The Evolution of the Cruise Ship

| August 1, 2007

Despite vast differences, some traditions of the grand transatlantic liners linger on in today's cruise ships.

Today's cruise ship is a direct descendent of the original transatlantic passenger vessels, also known as ocean liners. Five years ago, I got interested in the history of these ships, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became.

For centuries, the only way to get from one side of an ocean to the other was by boat or ship, and this remained the case into the 1950s, when jet airliners made scheduled passenger ship service obsolete.

By 2008, when the Queen Elizabeth II becomes a floating resort in Dubai, Cunard's Queen Mary II will probably be the last modern ocean liner constructed (primarily with a reinforced bow) specifically for transatlantic passenger service. A few older ocean liners are still in service around the world, mostly as cruise ships, but their numbers are dwindling. Other older vessels survive in other forms, such as the original Queen Mary -- now a hotel/tourist attraction in Long Beach; or the Rotterdam, which will soon be a museum in her namesake city in The Netherlands.

Today's cruise ships are often far larger, more modern and safer than the passenger liners of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, but they still maintain some traditions in one form or another.

Many modern cruise ships exceed 100,000 tons, but some of yesteryear's vessels were just as immense for their time. One of the most beautiful and largest, the French liner SS Normandie, was 1,028 feet long and 117 feet in the beam; more than 83,000 tons; and her cruising speed was 29 knots. Launched in 1935, she caught fire and burned while being reconfigured as a troop ship in New York in 1942. Known throughout her brief life as "The Ship of Light," the Normandie was opulent, offering every conceivable amenity.

Two German sister ships of the same era, the Bremen and the Europa, entered service in the late 20s and early 30s. While smaller at 50,000 tons, these two greyhounds of the Atlantic also offered "white glove" service. The Bremen and Europa even had an autopilot called the "Metal Mike" that would keep the ship nailed to a set course regardless of weather, a device remarkable for its time. But the days of the grand ocean liners goes back much further. While transatlantic passenger service existed since before the 1850s, the grand era of the large liner with many traditions that remain on today's ships began around the 1880's.

The friendliness and focus on service of staff and crew is a hallmark of today's cruise industry. But these high levels of service are a direct descendant of the "white glove" service found on the old transatlantic liners.

Speed's the Thing

One major difference between today's ships and the old liners is in their basic purpose -- and that revolves around the necessity for speed. Because Atlantic liners were primarily a form of transportation, much like today's airliner, they always sought greater speed. Ocean liners initially catered to the rich and powerful, who often had to reach their destination as quickly as possible. Today's cruise ships are not as focused on high speed because their basic purpose generally doesn't require it. From the 1930s through the end of the transatlantic liners' era, one could cross from Liverpool to New York in under four days on the fastest liners. But there were also some who found the ambiance of an Atlantic crossing so relaxing that they preferred a longer and more leisurely crossing on a slower ship.

The fastest crossing of the Atlantic by an ocean liner was set by the 53,328-ton SS United States in the 1950s. The ship could plow through the Atlantic at the incredible speed of 43 knots -- faster than a lot of speedboats. (To the best of my knowledge, such a speed was never achieved with passengers aboard.) Imagine scaling a rock climbing wall, playing miniature golf or strolling on deck with the wind whipping by at around 50 miles per hour! The SS United States was subsidized by the government, and designed to be easily converted into a fast troop transport -- much as England's QEII was in the 1980s Falkland Islands conflict. As a result, her Westinghouse turbines developed an astronomical 240,000 horsepower. The SS Bremen, on the other hand, required 100,000 horsepower to sail at speeds up to 29 knots. By comparison, the 138,000-ton Explorer of the Seas is almost three times the size of the Bremen, and requires the same horsepower to cruise at speeds of up to 24 knots.

Lingering Traditions

The mix of accommodations on today's cruise ships includes suites -- a cabin concept that originated as grand suites for royalty or the super rich on the old liners. The "Presidential suites" were definitely for the use of a President, both on ocean liners and in the finest of hotels. The concept has been carried forth to today's cruise liners and grand hotels, even though no President will ever set foot in most. Likewise, the Queen's Grill on British-flagged vessels was where the English Queen would actually dine if she went to sea. Today's "High Tea" on some cruise ships is also a descendent of "The Gilded Age" of ship travel.

The 1880s to the 1930s were the days of grand dining, when ladies donned gowns and the gentlemen escorting them wore white tie and tails -- later to evolve into the dinner jacket, first introduced in 1886 at the Tuxedo Club in New York (hence the name). Grand dining was itself a form of entertainment. The formal nights on most of today's cruises are a direct descendent of this genteel practice. There was also ballroom dancing in the evening as well as a string quartet to be enjoyed while walking the promenade after dinner (quartets are yet another holdover to today's cruise liners).

The grand ocean liners also offered libraries and lounges -- including, in the earlier days, the ubiquitous Men's Smoking Lounge. Notice I said "Men's Smoking Lounge" -- back then, a lady was never seen smoking in public! Over the decades, the ways of entertaining passengers increased until even an occasional bowling alley could be found aboard the ship. Still, the grand ocean liners were not the entertainment meccas nor the "destinations unto themselves" as today's cruise liners, with their Las Vegas reviews and Broadway-style shows, multiple dining venues, numerous bars, game rooms, rock climbing walls, nightclubs, water slides, miniature golf courses, etc.

The Class System

And then there were the "Classes" in cruising. For almost a century, ships carried three classes of passengers; First Class, Second Class (Second Cabin), and Third Class, also known as Third Cabin (and earlier, as Steerage -- because people traveling that class were located deep down in the ship, on the same level as the controlling linkages for the rudder). Each class had its own assigned areas, and they were kept separated with different dining rooms, cabin sizes, and of course, menus and amenities. During the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century, Third Class or Steerage was light years below First Class. While some fraternization occasionally occurred between First and Second Class passengers, Steerage passengers were completely segregated. During the periods of significant emigration from Europe to the U.S. from the 1890s through the mid-1920s, Steerage was actually a bigger money-maker for the shipping line than First Class. Conditions in Steerage were far superior to living and dining arrangements that most of those passengers experienced in everyday life, but they were nevertheless rudimentary at best. The extreme differences, especially between the upper two classes and Steerage, can be seen in the movie Titanic, which is historically quite accurate. As a result of competition, Third Class levels of service improved as the decades passed until eventually only a two-class system (First Class and Cabin Class) existed on most liners.

Those two "classes" have evolved to the "one class" system found on today's cruise liners -- although Cunard liners maintain a vestige of the class system, in that the price of your cabin determines your dining room assignment. More money on today's cruise ships will get you a larger cabin, possibly with butler and concierge service, but on today's cruise ships the overall service is the same for everyone, as are the dining options. Today's "extra cost" restaurants may well be a descendent of the "Verandah Grill" that appeared on the Queen Mary and later the Queen Elizabeth in the 1940s, offering "a la carte" service at an extra charge.

Yet regardless of how much or how little you spend on a cruise today, you will experience levels of service and a way of life that until a few decades ago could be enjoyed only by the privileged few -- and at a cost, adjusted for inflation, that is far less than the cost of a First Class transatlantic ticket during the heyday of the great liners. So the next time you cruise -- especially if you dress formally on formal nights -- as you sit in the grand dining room, attended to by formally attired staff, take a moment to imagine for a brief moment that the year is once again 1922, and you are seated in the Queen's Grill on the 43,000-ton HMS Olympic as she steams at 21 knots across the Atlantic ocean ... and into history.

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