In 1819, an American ship, the Savannah, made the first steam-assisted crossing of the Atlantic. But it was not until the birth of the Cunard Line in 1840 that a steamship company could promise to deliver its passengers to
their destinations on a regular timetable. Cunard's first four small steamers, all commissioned in 1840-41, had actually launched something completely new in ocean travel: constant, reliable service on a fixed departure schedule. No one knew it then, but this pioneering company would outlast all its rivals and, in the process, establish an unmatched safety record. The tone was set by the operating instructions laid down by the company's founder, Samuel Cunard of Halifax, to his very first captain: "It will be very obvious to you that it is of the first importance to the Partners of the Britannia that she attains the Character for Speed and Safety." Safety would continue to be the firm's watchword. Later in the century, an admiring Mark Twain would opine, "The Cunard people would not take Noah himself as first mate till they had worked him through all the lower grades and tried him ten years or such matter."
However, reliability was rare in those pioneering days, and nautical technology would need many long years of development before steam completely displaced sail. The nineteenth century saw great waves of emigration from the Old World to the New, but in the early days of steam, few emigrants arrived under power. The four original Cunard ships, each with space for only 115 passengers, made no provision for steerage passengers at all, concentrating on their main task, which was the speedy and safe delivery of the Royal Mail.
For many years, they would continue to do so with a strong assist from wind power. These early steamers weren't pure steamships at all, but wooden-hulled hybrids, sailing ships with steam engines and great side paddle wheels. They used their sails whenever possible, both to enhance speed and to promote fuel economy. Coal was bulky and expensive, and making steam was a noisy and dirty process. In fact, several pioneering steamships gave up their engines and reverted to the sailing life after failing to live up to their builders' promises.
Such false starts were hardly surprising, given the then brief history of the steamer at sea. Marine historians enjoy debating the pivotal moments in the early story of this developing technology, but the incontrovertible facts are these. In 1819, the Savannah, an American sailing ship with auxiliary steam engines and two paddle wheels that could be folded away on deck, made the first steam-assisted crossing of the Atlantic. In reality, she used her engines only a fraction of the time and mostly when she was in sight of critical eyes ashore. Not until 1831, did a ship-the Canadian paddle streamer Royal William-finally cross the Atlantic primarily under steam, although she needed to stop her engines every few days for twenty-four hours to scrape the accumulated salt deposits from her boilers. During those times, she depended entirely on her sails. Finally, in 1838, the Sirius, a new coastal steamer temporarily commandeered for a transocean voyage, became the first ship to cross the Atlantic under continuous steam power.
By the late 1830s-before Cunard even entered the picture-three separate British companies were vying to be the first to inaugurate regular transatlantic steamship travel. But only one of their initial ships made any lasting impression. This was the Great Western, brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, already one of Britain's most successful civil engineers. The ship was owned by Britain's Great Western Railway, and her builders envisaged her as an ocean link with the railway's land-transportation network, a scheme eventually accomplished by the Canadian Pacific steamships of a later era.
When the Great Western made her maiden voyage from Bristol to New York in April 1838, she entirely lived up to her advance billing. She was bigger and faster and more beautifully appointed than any ship before her. Her grand saloon was the grandest yet seen, with its Gothic-revival arches and elegant wall-panel paintings done in the delicate style of Watteau. Her passengers no longer had to emerge from their cabins to shout for a steward, but could summon him simply by pulling on a bell-rope. But where the Great Western truly stood out was in her performance. Over the subsequent eight years, she accomplished sixty-four round trips between Bristol and New York. Had her owners been able to build equally reliable sisters quickly, they could have given Cunard a run for his money. But not until 1845 did the Great Western get a companion, the Great Britain. A fabulous ship, she was perhaps the first true ocean liners: she had an iron hull, watertight bulkheads, a double bottom and was the first transatlantic steamship to replace paddle wheels with screw propulsion. Although she was for many years the largest ship in the world, her performance never lived up to expectations. In only her second season, just when early problems with her power plant seemed solved, she ran aground off the Irish coast owing to an egregious navigational error. Although all 180 passengers made it safely ashore, the ship was only refloated the following spring, by which time her owners had gone bankrupt and were forced to sell her.
