The James Monroe. On a snowy morning in January 1818 a cold wind blew across the harbor of New York as Capt. James Watkinson paced the deck of the James Monroe and waited for Saint Paul’s clock to strike ten, the advertised time for the ship to pull away from its berth. The James Monroe carried only seven passengers, a shipment of apples, and a letter bag only recently hustled down from a harbor coffeehouse, a light load indeed for a ship of 424 tons. The ship’s owners, however, wanted the James Monroe to sail on time, whatever the load. Three months previously advertisements in the New York papers had announced that beginning in January 1818 the Amity, Courier, Pacific, and James Monroe would begin sailing to and from New York and Liverpool in regular succession on specified days each month throughout the year. So precisely at 10:00 Captain Watkinson ordered the ship’s crew to get her under way, and as she pulled back from the wharf a deckhand unfurled her fore-topsail painted with a large black ball, the symbol of the Black Ball Line. The nearly simultaneous sailing of the James Monroe from New York and the Courier from Liverpool inaugurated the era of the sailing packets.
Tramps and Traders. Before the start of the packet lines most of America’s foreign trade traveled in one of two categories of vessels, the transients (often referred to as “tramps”) and the regular traders. Tramps had no fixed routes or schedules and did not specialize in carrying one cargo. The captain of a tramp, who often owned the vessel as well, might carry a shipment of furniture from New York to New Orleans and then wait around for a few weeks until he picked up a boatload of cotton bales bound for Liverpool, where in turn he might get a load of metalware for Africa. Sometimes the captain bought goods himself and sold them for a profit at his destination. This wandering from port to port occasionally went on for years according to historian Robert Albion. The brig Forrester sailed from Salem, Massachusetts, in 1826 and did not return until 1828, in the meantime visiting New Orleans, New York, Cuba, Genoa, Marseilles, New York again, Hamburg, and then Saint Ubes (in Portugal). Some transients never came home, either due to accident or because the captain saw an opportunity to sell his ship for a tidy profit, leaving her in a distant port and coming home as a passenger on another vessel.
Regularity. The tramps’ unpredictability precluded them from carrying anything or anyone with a schedule to meet, especially passengers and mail. Nor could the transients compete for regular freight shipments on the major sea routes. These duties and routes fell instead to the “regular traders,” a group that included the packets. The difference between the regular traders and the packets came from the fact that the regular traders waited at their berths until an adequate cargo had been assembled, whereas the packets set sail on time no matter what. This predictability made the packets attractive to businessmen and passengers alike. Passengers who could afford the ticket prices on the regular liners no longer had to cool their heels in harbor hotels until a ship was ready to sail. Moreover, the sail packets and their steam-driven successors provided the fastest and most elegant mode of transatlantic transportation in their era. Luxury packets even carried their own “barnyards” of milk cows, sheep, pigs, and poultry, enough to supply fresh food for the five-week return trip from Liverpool to New York.
Business Advantages. For American businessmen New York’s transatlantic packet service meant more than just convenience and luxury; it could mean the difference between success and failure. For example, in the years before the transatlantic telegraph, packets returning from Britain carried a most crucial piece of news: the
current prices at the largest cotton market in the world. If a New York merchant could find out that the price of cotton in Liverpool had jumped six or ten cents over the asking price in America, he could quickly send orders by rail, express stage, coastal packet, or later, telegraph to his representatives in New Orleans, Mobile, or Savannah to be the first to buy up as much cotton as possible at the lower rate, then ship it to Liverpool to resell for an enormous profit. Bankers and commercial newspapers could also make tidy sums for being the first to receive financial news from overseas. So valuable was the news carried by the packets that New York merchants and newspapers regularly ran their own fast vessels out into the open ocean to meet the packets before they could clear Sandy Hook and head into the harbor.
Expansion. The rapid expansion of packet service after the start of the Black Ball Line attested to the importance of regular shipping as a crucial link in the international development of American commerce and communications. Within six years of the initial voyage of the James Monroe New York could boast of two more packet companies and four monthly sailings for Liverpool, two to Le Havre, and one to London, along with new coastwise lines to New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston. By 1845 there were fifty-two steam packets to Europe sailing three times a week out of New York, and steam packets ran as well from New York to the Isthmus of Panama, from Panama to Oregon, from New York to Charleston and from Charleston to Cuba. Other ports such as Baltimore and Boston tried starting their own packet lines, but New York remained the center of packet service.
Steam. In 1835 Dr. Dionysius Lardner, a popular authority on American science, predicted that “as to the project which was announced in the newspapers of making a voyage directly from New York to Liverpool by steam it was perfectly chimerical and they might as well talk of making a voyage to the moon.” Doctor Lardner had found another profession by 1838 because in the spring of that year two steamships, the Sirius and the Great Western, both made the crossing from Liverpool to New York. Though they arrived in New York on the same day, the Sirius, an older vessel, crossed in nineteen days while the Great Western, a powerful new steamship designed specifically for the Atlantic crossing, made it in fourteen and one-half days. From that year on, steam packets regularly plied the major Atlantic routes. Steam power cut crossing times by more than 60 percent and quickly made the old sailing packets obsolete. In order to drum up business many of the old sail packets switched in the 1840s to the steerage business, carrying mostly impoverished Irish and German immigrants from Liverpool and Le Havre to New York and other cities on the Atlantic seaboard.
Steerage. The 1848 revolutions in Europe and the Irish potato famine of the late 1840s sent hundreds of thousands of immigrants to America. Transporting them became a lucrative but often shameful trade, with British and American agencies competing for “steerage” or “tween decks” business, terms that referred to the parts of the ship where the immigrants were housed. Before the 1840s immigrants had booked cheap passage with whatever vessels they could find, and returning American ships were happy to fill a few unoccupied berths with paying customers. With the vast rise in immigration, however, shipping agencies found that they could contract with packet lines to fill return berths at ten dollars a head, for example, and then charge immigrants twenty dollars for the same journey. These agencies competed aggressively for passengers; one Irish immigrant remembered “there were hand bills placarded on every corner tree, and pump and public place in the city of Dublin.” The owners of the older sailing packets, no longer able to compete with steamships for other cargo, quickly latched onto the immigrant agencies and outfitted their boats for maximum occupancy. On a typical vessel the six-foot-high tween deck (between the upper deck and the cargo hold) was filled with tiers of plain wooden bunks, leaving only the narrowest of passages for walking. For the passengers privacy was nonexistent, and toilet facilities were crude. With no ventilation but an overhead hatchway, the fetid and overcrowded holds often bred disease. Regulations set minimums for food and water rations (one gallon per day for all uses), but if storms delayed the trip, food and water could run perilously short. Not all of the old sailing packets converted to the steerage business, and not all the immigrant ships were hellholes, but for those involved it was a sad final chapter for these once elegant ships.
Robert Greenhalgh Albion, The Rise of New York Port, 1815–1860 (New York: Scribners, 1939);
Albion, Square Riggers on Schedule (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1938).