Crossing on SS Normandie: Paris to New York Between the Wars

The Ship
Art Deco and Cities
The Package


The Sea Travel Guide to Life Aboard a Luxury Liner
by Cristina Vignone

Guidebooks have been a staple of the mainstream tourist experience since the advent of travel abroad beginning in the late 18th century. Many of these handbooks were at first written by travelers themselves and were dedicated to the itinerated travel of predominantly young European men embarking on Grand Tours of their continent. However, a number of historical, cultural and economic factors eventually allowed people from various social strata to travel abroad. In the mid-1800s in Europe, industrialization and all of the changes it wrought, including economic dependence on manufacturing instead of agriculture, distribution of wealth more evenly among classes and improvements in the means of transportation, introduced the possibility of leisure travel to classes previously unable to enjoy it.

In the post-Civil War atmosphere, moreover, many wealthy North Americans fell into step with their European counterparts and looked externally to Europe, Asia and Africa for leisure travel opportunities.1 The lands to which these travelers ventured as well as the people and customs they would encounter were often unknown and intimidating. Guidebooks became the vehicles through which experienced traveler-authors directly instructed readers on the places and sites to visit while also informing first time travelers on the cultures and habits of foreigners.2 As ocean liner travel in the 19th and 20th centuries became more and more popular, however, guidebooks would also have to focus on initiating the common traveler into temporary life at sea.

In the age of the Grand Tours of Europe, from the 1600s to the 1800s, guidebooks serviced the needs of the dominantly male, educated youths venturing across Europe purportedly to supplement their education. During their travels – by steamship if it were necessary to cross a body of water and then by a coach and horses on land – these travelers had ample time to familiarize themselves with the things and places they should see and do as recommended by guidebooks. This kind of literature focused predominantly on the famous historical or cultural sites of importance that should be visited and often included essays, diaries and accounts written by previous travelers.3

Some of these travel guides, such as Thomas Nugent's letter series or his lengthy book The Grand Tour published in the 1750s, offered endless trip reviews, advice and even moral support. Travel plans in such guidebooks were generally loose in structure; writers like Nugent merely suggested the most well-known cities and sites to visit. In introducing one of the four volumes of his book, for example, Nugent explains that he has included “directions relating to the manner and expense of traveling from one place and country to another.”4 The young men on these Grand Tours were able to enjoy the freedoms that unlimited wealth, power and social connections offered them. A stay in any one country could last anywhere from months to years and as most of the young men traveled largely unsupervised (except for the occasional tutor and servants), they could easily stray from their liberally itinerated course. It was, furthermore, very common for these young men to ally themselves with their elite foreign counterparts, thereby immersing themselves in new cultures and attitudes. Such travelers were ultimately liberated by their life situations to gallivant quite freely across the continent.5

The new class of travelers in post-industrial Europe and post-Civil War America, however, did not have the luxury of unlimited budgets and time for their tours. Most of these travelers were families interested in time and cost efficient travel abroad, especially as such experiences were often once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.6 Makers of guidebooks, therefore, needed to respond to these demands in the production of more streamlined, to the point handbooks stripped of superfluity: “the modern travel guide made its first appearance, with its lists of sightseeing attractions and its detailed, point-by-point descriptions of routes, methods of transport, and accommodations.”7

By the 1850s, companies dedicated to marketing tours and selling guidebooks were born. Thomas Cook's Leicester-based travel business, for example, distributed handwritten pamphlets for his itinerated Cook's Tours of the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as his later “around the world” and United States tours.8 (Fig. 1) John Murray III, the head of a publishing house in London, produced “Murray Handbooks” dedicated to guiding world travelers.9 (Fig. 2) The most famous travel guide publishers, the German Baedeker company, monopolized the creation and distribution of travel handbooks, eventually becoming “the international generic term for the tourists' guidebooks.”10 (Fig. 3) (Fig. 4) By the 20th century, guidebooks were necessary tools of travel and tourists depended on them for instruction on what to see and do while abroad.

