On the Water

Enterprise on the Water

After the War of 1812, shipping expanded its reach—and the nation grew with it.

Shipping was the lifeblood of the growing American nation in the first half of the 19th century. Ships and sailors connected manufacturers and customers, farmers and consumers, immigrants and their new homes—across the oceans, along the coasts, and up inland waterways. Ships ran on a regular schedule and began to take advantage of the power of steam.

The road from Liverpool to New York, as they who have traveled it well know, is very long, crooked, rough, and eminently disagreeable.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, aboard the packet ship New York, 1833

Scheduled Sailings

The simple innovation of sailing on a schedule gave immigrants and the American economy a boost in the early 1800s. Traditionally, ships sailed when they had loaded enough cargo to justify a voyage. Passengers could be delayed days or even weeks waiting for the holds to fill. After the War of 1812, ship owners began experimenting with regular timetables, and the 1820s and 1830s saw a boom of scheduled shipping lines across the ocean and along the coasts.

Train & Co. Boston Packets Advertisement, 1855

Courtesy of the Bostonian Society/Old State House

Aboard a Packet

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants left Europe for the United States in the 1800s. They sought economic opportunity, religious and political freedom, and the chance to join family members who had gone ahead.

Many immigrants sailed to America or back to their homelands in packet ships, vessels that carried mail, cargo, and people. Most crossed in the steerage area, below decks. Conditions varied from ship to ship, but steerage was normally crowded, dark, and damp. Limited sanitation and stormy seas often combined to make it dirty and foul-smelling, too. Rats, insects, and disease were common problems.

A typical packet in the 1820s and 1830s could also accommodate 10 to 20 well-to-do cabin passengers. Rich or poor, many travelers alternated between anxiety and boredom on long ocean crossings, depending on the weather.

From Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

“The Embarkation, Waterloo Docks, Liverpool”

In the mid-1800s, most British immigrants to the United States departed from Liverpool, England. Many Scandinavians also sailed to America through the British port. Other European emigrants sailed from Le Havre, France; Bremen and Hamburg, Germany; and Antwerp, in Belgium.

From Some famous sailing ships and their builder, Donald McKay . . . by Richard C. McKay, copyright 1928

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

“Interior of the Saloon of a Sailing Packet-Ship”

Wealthy travelers took advantage of packets’ reliable sailings to study, tour, or transact business abroad. Staterooms, although tiny, normally came equipped with a mattress and linens, a washbasin, and some drawers. Their ventilated doors opened directly into the cabin or saloon, a common area for eating and socializing. On many ships, the captain dined with the cabin passengers.

Train & Co. sailing announcement, August 1850

Imagine you were emigrating from Great Britain to the United States in 1850. How would this announcement help you prepare for your voyage?

What was included in the price of a steerage ticket?
What could you expect to eat while on board?
What was not included with your ticket?
How could Irish travelers starting in Belfast get to Liverpool, England, to catch the ship for their transatlantic crossing?

This document uses traditional English weights and measures. 1 stone = 14 pounds (6.3 kilograms); 1 cwt or hundredweight = 112 pounds (50.8 kilograms)

Cooking at Sea

From Liverpool each passenger receives weekly 5 lbs. of oatmeal, 2 1/2 lbs. biscuit, 1 lb. flour, 2 lbs. rice, 1/2 lb. sugar, 1/2 lb. molasses, and 2 ounces of tea. He is obliged to cook it the best way he can in a cook shop 12 feet by 6! This is the cause of so many quarrels and...many a poor woman with her children can get but one meal done, and sometimes they get nothing warm for days and nights when a gale of wind is blowing and the sea is mountains high and breaking over the ship in all directions.
—Anonymous, New-York Daily Times, October 15, 1851

This report of conditions in steerage was written by a doctor who had crossed the Atlantic many times on large American packet ships. “Reform must be made,” he wrote, “to better the condition of the poorer classes of emigrants.”

Steerage Ticket, 1856–57

Purchased in October 1856, this one-way steerage ticket was good for passage on any of the Cope Line’s ships sailing from Liverpool to Philadelphia before the middle of May 1857.

