Packet Boats

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Packet Boats

In the maritime world a packet, or packet boat, is identified by its function rather than by any distinctive vessel type. Historically, packets originated as vessels under contract with governments to carry mail. With this official duty as their primary purpose, packets could be distinguished from any other vessels by their speed and regularity of service on a fixed route between designated ports.

Whether propelled by sail or, as later, by steam, packets provided the means for international communications from the mid-seventeenth century until they gradually were superseded, first, in the mid-nineteenth century, by the telegraph and cable, and then successively by the telephone, radio, and air transportation and travel. Mail packets also were essential for world commerce and trade. Along with the mails, they carried diplomatic dispatches, government officials, and other important cargoes and passengers for whom speed, reliability of schedule, and punctuality were essential. Packets also carried large amounts of money and the financial documents that settled accounts in international banking, commerce, and trade. In the era of sail, packets normally carried as cargo those items that were low in bulk but high in value, with freight rates at a premium for such relatively fast and punctual service. Similarly, for many decades the few passengers on sailing packets were primarily those who could afford traveling in first class, with elegant accommodations, provisions, and personal service in return for a premium ticket price.

The first official European mail packet service probably dates from 1661, when England and Holland agreed to regular biweekly cross-channel operations. In 1689 England began regular packet service with France. As with the packets to Holland, those to France periodically suspended scheduled operations in wartime, yet the number of packet vessels tended to increase, with armed "boats of force" delivering mails when not in pursuit of prize-worthy enemy vessels.

Under contract with the British postmaster general, channel packets carried the mails from Dover to Calais; other British government packets sailed to Dublin, and from Falmouth to a wide number of ports abroad, including Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malta, the West Indies, and various destinations in North America. In 1755 Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), as deputy postmaster general for the British North American colonies, organized a regular monthly packet service from Falmouth to New York, with connections to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

After the American War for Independence concluded in 1783, France started transatlantic mail service to America. Three years later French mail packets were running to the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion and Mauritius. By 1789 Dutch mail packets were running between Holland and Java, stopping off at the Cape of Good Hope, where a branch route led to Ceylon.

Following the War of 1812 the United States quickly became the leader in transatlantic packet service, dominating the major route between New York and Liverpool. Starting in 1818 the Black Ball Line of sailing packets ran on a regular weekly schedule, "full or not full," thus encouraging the rapid development of transatlantic commerce and trade between these two primary ports. By the mid-1830s three more sailing packet lines successfully competed on the same route, and other packet lines from Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia sailed to and from major British and Continental ports such as London, Havre, and Bremen.

Essential to U.S. transatlantic packet dominance was the network of coastal packets running between the northern East Coast ports, primarily New York, and the major southern ports of Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans. In the decades prior to the U.S. Civil War, large square-riggers carried not only mail, passengers, and assorted merchandise from southern ports, but also baled cotton for both domestic and European textile mills. Return cargoes on these coastwise packets included northern and European manufactures along with raw and processed agricultural products.

By mid-century, the United States's rapidly increasing cotton trade powered the national economy, with cotton providing well over half of all domestic exports by value, and imported textiles from the English midlands being equally important to national revenues. Additionally, with the introduction of oceangoing steam packets in the 1840s, emigrant traffic to the United States became important to the sailing packet lines, which were losing most of their mail and first-class passenger business to the steamships.


Starting its government-subsidized packet service between Liverpool and New York in 1840, the British-owned and operated Cunard Line of paddle-wheel steamships soon dominated the transatlantic carriage of mails, financial and government communications, and first-class passengers. The Cunard Line fended off competition from both British and U.S. rivals throughout the 1840s, but in the early and middle 1850s it faced a serious challenge from the U.S. government-subsidized Collins Line, with its larger, faster, and more elegant steamships on the New York–Liverpool run. But after the Collins Line's bankruptcy in 1858 no U.S. packet line posed more than a marginal challenge to the British.

Improvements in steamship technology and operating efficiency brought an end to oceangoing sailing packet lines in the post–Civil War era. Even by the mid-1850s steamship lines had begun a low-price emigrant service to North American ports, so that by the 1860s and 1870s the once-dominant U.S. sailing packets had largely ceased operations. By the 1880s oceangoing steamship lines had extended worldwide, with scheduled service to the Far East and South America added to existing liner service to the Mediterranean, Africa, and ports throughout the Indian Ocean region. The 1869 opening of the Suez Canal greatly improved the capabilities of such liner service to the East, with the Peninsular and Orient (P&O Line central to what Robert Albion has called the "communication revolution" (Albion 1939). The 1914 opening of the Panama Canal further enhanced international liner operations.

The early twentieth century witnessed elaborate but largely unsuccessful efforts to form international combinations of steamship lines, the International Mercantile Marine Company (1902) being a notorious example. The United States government's perennial resistance to the general use of subsidy, or even nationalization of private lines as proposed in the aftermath of World War I, brought periodic efforts to support liner service by promoting private enterprise. With the general collapse of most U.S. steamship lines during the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by the effects of World War II, few steamship lines remained to meet the challenge of transoceanic flight. From the late 1950s on, long-distance passengers largely abandoned even the most luxurious steamships other than for vacation cruises. Well before this time, superior forms of communications—wireless telegraphy, telephone, and radio—had supplanted the functions historically performed by the packet boat.

SEE ALSO Books; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Harbors; Information and Communications;Liverpool;New York;Port Cities;United Kingdom;United States.


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Edward W. Sloan