Destination: Cruising through the Archives

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Smithsonian Institution Archives Smithsonian Archives

Sometimes the threads of one's experience cross over in unexpected ways. So it was for me the day a Smithsonian editor called the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.

What did we have, she wanted to know, in the way of historical cruise ship advertising? As I searched our collections, I had an odd sensory experience.

Our collections are housed in a dull, gray environment: gray document boxes sit on gray shelves, which in turn perch on industrial gray carpeting. A little bleak really, except for the several million pieces of advertising ephemera and trade literature, which are anything but dull and gray.

 It was a 1941 postcard from Nassau, a tropical sunset over a blue-green ocean, that sent me into a reverie. The reference room was far from a sandy beach, but I swear I caught a scent of coconut oil. I had a sudden recollection of my father on a beach, his beautifully tanned and weathered face uplifted to the sun, thinking perhaps of names for a boat he hoped someday to own.

For you see, my father had carried on a lifelong affair with the sea. He'd been second mate on a charter fishing boat and served on a submarine in the U.S. Navy; he'd sailed across the Atlantic to Africa and weathered many storms at sea. My father's love of the ocean was the reason for the many cruises we'd taken when I was growing up.

I always felt lucky on those occasions when my brother and I boarded the ships with names reminiscent of the adventure novels we read together: the Emerald Seas, the Coral Princess. Even then, at 12 years of age, I recognized the technological wonder of those modern-day floating cities. They were completely self-sufficient communities—and you needed a map to find your way around!

But for all the order and formality, it was the decadence of the kind you'd expect to find on a pirate ship that charmed me. Different rules applied. Children could gamble in the casinos. Ordinary women, my mother included, wore glamorous evening gowns to dinner and then argued with each other over whose turn it was to sit with the captain. Fabulous meals were served five, six and seven times a day. And I still remember the wonder I felt at the parade of waiters carrying Baked Alaska high over our heads as if we were attending a coronation.

It's been a very long time since I was on a ship of any kind, much less one with the majesty and glamour of the Emerald Seas. So when I got the call to action, I was certainly eager to put my knowledge of the archival collections at the National Museum of American History to work. The romance of cruising aside, what I found there also reminded me of the importance of ocean travel to our history.

From England to New England, China to Chinatown, Back East to Out West, Americans have always been a people on the move, and mobility, both social and geographic, is probably the most celebrated tenet of the American experience.

 For the most part, our forebears traveled on the currents of economic desire, political belief or religious imperative. A good number of our ancestors didn't choose to come here at all, having been forced to leave their homelands.

From the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, to the Mayflower and the Amistad, ships were the way many Americans got here. In spite of the rigors faced by most of the passengers on those early ocean crossings, and the fact that a good number of our ancestors arrived here in steerage or its equivalent, sailing or cruising remains one of the modes of travel most imbued with a sense of majesty and romance, as these advertising images reveal. Cunard, White Star—even the names sound imperious. But for the greater part of our history, traveling for pleasure—taking a trip for the sole purpose of sightseeing or recreation—was something very few people had the means to do.

In the mid-19th century, several factors converged to create a new kind of travel experience for Americans. Improvements in the national transportation system, such as the completion of regional canal systems and the development of the transcontinental railroad, facilitated cross-country travel. Within two generations, the expanding industrial economy had created a growing class of Americans with the time and money to travel for pleasure. At the same time, the development of the advertising industry provided a mechanism by which to promote new tourism experiences.

State, county and city governments, railroads, steamships and airlines, and tour operators, resorts, hotels and attractions began to produce advertising and promotional literature to lure travelers and tourists. Each emphasized the sterling qualities of their destination or accommodations. The travel brochures, guidebooks and picture postcards are a wonderful resource for researching the history of American tourism, and for exploring the many local and regional characteristics that make up the fabric of our collective American identity.

The 60-year-old postcard that I held in my hand had its own story to tell. In February 1941, some unknown traveler had sent it in a book of picture postcards to one of her coworkers at the Internal Revenue Office in Milwaukee. Imagine the sense of escape the traveler must have felt! And the longing the coworker must have had for those warmer climes, for the romance and glamour expressed in the cards, "bathing at Paradise Beach" or "a palm-fringed shore." I'll bet she, too, caught a whiff of coconut oil right there in the midst of a Wisconsin winter.

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