This is the time in which leisure travel on ocean liners and the subsequent specialized guidebooks dedicated to adapting to and enjoying life at sea are introduced. Such guidebooks continued to offer suggestions and advice on the places and things to see while ashore in foreign lands, but handbooks created in the period between the turn of the 19th century and the second World War, often considered the golden age of ocean liner luxury travel, had to also center on instructing prospective sea travelers about the experiences they might have while at sea.11 Roydon Freeman's relatively small-sized and 186-page book Sea Travel: the Humorous Side and the Serious Side is perhaps the best example of this kind of literature. Freeman's 1936 guidebook is unique in that it pertains solely to sea travel and speaks secondarily and rather briefly about onshore experiences. Furthermore, his guidebook demonstrates that in the 20th century travel literature was primarily informative and instructive, aimed at teaching new or uninformed travelers how to cope with life away from home.

Sea Travel addresses the unique experience of a leisure voyage on an ocean liner, which for many travelers was the most popular and affordable but no less new and intimidating mode of travel.12 Freeman's guide, one reflective of his experience as a traveler,13 prepares readers for sea journeys while at the same time prescribing strong social and behavioral directives to ensure a pleasant voyage. He assures his readers quite frequently in the text that they will not be unsatisfied with their sea travels if they follow his advice and suggestions. For readers today, racist, sexist and xenophobic comments may detract from the importance that his book signifies for the history of guidebooks. But they also offer a direct view into the pervasive attitudes of Freeman's world, in which these observations about one's own society and foreigners were commonplace. Sea Travel nevertheless remains a perfect example of guidebooks as social instructors, literature completely connected to and reflective of the golden age of ocean liner travel. A look into the guidebook itself will provide a better understanding of the extent to which passive words on paper could influence the attitudes and actions of travelers. (Fig. 5)

Freeman is at first concerned with introducing first-time or uninformed passengers to the “Serious Side” of sea travel, including general facts about ships, extensive nautical terminology, rules regarding docking at ports and navigation technicalities. Much of what he includes in his guidebook can be factually substantiated by other sources from the age of ocean liner travel. While the complex and unfamiliar ideas he includes could potentially confuse first-time sea travelers, Freeman keeps his readers in mind and consistently organizes potentially confounding information into clear, readable lists or short, concise paragraphs. He puts special focus on the technical aspects of ocean liner travel such as the sizes, speeds, tonnage and cost of certain ships and even includes a quick tutorial on the unit of speed measurement at sea, the knot.14 With these techniques, Freeman begins to gradually teach his readers and initiate them into the world of sea travel.

In an effort to avoid boring his readers, Freeman also includes more personal aspects of ocean liner travel, including discussions of the crew and ship. He discusses at length the staff of the boat, including ways to recognize specific crew members by descriptions of their uniforms as well as their duties and salaries. He gives readers additional advice on packing and tipping as well as explanations of the sorting process for baggage and the restocking of food and supplies.15 Some further sections are devoted to practical information, such as the basic layout of any ship and the engine, cargo and propellor locations that should be considered when choosing a cabin. His explanation of the funnels and flags by which liners can be identified according to country and company puts a slightly nationalistic spin on his writing.16

Freeman clearly considered the serious, technical information valuable for the ocean liner traveler. It is likely that his book would be read before passengers embarked on their journey and he therefore includes the very things that would confound passengers if encountered for the first time while at sea. He also seems to intentionally make all of his information accessible to the common traveler, including a charts of watch and time regulations for the crew and divisions of their rank, and repeatedly assures his readers that a temporary stay on a ship, as opposed to timeworn travel on land, is a positive and incredibly exciting experience.17 His constant tips and advice, moreover, suggest that Freeman wants his readers to enjoy their travels without complication. His motives, however, are unquestionably self-serving as well-informed passengers who cited Freeman's book would be celebrating his vast knowledge and travel experience as well as simultaneously publicizing his guidebook.

