How Prohibition and the Depression Made Modern Cruising

Never in the history of modern cruising has the industry faced such an existential crisis. Sailings have been canceled for the foreseeable future, ships have idled and their onboard crews, some of which represent significant contributions to the GDPs of some of their home countries, have returned early from contracts that now dangle in uncertain limbo.

It’s reminiscent of another time the shipping industry faced a crisis. Lines laid off staff, sent older ships to the salvage yards and some changed the seascape forever in banner mergers. All that happened during the Depression of the 1930s.

In retrospect, the booms and busts of the Interwar years as good as gave birth to the modern cruise industry—with some important differences. Contrasts aside, modern cruises travelers would recognize today have their roots in those two tumultuous decades between the World Wars.

Immigration Reform Grew Leisure Travel

Prior to the Great War, Transatlantic passenger liners paid their way in immigrant traffic. Large ocean liners could carry thousands of travelers in Steerage (some lines termed it “Third Class,” while others counter Steerage and Third separately) at huge profit margins derived from rock bottom carrying costs.

After the War, fearful that political upheavals including the Russian Revolution and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires would continue to drive waves of immigration, Congress passed an act curtailing the admission of immigrants from certain countries. This effectively stripped the shipping companies of their most profitable passenger, and they were forced to adapt.

Luckily, millions of Americans had crossed the Atlantic during the war years, and the post-war economic boom gave many of them the means to return for vacations. Shipping companies repurposed their immigrant spaces to appeal to leisure travelers of modest means, rebranding as “Tourist Third Cabin.” Many of the upgrades were paid for by the increased revenue from Tourist Third passengers, who—unlike the immigrant passengers they replaced—bought their passages round trip.

Prohibition Grew International Travel Demand

While Americans with a new familiarity for travel and the means to do so could have struck out on domestic adventures, Prohibition drove thirsty Americans to foreign shores on foreign ships. As soon as foreign-flagged ocean liners cleared the territorial limit six miles offshore, the bar was open, and passengers could drink their way to Europe.

Bound by U.S. temperance laws, United States Lines struggled to turn a profit, even during the boom of the Roaring ‘20s. Nevertheless, the line attempted to grow business beyond the temperance-minded crowd by advertising American standards of onboard comfort and service in comparison to the European lines.

Ocean Liners Convert to Cruising During The Depression

The 1929 stock market crash hit shipping companies hard, as business travel dried up in the softening economy, but it’s important to note that shipping lines of the 1930s were more akin to today’s airlines. The primary movers of passenger traffic, mail and cargo across the Atlantic were affected in all revenue centers, and many ships arrived in New York in the winter low season carrying just a handful of passengers and riding notably high out of the water.

With too many ships for the drop in demand, many shipping companies chartered even their largest ships to cruise agents. Leisure cruises had operated since the early 1920s, typically onboard smaller, older ships that had been largely retired from regular service.

Typically for the time, shipping companies did not market and sell cruises themselves but sold whole ship charters to travel agents who marketed round trip cruises to leisure-oriented destinations such as the Caribbean, Canada, Bermuda or the Mediterranean. With agents now unwilling to take the risk, shipping lines started marketing cruises directly.

In 1933, Cunard advertised 12-day sailings from New York to the Caribbean and South America on board RMS Mauretania, advertising the same standard of onboard service that passengers enjoyed on the Atlantic crossing, from $125 (inflation-adjusted to $2,400 today). Shorter sailings were also available: RMS Aquitania embarked on a four-day Independence Day round trip to Nova Scotia.

Ultimately, there were too many liners in service even to fill with cruise passengers, and older ships such as the Mauretania were sold for scrap during the ‘30s, but a new generation of cruisers had gotten a taste of leisure cruising onboard a “big” ship.

New Ships Pushed The Design Envelope

With older ships retiring, and the competition for the remaining Transatlantic passengers as fierce as ever, the ocean liners built in the 1930s bore the closest resemblance to today’s modern cruise ships than any of their predecessors.

Tall, multiple funnels and stalwart upright lines gave way to the sleeker profiles and wide-open lido decks of the “motor ship” design that had been pioneered by Italian and German new builds in the late 1920s. Heavy wood period furnishings of the Edwardian era gave way to the clean, modern Art Deco lines, such as the gilt crossing map of the Queen Mary or the boxy, multi-story dining room of the Normandie.

Although liners were crossing the “Pond” faster than ever, the growing popularity of cruising meant that many new ocean liners were outfitted with more amenities and diversions should the ships ultimately be diverted to cruising later in their careers.

Modern Cruising Emerges During the ’30s

In the summer of 1938, Cunard-White Star (the two lines had merged to survive during the Depression’s darkest days) advertised a robust summer schedule of sailings from New York on board some of the company’s newer ships like the Georgic (1931) and Britannic (1929), with itineraries ranging from four to 13 days.

In just a few short years, marketing had even further developed since the earlier ‘30s. While older ads called out little more than the economy of a cruise vacation, by the end of the decade the advertised onboard amenities read like a thoroughly modern cruise program: Palm Reading, Swimming Pools, Dance Lessons, Card and Casino Gaming, Port Shopping Lectures and Fine Dining were all trotted out to entice travelers.

While the profile of cruise vacations shot into the stratosphere in the 1970s, the modern cruise industry really began to take shape during the Depression, in the midst of another global crisis that threatened the viability of passenger shipping.

While the experience of a vacation at sea may change on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing remains constant: leisure travel is a resilient pastime, and the story of modern cruising is one of an industry forged in crisis.

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