Illustrated London News, May 10, 1851

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

In Steerage

Steerage passengers slept, ate, and socialized in the same spaces. They brought their own bedding. Although food was provided, passengers had to cook it themselves. On rough crossings, steerage passengers often had little time in the fresh air on the upper deck. If passengers didn’t fill steerage, the space often held cargo.

From Die Gartenlaube Leipzig Fruft Neil

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

Inside a Packet Ship, 1854

This cutaway reveals how travelers, immigrants, and cargo sailed together. Travelers with enough money purchased “cabin passage” and slept in private or semiprivate rooms. The vast majority of passengers, usually immigrants, bought bunks in steerage, also called the ’tween deck for its position between the cabins and the hold.

German cartoon, about 1850

Complaints about overcrowding, poor food, abuse, and disease on immigrant ships led the United States and countries in Europe to enact new laws in the 1840s and 1850s.

From Die Reform, Nr. 46, 1848, S. 184 (Hamburg)

Courtesy of www.historic-maps.de

Rigged Model, Philadelphia Packet Ship Shenandoah [1963]
Rigged Model, Philadelphia Packet Ship Shenandoah

Packet ship Shenandoah

Built at Philadelphia, 1840

Capacity: about 290 passengers

A Ship on a Schedule

View Object Record

Beginning in the 1820s, transporting immigrants developed into a profitable, large-scale business. The Shenandoah carried people and freight from 1840 until 1854, usually running between Philadelphia and Liverpool. On a typical crossing in August 1845, the ship arrived in New York with 231 passengers—all but a handful of them farmers, clerks, mechanics, and laborers from England and Ireland.

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, Black Ball Packet Ship Isaac Webb [1851]
Oil Painting, Black Ball Packet Ship Isaac Webb

Oil painting on canvas by Samuel Walters, 1851

The Isaac Webb

View Object Record

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, Collins Line Steamship SS Atlantic [1800s]
Oil Painting, Collins Line Steamship SS Atlantic

Oil painting on canvas by Louis Honore Frederick Gamain

The Arrival of the Collins Line Steamer Atlantic

View Object Record

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.

Rigged Model, Auxiliary Steamship Savannah [1961]
Rigged Model, Auxiliary Steamship Savannah

Steam packet ship Savannah

Built at New York, 1819

Capacity: Cargo and 34 passengers

The Savannah, 1819

View Object Record

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.

Sailor's Sea Chest
Sailor's Sea Chest

Mariner’s Sea Chest, 1799

View Object Record

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.

Coasting Connections

Shipping along America’s coasts was vital to the nation’s economy. Lumber, bricks, cotton, and other bulk cargoes from different parts of the country spent time at sea.

Many American cities were built with materials carried over coastal waters. Limestone quarried in Maine was made into mortar and shipped to New York and Boston, where it was used in building construction. Quarries in Maine also supplied granite to complete the Treasury Department building in Washington, D.C., between 1855 and 1869. Matching stone was later shipped to New York and Philadelphia for new, grand central post offices.

The entire Maine coast was one vast neighborhood in which every schooner was as familiar as the house next door...
—Schooner Captain John F. Leavitt

Shipping lime from Maine, about 1880

A schooner in Rockland Harbor is being loaded with casks of lime, used for making cement. The wood stacked at the pier is for the kilns, where lime is produced by burning limestone.

Courtesy of the Douglas K. and Linda J. Lee Collection

Getting granite aboard, about 1900

Workers at the John L. Goss Quarry in Stonington, Maine, used derricks and horse-drawn stone carts called galamanders to transport blocks of granite from quarry to ship.

Courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum

Lent by the Office of the Curator, Department of the Treasury

Granite Cap, about 1869

This granite cap anchored part of the Treasury Department’s iron fence. Construction workers removed it during alterations in 1986.

The Stone Treasury

The completed Treasury Department, seen from the southwest, after 1870

From a stereoview card published by C. S. Cudlip & Co.

Courtesy of the Office of the Curator, Department of the Treasury