Freeman suggests that a number of specific issues should be dealt with at the beginning of one's journey to ensure that the voyage is an enjoyable one. He advocates for a bold and brave traveler, one willing to take immediate charge of his or her situation. One of his first instructions is directed at the single traveler. Freeman explicitly suggests following his tips on picking a cabin – “the most desirable spot is the front half of the middle of the ship” – and a cabin-mate – “enquire at the shipping company's office as to what sort of people have already booked singe berths in the double cabins. . . [and] take your choice.”18 He also stresses the importance of a pleasant dinner party and recommends that his readers embark on a kind of manhunt to actively survey and speak with the passengers onboard before taking the initiative in setting up a table party with the chief steward: “Even if you get some rebuffs, it won't matter. If you persevere in your hunting, the net result will be a jollier. . . table-full than if you left it to chance.”19

Further social instruction is explored more fully in Freeman's behavioral suggestions, all of which he includes in the “Funny Side” of sea travel. As he suggests in his “Landlubber's Guide,” passengers on ocean liners must learn to fully adapt to life temporarily at sea. For Freeman, this encompasses everything from learning how to blend in with other well-informed travelers to speaking as the crew of the ship would. He reminds readers, for example, that they should say “in a ship” instead of “on a ship" and use memory devices when necessary to correctly use nautical terminology.20 His most obvious example refers to remembering the names for the sides of ships: "in the alphabet R is next to S, so right is starboard and left is port." Somewhat condescendingly, Freeman calls attention to the "complete landlubbers" and mocks them with an all too brief run-through of nautical terms necessary to survive a brief stay at sea. He also speaks of his personal enjoyment of costume parties and mixer events used to introduce passengers.21

Freeman includes strong suggestions for the attitude that must be adopted by travelers at sea in order to ensure a pleasurable stay. He especially recommends that his readers adopt a healthy outlook toward humor while on board: “at sea, even more than on dry land, it is essential to try to see the joke of things.”22 He admits that one of his favorite pastimes at sea is to make a game out of attempting to discern the nationalities of passengers, a direct view into the xenophobic atmosphere of travel in the 1930s. Freeman even provides readers with some remarkably insulting clues: the English travelers wear tailored clothing, drink whiskey and soda, and are self-controlled while the Swedes and Danes are unemotional, stiff, and drink spirits and the Americans wear unflattering clothes, demand ice water and are openly flirtatious.23    

Freeman also includes a highly sexist study of international women, evaluating their overall attractiveness and comportment according to nationality.24 Finally, he suggests making light of seasickness; according to Freeman, seeing the humorous side of another person's discomfort is not generally acceptable behavior for civilized white people but comes naturally to humans, as it is common among the “primitive” and “native” people of Africa and Asia.25 All of these comments are reflections of a highly nationalistic, sexist and xenophobic time in which people from all over the world traveled together in close contact on one ship whose final destination was a foreign land. Their initiation into this “otherness” therefore began as soon as they embarked.

Freeman further encourages his readers to take the initiative in dealing with social situations and suggesting games or activities while on board. As frequent talk among the numerous passengers on a long voyage is common, for example, he advises readers to create a pocket-sized chart of funny stories or comments with a corresponding section dedicated to keeping track of what passengers were told which story. In the absence of real entertainment (with the exception of common “ship games”),26 Freeman recommends setting up treasure hunts and gives an extensive discussion of rules and procedures to ensure that the travelers know how to accurately and fairly participate.27

For more solitary sea travelers, Freeman suggests taking walks on the promenade or visiting the ship's library. Certain that ocean liner travelers will only be interested in sea-themed books while onboard – “while you yourself are on the sea, you will probably most enjoy reading books which tell tales of the seafaring life”28 – Freeman includes a two-page long list of books revolving around ocean travel and adventure, including A Passage to India and Moby Dick. (Fig. 6) Freeman's health and exercise directives are also included in this discussion. In addition to suggesting a number of doctor recommended medicinal doses to be taken before his readers' voyage,29 Freeman advises those prone to seasickness to follow a strict diet and behavioral regimen he has devised. For those feeling nauseous, for example, he stresses eating only fruit and nuts at breakfast and lunch and a heavy meal at dinner, after which it is considered acceptable to retire to one's cabin.30

Those seasick passengers in search of fresh air on the deck are reminded that the lee side is less windswept than the windward side and more hospitable to a queasy traveler. For a healthy and enjoyable voyage, moreover, Freeman strongly suggests curbing one's eating habits – he mocks the lack of self-control of “Scotsmen who feel they must eat their money's worth”31 – as well as a number of exercises he has devised. He describes the exercises in detail, including cabin-confined ones for shy passengers and workouts in on-board gymnasiums or special exercises with chairs on the deck for those willing to exert themselves physically in public. He reminds his readers that physical activity, especially while living on the floating world of an ocean liner, is incredibly important: “it is a pity to overlook that very wise old saying, 'Sweat to be happy.'”32

