In the 1830s it was an unheard of feat; the world gasped when Samuel Cunard’s steamship Britannia raced across the Atlantic Ocean in an incredible 12 days and ten hours. Under canvas the trip would have taken at least five weeks: The days of sail power were numbered.
It was in January 1858, however, that the face of international travel changed forever with the launch of the Great Eastern. Designed by the preeminent engineer of the age, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Eastern was a leviathan: Its scale was barely conceivable by the standards of the day. More than six times larger than any vessel afloat, and reputedly capable of circumnavigating the world without needing to refuel, it could carry 4,000 people. It was a triumph of the technical age, and yet the real revolution was to be found not in the impressive statistics but in the luxurious appointments, chief among them a large central hall, or “saloon,” lofty enough to accommodate a balcony. There was gas lighting, and first-class cabins offered voyagers that untold indulgence: a bath with hot and cold running water. For perhaps the first time, travelers could enjoy the journey as much as—if not more than—the destination.
One might bump into the Duke of Windsor strolling the decks late at night, puffing on his pipe as his duchess took her ever more necessary beauty sleep.
Although modest by the standards of the following century’s superliners, the Great Eastern inaugurated a period of almost one hundred years during which the ocean liner reigned supreme as the most elegant and efficient means of moving people around the planet.
By a synchronous accident of history, the arrival of the ocean liner cult coincided with the explosion of American affluence that history has come to know as the Gilded Age. An armada of ocean liners steamed across the Atlantic, bearing newly minted New World plutocrats intent on buying aristocratic, Old World husbands for their daughters, and inspiring novels by Henry James and Edith Wharton.
As the 19th century merged into the 20th, the crossing time became quicker. Many of the years in the two decades around the turn of the century saw the fabled Blue Riband, an unofficial prize awarded to passenger liners crossing the North Atlantic Ocean. Rather than being based on passage time, the Riband was measured by average speed; it was only credited to those ships beating the record for both eastbound and westbound routes during the same voyage. The accolade changed hands as the ships of Cunard and the great German liners drove the average speed up. And as the speed increased, the standards of luxury rose.
The Normandie, arguably the most elegant vessel ever to work the transatlantic shipping lanes, was a floating monument to avant-garde art deco. On the English lines such as Cunard and White Star, the experience for first-class passengers was like something between staying in the finest of hotels and being a guest in a grand stately home or royal palace. To be sure, the price demanded the highest level of service: In the mid-1930s a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth cost in the range of $3,000 to $4,000. In today’s currency, that’s $85,000 to $95,000.
This was an age before the tyranny of travel-induced slovenliness had taken hold. Women would not have dared to leave their suites less than perfectly coiffed and without a plush mink for protection from the chill of the North Atlantic, while men always wore ties. Well into the interwar period it was social suicide for a gentleman—at least one traveling first class—to board a liner without his tailcoat. A mere dinner jacket would suffice for a quiet supper; however, nothing but full white tie and decorations would do for the evenings on which the captain’s dinner was held.
The atmosphere was not unlike that of a country house party, as travelers with only their affluence in common were forced to get along with each other in the artificial social climate of the Atlantic crossing. For the better part of a week, some of the richest, grandest, and most famous people in the world took breakfast, lunch, and dinner with each other, and met throughout the day as they promenaded along the decks or engaged in the various social activities. Having begun in the mid-19th century with such facilities as a tiny netted area for playing cricket, social activities increased in range and diversity as the ships grew ever bigger to accommodate swimming pools and cinemas.
Ocean liners were glamorous, but they were a necessity, too. Whatever one’s social class, there was no faster way of traveling between Europe and North America. On a given voyage, one might bump into the Duke of Windsor strolling the decks late at night, puffing on his pipe as his duchess took her ever more necessary beauty sleep; writers and wits such as the dapper Sir Noël Coward or the curmudgeonly Somerset Maugham; movie industry bosses like Samuel Goldwyn; fabled beauties such as Dolores del Río and, on the occasions when she left her stateroom (no mere cabin for a first-class passenger), Marlene Dietrich; or any number of matinee idols, from David Niven to Clark Gable.
Unsurprisingly, by the mid-20th century, Cunard was advertising its Atlantic crossings with the slogan “Getting there is half the fun.” A first-class berth on one of the Cunard “Queens” (the Queen Elizabeth or the Queen Mary) was the acme of chic, holding out the tantalizing prospect of spending the next few days in the company of movie stars, world leaders, and royalty. It’s no wonder that the beginning of an Atlantic crossing was a cause for celebration, with excited passengers giving cocktail parties for friends in their suites in the hours before departure, as the quayside below bustled with the mayhem of last-minute deliveries, passengers coming on board, and the loading of luggage, which, given the sartorial requirements of the voyage for some of the passengers, let alone of the destination, could run to many trunks.
The decade or so following the end of World War II was, in many ways, the high summer of the transatlantic liner, and by 1958 Cunard had a dozen mighty ships plying the seas between Europe and North America. And yet, just as the majestic ocean liner was at its zenith, the seeds of its destruction were being sowed near Seattle, Washington, where in 1958 the first 707s began to emerge from the Boeing factory.
In October of that year, Pan Am signed the death warrant of the ocean liner when it put its first jet into service over the Atlantic. Whereas elegantly clad sophisticates had once whiled away a transatlantic crossing in six or seven days, travelers would soon make the same journey in as many hours. A century after the Great Eastern had stunned the world with its lavish amenities, intercontinental travel had entered another era.
Nicholas Foulkes is a British historian, author, and journalist who has written books on subjects as diverse as James Bond, porcelain, and the trench coat. He is best known for his trilogy of 19th-century histories: Scandalous Society, Dancing into Battle, and Gentlemen and Blackguards. He is the luxury editor of the British edition of GQ, the cofounder and editor in chief of Finch’s Quarterly Review, a contributing editor to the FT How to Spend It, and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.