Travel by Steam

Steam power promised to free ocean vessels from the whims of wind and weather. Still, steamships suffered from a variety of problems: carrying enough fuel, finding reliable engines, and supporting huge operating costs.

Early steam vessels were hybrids that relied on both steam engines and sails. The Savannah made the first steam-assisted crossing of the Atlantic in 1819. But the first regular steamship crossings didn’t begin until the 1840s. By the 1850s, many wealthier passengers moved to steamships while most immigrants still crossed the ocean on sailing vessels.


Sailing notices from the New York Times, May 31, 1855

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries


Oil painting on canvas by Samuel Walters, 1851

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The Isaac Webb

The Black Ball Line pioneered scheduled packet service on the Atlantic Ocean in 1818. On May 20, 1851, the line’s new ship Isaac Webb arrived in New York with 760 steerage passengers and some cabin passengers. The ship relied solely on the wind well into the age of steam, carrying passengers until 1879.


Oil painting on canvas by Louis Honore Frederick Gamain

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The Arrival of the Collins Line Steamer Atlantic

The Atlantic was built in New York in 1849. It was the first Collins Line transatlantic steamer, in service from 1850 to 1858. In his five custom-built ships, Edward Knight Collins pioneered the idea of luxury accommodations on an ocean steamer.


Steam packet ship Savannah

Built at New York, 1819

Capacity: Cargo and 34 passengers

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The Savannah, 1819

The Savannah was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, although mostly under wind power. The ship’s engine was auxiliary, meant mainly for maneuvering in calms or in port. In 1820, new owners removed the engine and operated the Savannah between New York and Savannah, Georgia, as a coastal packet ship, carrying cotton and other goods.


Mariner’s Sea Chest, 1799

A sailor’s sea chest held personal items and clothing for entire voyages. It was his store, library, bank, and link to home. A heart with the name “Jan Smart” is carved inside the lid.


Longing for Home, 1868

Popular images of sailors, like this dreamy young man, were highly romanticized in the mid-1800s. But toiling on a merchant ship was hard and dangerous, and many seamen were malnourished and disillusioned. Homesickness, a common theme in songs about sailors, was also a fact of life at sea.