Saturday, April 13, 2013

Postcards from the Sea

In honor of the Titanic's 101st anniversary this weekend, I thought I'd take a moment to note some ship-themed images from Ollie's stash of early 20th century post cards.

Ocean liner travel was often portrayed as grand and luxurious in the early 20th century, and images of the vessels highlights their massive size, towering above the viewer seeming to be so big that one person could not see the whole thing at once.  Their size and power seemed to capture the industrialized spirit of the early 20th century.

Nevertheless the realities of cramped quarters and common spaces strictly divided by class are pretty well-known both now and at that time.  Ollie herself had come from Denmark on the Hellig Olav (cabin shown at right and another from a sister ship below at left) in 1906.  Space was tight, natural light was a luxury, and there was plenty of time to kill.

Perhaps it was the thought of that recent crossing that made Ollie's friend Helen send her a postcard with a large ship on it in April of 1906.  The Kaiser Wilhelm II proudly belches steam into New York Harbor, escorted by a number of small boats.

The Kaiser Wilhelm II was known for glitzy accommodations with a spacious, naturally lit drawing room (complete with grand piano) for first-class passengers. That reputation was later tarnished by a famous 1915 photograph by Alfred Stieglitz entitled The Steerage that depicted the accommodations for the lowest class of passengers.  Like many steamers, she prided herself on speed and won the Blue Riband for the fastest eastbound crossing in 1904.


The Livingston family made plenty of trans-Atlantic crossings too.  In 1870, when John Henry Livingston married his first wife Catherine, the two took the Grand Tour, and in 1890 their daughter Katherine went off to cavort around England (which she liked so much, she eventually moved there), and eventually her widowed father joined her for exotic trips 'round the globe--all by steamer.


Later, in 1906, when John Henry married his long-time neighbor Alice Delafield Clarkson, they again took off for Europe via steamer, and finally they and their children made numerous crossing when they moved to Italy for six years in the 1920s.  Their first crossing was in 1921 on the SS Rotterdam (above and below).  On many of the crossings with the children, Mr. and Mrs. Livingston were sure to snap some photos of the important occasion: the girls were joining a special group of well-traveled individuals.




All of this travel across the Atlantic took time--around a week usually, and companies made an effort to depict the travel time as pleasurable for first class passengers at least.  They competed for passengers with fine dining establishments (the Mauretania's at right and Hellig Olav's below), drawing rooms, parlors cafes, and music rooms.  Parquet floors and ornate carpets made the whole place look like a grand hotel.  When the wealthy left their homes to travel, their was no need for them to take a step down in accommodations.  When you add up all of the crossings Alice Livingston made, she may have spent as much as 45 days at sea all told--that's about a month and a half!

When the Livingstons returned to Italy in august of 1923 after a summer trip home, Janet took the time to write to her old nurse from the ship:

Dear Oli,
It was very nice of you to go with us to the movy's [?] I like this ship very much
Janet

The postcard featured the large ship, steaming proudly ahead, dwarfing tiny sailboats alongside it.  In reality, the Mauretania had once been a glittering luxury ship, but by the 1920s was hard-used by the army in WWI and later re-fitted. 

Ocean liners disappeared from Ollie's post cards for the next thirty years or so.  Commercial transatlantic air travel began to make strides in the 1930s and 40s, speeding up travel times dramatically.  The novelty of flying across the ocean cast a bit of a shadow over the ocean liners, though it took a long time for airplanes to win out as the most common way to cross the Atlantic Ocean.



 SS America, 1959

These later postcards seem to offer--well--a sunnier view of ocean liners.  There's less emphasis on the smoke belching from the ship.  Heck, the Kungsholm up on top is even portrayed on a harbor so still and sunny that the ship's reflection blinks up at it from the water.  Launched in 1953, she was still a pretty new ship, and must have still had quite a lot of sparkle on her.

The notes are from Ollie's friends:  "August & Dolly Breed,"  "Alma & Svest [?] Olsen," and "Mrs. Swift."  Crammed on the backs of the postcards are the same little pleasantries as always: "Having a good and relaxing time," says one, "I am enjoying a restful crossing," says another.  "We are having a nice tripp over the ocean."

It sounds like Ollie's friends were now enjoying the same kind of relaxing, comfortable travel once reserved for the wealthy--maybe even with shuffleboard, like Honoria and Janet played on the Rotterdam in 1923.  Perhaps to stay competitive in a market increasingly dominated by flight, these ocean liners had to begin extending some little luxuries to more passengers.  How did Mrs. Olsen's trip in 1955 compare to Ollie's in 1906?  How did it compare to the Livingstons' in 1923? 

Today passengers rarely steam their way across the Atlantic, though some lines do still function.  Travel across the ocean has become more of a vacation than a means to a destination.  Consider the popularity of cruise line industry, earning some $17 billion a year.  The luxury that was once offered only to the well-to-do is now a mainstream vacation choice for millions of people around the world.  you can cruise the Caribbean, Alaska, Mediterranean, and even the rivers of the world (including the Hudson!).

I think the most interesting twist of fate in this case that nowadays you have to fly in an airplane to wherever your ship will be departing from.

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