Packets, Sailing

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PACKETS, SAILING. The packet ship was the predecessor of the twentieth-century ocean liner. Packet ships sailed between American and European ports on regular schedules.

The first packet company, the Black Ball Line, began operations in 1818, with four ships offering a monthly service between New York and Liverpool. By the mid-1820s packets were sailing from American and British ports each week. For the next decade they carried most of the passengers, high-valued freight, and mail that passed between the Old World and the New.

The typical packet ship was about two hundred feet long, with three masts and a bluff-bowed hull that, though lacking the speed and grace of the later clipper ship, could plow through the worst North Atlantic seas with reasonable speed and stability. In good weather a packet could make two hundred miles a day.

By the late 1830s steamships were beginning to attract lucrative cargoes and wealthy passengers, leaving the sailing vessels to people who could afford nothing faster. In the mid-nineteenth century millions of working-class immigrants from western Europe came to the United States, most of them on board packet ships. Eventually the steamers took over the passenger trade entirely, relegating the packet lines to the hauling of nonperishable freight. The last of the packets sailed in 1881.


Albion, Robert G. Square-Riggers On Schedule: The New York Sailing Packets to England, France, and the Cotton Ports. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1965.

Cutler, Carl C. Queens of the Western Ocean: The Story of America's Mail and Passenger Sailing Lines. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1961.

Lubbock, Basil. The Western Ocean Packets. New York: Dover, 1988.

John A.Tilley

See alsoShipping, Ocean .