early flatboats, the precursors of shantyboats. Flatboats were simple shallow-draft boats that allowed farmers to take their surpluses downriver after the harvest in the unpredictably low water of late summer and fall.
Many of these flatboats were covered to protect the crews and cargo from sun and rain as these beautiful photographs show.
“Storeboats” were flatboats that were literally mobile stores, traveling from one town to the next selling manufactured goods and produce. They were usually built for a one-way journey that would take their proprietor’s and crew away from home for a number of months. The name of the proprietor would be painted on the side, and at the end of the venture the crew would be paid off, to return upriver by steamboat or train. However, a successful owner might also hire a steamer to tow his storeboat back upriver, especially if his storeboat was well-built and he planned to repeat the exercise.
This photograph depicts two storeboats lashed together at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880. Lashing two boats was a common practice, and probably reduced labor costs, maximized piloting skills, and encouraged the townsfolk to visit the stores.
At the end of the journey downriver, flatboats were typically sold for their timbers. The proprietor would then take return home via steamboat, train, or mule.
These covered flatboats are the direct ancestors of the shantyboats used by displaced agricultural workers, factory and mine workers, migrating families, sex workers, and bootleggers on rivers on the fringes of town throughout the U.S.
This “Instructional sound film” by Erpi Classroom Films, Inc. with the help of Thomas D. Clark from the University of Kentucky is part of the Prelinger Archive on archive.org.