Freeman ends his guidebook in a particularly humorous way, providing his readers with short anecdotes and jokes all related to sea travel. The little narratives bridge the gap between permanent life on land and temporary stays at sea, helping readers gradually adjust to their travels.33 Much like the rest of his manual, many of the anecdotes address common misconceptions about sea travel or foolish comments made by landlubbers in response to stays on a boat. They reflect Freeman's intention to make prospective travelers comfortable with ocean liner travel as well as his desire for readers to make unintelligent mistakes before disembarking, so as not to appear mindless while on board. By providing travelers with a reference guide for nearly every possible occurrence, Freeman is both protecting his readers from ridicule and ensuring that their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will be an ultimately satisfying and enjoyable experience.

Sea Travel is a unique guidebook that encapsulates the distinct experience of temporary life on an ocean liner. As Freeman recognizes, a number of things are remarkable about this form of leisure travel. In terms of space, sea travelers are confined to the ship, often in terribly close proximity with other foreign passengers. The voyage, moreover, had a definite expiration date and much of the therefore time-restricted experience was dependent on successful interactions with other passengers and the crew. Furthermore, if travelers did not assert themselves and take the initiative, they risked ruining their trip by being placed into potentially uncomfortable situations. Guidebooks dedicated to this kind of travel, unique to the experience of the ocean liner, would not therefore be concerned with covering the places or sites that ought to be seen, as Rudy Koshar points out in his discussion of European travelers during the age of Grand Tours.34 Suggestions for experiences on land would become secondary to advice on planning for trips or tips on surviving interactions with foreign people and situations. Prospective travelers would unquestionably depend on this specialized guidance to enhance their voyage experiences. As Freeman asserts with Sea Travel, only a guidebook dedicated to sea travel of the 20th century would be able to respond effectively to all of these issues.