The four durable wooden-hulled Cunarders that all came into service within the space of a single year gave their company a virtual monopoly on the North Atlantic during the pioneering decade of the 1840s. Not until 1851 did Cunard face its first serious rival. Then, for slightly more than ten years, a fleet of American passenger streamers temporarily took the lead. The competition between the Cunard Line and the Collins Line in the 1850s foreshadowed the ruthless battle for preeminence that would characterize the transatlantic passenger trade in the closing decades of the century.
For the final four decades of the nineteenth century, Great Britain virtually owned the North Atlantic. Year after year, ships wearing the red ensign of the British merchant marine captured the coveted Blue Riband, the mythical trophy for the fastest transatlantic passage. The Liverpool-New York run, a trip that almost never took less than ten days in 1856, was regularly accomplished in fewer than six by the 1890s. With the Industrial Revolution at its frantic zenith, important technological advances appeared with inexorable frequency as steamships assumed a recognizably modern shape. Wooden hulls gave way to iron, then iron to stronger and more workable steel, permitting ever-larger ships with vaster passenger spaces. Simple engines became more efficient (and more powerful) compound engines, as one stack became two and then three, emblems to the seagoing public of both size and power. The paddle wheel died a long-overdue death, replaced by the single screw and then twin screws, whose reliability finally made sails unnecessary. Even if one propeller was dropped, the ship could continue its journey. Steamers still carried sails until late in the century, but these gradually dwindled until all that remained were flag masts.
Without a rapidly rising demand for a fast and safe Atlantic passage, however, these great advances would have come much more slowly. The late nineteenth century was an age of mass migration from Great Britain and Europe to the New World and it was the steerage, or third-class, passenger who provided the basic income that allowed the proliferating steamship lines to thrive. Steerage passengers paid low fares, and they received very little in return in terms of shipboard comfort, but steamers offered a considerable improvement over the "coffin brigs" of the eighteenth century, on which filthy conditions, poor ventilation and lack of food led to shipboard epidemics and a heavy death toll. The first company to seize the emigration opportunity was the Liverpool-based Inman Line, which began by specializing in the steerage trade, but Cunard, White Star and others soon made the adjustment, increasing their steerage capacity and improving its amenities.
Yet what most vividly marks this period of rapid passenger steamship evolution is the ascending star of luxury. If a company's bread and butter came from the steerage trade, glamour and prestige come not just from speed but also from a ship's first-class image. Each new ship that joined the North Atlantic run seemed to boast a higher standard of luxe and comfort. The privileged personages who increasingly walked the promenade decks or whiled away shipboard hours in plush lounges and clubby smoking rooms provided an aura of romance for what was, in truth, a rather cutthroat business. For the wealthy traveler, these ships offered ever-grander and more decorative public rooms, finer food and more spacious staterooms with the most modern conveniences-including private bathrooms with hot and cold running water, electric light and steam and heat.
In the evolution of liner luxe, there is no clear moment when passenger steamships became fancy floating hotels-at least in first class-but by the turn of the century, this transition had been clearly and irrevocably accomplished. Increasing size meant more and more space for designers to create the illusion that traveler had never left dry land.
The new White Star Line's maiden liner Oceanic, commissioned in 1871, was the first to move first-class quarters away from the stern-relatively high and dry in the days of sail but prone to uncomfortable propeller vibrations in steamships-to the middle of the ship, and the first to open up the dining saloon to occupy a vessel's full width. In this ample space, where coal-burning fireplaces with marble mantels gave the illusion of a grand country house, passengers for the first time sat down to dinner in separate armchairs, albeit ones bolted to the floor, rather than the long padded benches of yore.
The National Line's America of 1884 not only claimed the first Blue Riband speed record for a steel-hulled ship but also boasted the first glass dome over a dining saloon. The I & I Line's City of New York (1888) and City of Paris (1889) not only were the first twin-screwed liners on the North Atlantic run but also introduced a handful of dining alcoves as more intimate alternatives to the long refectory-style tables where most of the passengers still took their meals. The builders also provided fourteen private suites comprising a bedroom and sitting room that could have been lifted from a contemporary Victorian house. According to one observer, on these two ships, "Luxury has been carried just as far as the present human invention and imagination can take it."
Through the 1890s the trend continued, but as yet no single aesthetic sensibility had imposed order and restraint on what had become an orgy of overstuffed, overdecorated late-Victorian eclecticism. This couldn't last. More and more wealthy Americans made the annual pilgrimage to London and the Continent as part of their regular social season, and they were gaining knowledge and taste that outstripped conservative British fashions. It was only a matter of time before the country-house luxury of the British evolved into a more sophisticated, more European grand luxe. The purveyors of this sea change turned out to be Britain's only real rivals on the Atlantic scene, the Germans.
