1900-The Golden Age of the Transatlantic Steamship

SS Minneapolis at Tilbury - May 1900

While in search of a location for my first venture into writing an Edwardian cosy mystery, I discovered the extensive information given on the Atlantic Transport Line Website. Four sister ships, known as the ‘Minne’ class, were commissioned from Harland and Wolff in Belfast in 1898. The Minneapolis, Minnehaha, Minnetonka, and Minnewaska. At 600 feet long, the Minneapolis had the largest tonnage of any ship afloat [excepting the Oceanic] and were among the first vessels fitted for wireless telegraphy. She left New York in April 1900 with a complement of seventy eight first class only passengers and fifty five crew.

I chose the SS Minneapolis, which left New York in April 1900 on her maiden voyage - which technically made my novel a Victorian cosy!

The Illustrated London News May 1900

Everything on the Minneapolis is of the best quality, but as simple as possible. The walls of the saloon are in light oak with allegorical figures burnt in the woodwork; an exquisite frieze in the same work, full of life and spirit, runs round the top. The dome in the ceiling gives ventilation and height to the room. The chairs and sofas are upholstered in red satin damask, and the whole effect of the saloon is bright and cheery, while also harmonious.

The library, or writing-room, is painted white and a little relief in gold. The bookcase is at present without any books in it, as they have been promised as a gift to the ship by the city of Minneapolis, in recognition of the vessel’s having been given the name of this great western city; but unfortunately the books did not reach New York in time to be put into the case.

The coverings of the sofas and chairs are in a very beautifully designed tapestry, the whole idea of the room being to keep it quiet and restful. The smoking room is admirably adapted to the purpose for which it is intended. The decorations are in plain dark oak, and the seats upholstered in a very handsome red leather, all dinginess is thus avoided. Cozy corners are very suggestive of small parties sitting quietly together to have the friendly games which so materially assist in passing away the time.

No modern steamer would now be complete without suites of rooms, and the Minneapolis, being the most modern of steamers, has several suites situated on the promenade deck, which are as perfect as possible. The brass bedsteads are hung with fresh dimity curtains of pink roses on a white ground, the little window curtains all matching. Hanging cupboards and doors add to the convenience of the passengers. A bath-room is attached to each suite, and the private sitting room adjoining the bed room is charmingly fitted with a writing table and comfortable sofas.

American reporter Earl Mayo, wrote a satirical article for Forum Magazine in 1904 on transatlantic travel, and says of his fellow passengers:

"Here we are, all met on an equal footing. For these few days we shall all be weighed, not by what we own or claim to be, but by what we really are."

I kept Mr Mayo’s adage in mind when writing Murder On The Minneapolis, in that my characters were among strangers where their deceits and invented 'legends' could not be exposed.

Mayo emphases the importance of the passenger lists, a copy of which were placed in each stateroom and were pored over. Marks were made against names and the labels on unoccupied steamer-chairs studied, then they would wait until the occupants appeared. Mayo complained that where Baedeker guides place an asterisk on hotels to guarantee they were first-class, the steamship companies don’t, with the result that: ‘The very best people are set down cheek-by-jowl with the nobodies.’

Mayo opines: ‘This is, naturally, very galling. It is unbearable. What is the use of being anybody if nobody knows it? Why extract a week from the delightful publicity of land-life, and sink it in the obscurity of ocean life?’
Tea On Deck
He also had a lot to say about the preponderance of lone female travellers:

‘A season or two ago the fact of the great increase in the number of women travelers received a peculiar illustration in the case of one of the ships of the Atlantic Transport line. On one of her voyages this vessel carried fifty-eight women and one man! Needless to say that later on the man became engaged to and married one of his fair fellow·voyagers. What earthly chance does one poor, unprotected man stand among a shipload of women?’

Mayo on gossip::

‘Maids and valets are very useful on board, because they talk. They are funds of enticing information, especially when they belong to the exclusive people--and they generally do. The mistress says nothing, but the maid tells the truth! The master is silent, but the valet discloses all that it is necessary to know!  It is shameful to listen to their stories, and there is no excuse for it. Still, one does feel more cheerful when it is positively asserted by the gentle maid that the haughty dame, with the lorgnette, who has been snubbing everybody, sells all her old clothes that won't dye, and hits her husband when she is feeling lively.’