1Mark Rennella and Whitney Walton, “Planned Serendipity: American Travelers and the Transatlantic Voyage in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Journal of Social History 38 (2004), 365-66. For a more extensive discussion of these economic and social changes, see Lynne Withey, Grand Tours and Cook's Tours: A History of Leisure Travel 1750 to 1915, (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997), 63-74.
2 Rudy Koshar, “What Ought to Be Seen: Tourists' Guidebooks and National Identities in Modern Germany and Europe,” Journal of Contemporary History 33 (1998): 326. According to Koshar, “The idea was not to bewilder the reader/traveller or to introduce the potential for a multiplicity of meanings while viewing particular touristic sites. The uncertainties of travel and the possibility of semiotic static were to the guidebooks' clarity, precision and 'scientific' accuracy.'”
3 Withey, 9.
4 Thomas Nugent, The Grand Tour Volume 4, (London: Ganesha Publishing, 2004), i. For a quick examination of Nugent's The Grand Tour, see Withey's discussion of the guidebook, including its suggestions on countries to visit as well as descriptions of foreign cities, people and any cultural attitudes or practices of which travelers should be aware, 7.
5 For more information, see Withey's lengthy discussion of common Grand Tour travel plans and routines, 3-31.
6 Koshar, 334.
7 Withey, 69.
8 Jack Simmons, “Thomas Cook of Leicester,” Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society 49 (1973-4): 25. For a summary of two examples of Cook's “handbooks,” one documenting a train trip from Leicester, England to Edinburgh, Scotland in 1846 and the other documenting a coach excursion within Leicester to Belvoir Castle in 1848, as well as the dual nature (to aid travelers and publicize his tours) of the “handbooks,” see Simmons' article, 25-26.
9 Withey, 72-73.
10 Simmons, 330.
11 Lorraine Coons and Alexander Varias, Tourist Third Cabin: Steamship Travel in the Interwar Years, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 2-3.
12 As Rennella and Walton attest, passengers could travel fairly cheaply on the earliest steamships. In the 1890s, the cost of a round-trip voyage from America to Europe could cost anywhere between ?7 and ?8 ($31.50 to $36.00) which was the approximate cost of a bicycle at the time. Furthermore, it was very likely that a large portion of the population could afford to save that amount of money. For more, see Rennella and Watson, 368.
13 On the title page of Sea Travel: the Humorous Side and the Serious Side, his name is listed with a reference to his other travel-themed book: “Roydon Freeman (Author of 'Explaining Europe').”
14 Roydon Freeman, Sea Travel: the Humorous Side and the Serious Side, (London: St. Catherine Press, 1930), 36-48. Due to the paucity of research on Freeman's sea travel guide, there will periodic references to other works regarding the subject. In this case, a June 28, 1932 article from the American Export Lines archives similarly defines the various types of tonnage used in shipping. For a more thorough description, see Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives, “Ship Tonnage Explained - Deadweight, Cargo, Gross, Net, Displacement,”
15 Freeman, 48. For a further discussion on how nationalistic fervor colored transatlantic travel in the 1920s and 30s, see Coons and Varias, Chapter 5, “Projecting An Image: The Allure of Transatlantic Travel.” It is worth noting that from its iconic Art Deco poster as well as in color photographs and depictions, the Normandie's three funnels were red at the bottom and black at the top and, as a Compagnie Générale Transatlantique ship, its national flag was the French Drapeau tricolore.
16 Freeman, 7-10. For comparison purposes, see the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives's article containing the food supplies list for a steamship of the 1890s. Also of interest is a sample menu and dinner program for first class passengers. See Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives, “Ocean Passenger Travel - Provisions and Meals on an 1890s Ocean Liner,” For a closer look at the crew of transatlantic ships, reference Coons and Varias' Chapter 3, “'The Soul of a Ship: Experience and Life of 'Below Deck' Personnel.” Much of what Freeman discusses in Sea Travel, such as his advice on tipping and his description of the crews of ocean liners, can be factually supported by Coons and Varias.
17 Almost every one of the chapters in Sea Travel opens with a section dedicated to urging sea travelers to have a positive attitude toward their voyage. The first page of the first chapter, for example, opens with this paragraph: “Some people look on a voyage as a penance or term of imprisonment unavoidable by those who wish to get from one part of the world to another. They try to survive the days on board by drowning their sorrows in drink, bridge, or light literature, any of which rots the brain if indulged in to excess.”
18 Freeman, 1-3.
19 Freeman, 4.
20 Freeman, 47.
21 Freeman, 46-47 Freeman defines everything from a bow and stern as well as the location of foremasts and holds for cargo.
22 Freeman, 48.
23 Freeman, 25. Though by modern standards Freeman's comments are considered xenophobic and insulting, observing the manners and habits of foreigners while on one's travels in the 19th and 20th centuries was quite common. As Rennella and Walton mention in their article, travelers on transatlantic voyages experienced various foreign people, cultures, foods and social practices. As a result, transatlantic travel became an opportunity for both foreign exploration and self-reflective examination.
24 Freeman, 23-24.
25 Freeman, 49. In her dissertation “Incidental Tourists: Vernacular Photo-Travel Books, 1900-1940,” Rachel Snow discusses how colonialism and imperialism contributed to the incredibly racist outlooks of European and American tourists abroad. While Snow explores the extent to which racism and xenophobia are translated visually, Freeman provides the textual counterpart.
26 See Freeman, 167-171 for the rules of the standard ocean liner games of deck tennis, quoits, deck croquet, deck golf and “bean bags.”
27 Freeman, 75. This particular discussion of treasure hunts is highly gendered, as Freeman suggests couples should each be made of a male and female member to “economise [sic] in the number of clue-papers and partly because they will get better fun out of it that way.”
28 Freeman, 82-83.  The list is divided into five sections: “Books about modern liners,” “Books about present-day sea travels and adventures,”  “True stories of wrecks and pirates in the old days,” “Reminisces,” and novels.
29 Freeman, 160. According to Freeman, doctors advise “15 grains of bromide of potassium taken three times daily for 48 hours before the voyage” or “five grains of chloretone.” Both doses will help to decrease the likelihood of seasickness and Freeman suggests ingesting them again while on the boat “at two-hour intervals but not more than 4 times in a day” if nausea continues.
30 Freeman, 160-161.
31 Freeman, 162.
32 Freeman, 162.
33 Freeman, 172. See all of Chapter 12, “Anecdotes of Sea-Travel” for a list of over 80 anecdotes.
34 Koshar, 5.

    The Team