To say that the Germans invented the twentieth-century luxury liner might be overstating the case, but they surely combined the existing strands of liner evolution to bring it into being. In the late 1890s their ships rapidly overtook the British in terms of size and speed. Norddeutscher Lloyd's Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of 1897, the pioneering four-stacker, was the first non-British ship to hold the Blue Riband since the demise of the Collins Line. And Hamburg-Amerika's Deutschland of 1900, despite excessive vibration and an appetite for coal that made her a perennial money loser, would take the Atlantic speed record on her maiden voyage and hold it for six years.
But these two aggressive German companies, themselves fierce rivals, left a greater imprint on shipboard style than on marine engineering. They were the first to turn over the artistic control for designing a passenger liner's interiors to a single architect/designer. In the case of Lloyd's Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and her three subsequent sisters, the organizing genius was a gentleman from Bremen by the name of Johannes Poppe.
Schooled in the beaux-arts tradition, with a strong preference for baroque revival, Poppe should have had the middle name Grandiosity. Historian John Malcolm Brinnin describes the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse as "a sea-going boast," whose public rooms, with their impossibly high ceilings, ornate carvings and bas-reliefs, their gilt-framed mirrors and glowing stained glass, represented an "outsized magnificence." "Instead of quietly charming the well-to-do passenger by reminding him of his home, his club, or a familiar country inn," Brinnin writes, "the new designers overwhelmed and overawed him." Poppe's grand designs would undoubtedly offend our present-day sensibilities, but, at the turn of the century, they made the new Lloyd ships the most fashionable on the North Atlantic run.
It fell to Hamburg-Amerika (HAPAG), however, to temper Poppe's palatial grandeur with a more restrained aesthetic and truly to set the tone for the great ships to come. After the Deutschland's disappointing performance, HAPAG's managing director, Albert Ballin, decreed that comfort and luxury, not speed, would be his watchwords. Ballin, whose ferocious work habits and obsessive eye for detail had made his company the biggest single Atlantic carrier by the turn of the century, soon found the perfect person to carry out his new intentions.
On one of Ballin's periodic stopovers in London-he had been visiting the shipbuilders Harland & Wolff in Belfast to check on the progress of a new ship-he paused to dine at the Carlton Hotel's new Ritz-Carlton Grill. Here he encountered not only the lavish haute cuisine of Auguste Escoffier but also the tasteful interiors of a French architect named Charles Mewès. Ballin was so smitten by the combination that he determined his next ship would contain a floating version of the Ritz-Carlton Grill, an à la carte alternative-at an additional price-to the first-class dining room. Here was a golden carrot to attract the cream of the Edwardian beau monde. He sought out Mewès and offered him the commission to design the interiors of the Amerika. Then he approached César Ritz and asked him to oversee the restaurant. The two Frenchmen accepted, and a fruitful, enduring partnership was born.
Mewès's Amerika became a floating grand hotel par excellence. So popular was her Ritz-Carlton Restaurant on the ship's maiden voyage in the fall of 1905 that Ballin immediately ordered its kitchen doubled in size. But the marvel of a first-class à la carte restaurant, decorated in the classic style of Louis XVI, where one could dine superbly and intimately, was only half the story. On the Amerika, Mewès "was given the opportunity to achieve some kind of total design harmony," according to liner historian John Maxtone-Graham, "implementing a scheme of uniform decoration in all the public rooms throughout the ship." Aft of the restaurant, one entered an elegant lounge in the eighteenth-century style of Robert Adam. The airy Palm Court, with its blooming flowers, potted palms, and white rattan furniture, was also inspired by Louis XVI. Only the dining room disappointed-its long tables, bolted swivel chairs and portholes draped with sateen were a throwback to an earlier era.
Amerika, which immediately became the most fashionable ship on the North Atlantic, set the stage for the heyday of liner grand luxe. Mewès went on to design the interiors of the Amerika's sister ship, Kaiserin Auguste Viktoria, and then the three HAPAG giants of the Imperator class that outsized even White Star's famous, doomed Titanic. In this competitive climate, both White Star and Cunard realized that to maintain their share of the Atlantic passenger trade, they would have to build new ships of unprecedented size and luxury. The age of the Atlantic superliner had truly began.