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Packet Vs. Clipper

May 2024
1min read

In the article in your April/May issue on the merchant marine by Robert UhI, there are three points that I believe give a false picture. Mr. UhI has characterized the packet-ship era by the features of its decadent years after about 1840, when steam was beginning to threaten the cream of the business and the packet ship had to turn to the immigrant and other less desirable trades. From 1816 to about 1840 the packets carried very profitably the cream of the Atlantic trade. They were the luxury liners of their day. Fortunes were being made in the shipping business, and the training to become a merchant was either in the countinghouse or at sea. The shipmasters were the finest and they carried in their crews promising young men working their way up. Of course there was some trash among the crews, but it did not predominate until after about 1840. During this period American seamen were the highest paid in the world, but they earned their money and did the best job.

The suggestion that the shipping fortunes were made by the clipper ships is misleading. While a few made some highly profitable voyages during the five-year-long clipper-ship era, they were generally not good money-makers after the gold rush was over. Other vessels before, during, and after the clipper-ship era were more profitable.

A serious omission is proper mention of the coastal trades. Especially after the Civil War, this is where most of the merchant marine operated. Not only were most ships in these trades, but many were the finest of vessels—for instance, those operated during the 1920s and 1930s by such lines as Grace, Matson, Panama Pacific, Eastern Steamship, et cetera.

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