And honeymooners:

‘If he leaves her for a minute, his love is growing cold; if she chats with an unsuspecting passenger, she is a flirt who will never settle down; if he sleeps happily in his steamer-chair by her side, he is tiring of her; if she yawns at the endlessness of the day, married life is beginning to pall; if his voice be raised as he talks to her (he may be advising her to try and eat something at luncheon) , he is developing into the usual cut-and-dried husband; if she be too indisposed to care much how she looks, she is learning how to disenchant a husband; if he doesn't call her" tootsy," he is a cold-blooded wretch; if she looks serious and gloomy, she is learning that marriage is a failure.’

Passengers' had their names on the stateroom doors and a bell to announce callers. A steward was summoned with one ring of an electric bell and two rings for a stewardess. Steamer chairs and rugs  could be rented at a cost of four shillings for the duration of the voyage. The chair bore the occupier’s name and woe betide anyone who sat on the wrong one!  The library tended to be a female domain, while the smoke room, which sported the first real fireplace on an ocean liner, being male territory.

Dining Room on SS MInneapolis
Regular lifeboat drills were mandatory after the Mohegan disaster in 1898 off the Cornish coast, the lifeboats were actually lowered as if a real disaster loomed.

Life as a crew member was hard. The stewards, known as ‘Southampton Boys’ as that was where the best were trained, would earn about $15 a month with board and lodging. A steward had to pay for his own uniform, laundry bills, plus a sum to have his area of the communal cabin cleaned. He rose at five-thirty and was on duty until eleven pm. A senior steward could earn $150 a month, while the ship’s captain earned more than the six officers he commanded combined.

Passengers were expected to adhere to a rule for tips: given at the end of the voyage, a minimum of ten shillings—two and a half dollars—to each of the bedroom steward, deck steward, saloon steward, bath steward, a dollar to the "boots," the smoke-room steward, and the organist or band, all of which went a long way to make up their low income.

Crews were signed on for one voyage, at the end of which they were paid off and hoped to sign on again immediately for the next. If their ship should sink, even as a result of enemy action, their pay ended the moment the ship went under.
Captain Gates

The contrast in wealth between crew and passengers was vast. For instance, apart from the shuffleboard, concerts, dances and bridge games, one of the main pastimes on board appears to be use of the bar – which often cleared $5,000 on one voyage on a first class steamer in the busy season.

Captain Thomas F Gates commanded the SS Minneapolis on its maiden voyage. A naturalised American citizen and a sociable pipe-smoking teetotaler, he "danced two hours every night of clear weather" according to Time Magazine and was very popular with passengers. Known affectionately as "Tommy," and "Giggles Gates" — the "laughing skipper" because of his infectious laugh, his endless energy, powerful voice, and his laugh, was "known in ports all over the world" according to an obituary in the New York Times. It was said that when his ship docked he never needed to use a megaphone from the bridge. He served 45 years with the ATL, commanded 18 of their ships, described as "one of the most popular commanders in the merchant fleet."  

As my novel came to an end, I was sad to leave the amiable Captain Gates and the restful surroundings of the opulent and comfortable SS Minneapolis. I hope my readers will feel the same way.


Atlantic Transport Line Website

Gjenvick Gjonvick Archives has Earl Mayo’s full and entertaining article, as well as other observations on shipboard life at the turn of the 20th century.


Petrea Burchard said…
I always enjoy when you share about your research. And I know the feeling of not wanting to say goodbye to your characters. This sounds like a good book, or a "ripping yarn" as my friend says.
Anne Gallagher said…
This article is fantastic, Anita. I've always wanted to sail to England on one of these. I abhor planes.

I placed my review on Goodreads, but they won't let me put one up on Amazon until the book releases. I've got it ready to go. And let me say again, I just loved it. You're such a talented writer. Color me jealous.

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