The History of Cruise Ships

When did the first cruise ships hit the waters? What caused a hit to the cruise ship industry in the early 1900s? Find out everything.

The History of Cruise Ships

Pinpointing exactly when shipping for pleasure is nigh on impossible. For centuries, people have been traveling for pleasure. It hasn't always necessarily been comfortable, but we are positive that they liked their ultimate destination. So, we aren't going to tell you about that early pleasure travel. We are pretty sure even historians cannot trace back that far.

What we will tell you about, however, is the advent of the modern cruise ship. Although, to be honest, there is some debate about when that exactly started too. Some will argue that cruise ships didn't appear until the 1900s, while others will say that cruising properly started in the 1800s. We are going to try and cover as much cruise ship history as possible, but we apologize if our idea of history doesn't match up with yours.

SS Savannah

The SS Savannah is not a cruise ship. We are going to agree with you there 100%. If anybody claims it is a cruise ship, then they are wrong. However, it did play a vital role in the rise of the cruise ship industry.

The SS Savannah was a steam-powered ship that also had sails (it could switch between power, depending on needs). Up until the early 1800s, traveling long distances on a ship was a slow and laborious process. Most people didn't do it.

Some bright spark that owned the SS Savannah decided that this should change, so the SS Savannah made the trip across the Atlantic using a combo of wind and steam power. It wasn't a comfortable ride, but it showed people that the trip could be made in good time...and this is when passenger travel began.

Cruising In The 1800s

In the 1800s, Cunard, P;O, and the Holland America Line were ferrying passengers around at blistering speeds, mostly as immigrants into the Americas.

We are hesitant to say that this was proper cruising. It wasn't. Traveling on those ships probably wasn't that pleasurable. However, it was clear that the various shipping companies were transitioning more into ferrying passengers around. The bulk of these boats was still for freight and mail, but the companies really had to put a bit of effort into ensuring that their passengers were comfortable. It was the early days of cruising.

Somewhere in the background, the largest shipping company in the world (HAPAG) was going through a transition in terms of management. Albert Ballin was starting to take the helm of the company (in 1886), and he realized that while his company was making bucketloads of cash in shipping products around the world, there was a whole lot more money to make in the world of passenger shipping.

Albert Ballin quickly converted some of his freight ships into cruise ships. This means ships that were built purely for passengers. No freight. No mail. Just a pleasurable experience for those that wanted to travel long distances. While these were the original proper cruise ships, they were still freighters at heart...then the 1900s rolled around.

The Advent Of The Purpose-Built Cruise Ship

Albert Ballin saw that people wanted a good travel experience, and he had the best idea ever (at least for those that love cruise ships). He decided that his retrofitted cruise ships were doing a great job, but he wanted something more comfortable. He wanted a purpose-built cruise ship. This resulted in the creation of the Prinzessin Victoria Luise. This was launched in 1901.

All of the 'cruise' ships to come before had a dual purpose. While companies like P;O were investing heavily in ensuring that the customer experience was still brilliant and creating amazing ships with working electric lights, however, the customers were still being bundled next to other goods and, unless those goods were traveling to a destination the passenger wanted to be at, the passenger was stuck.

The Prinzessin Victoria Luise was not built for any of that. It was built from the ground up, purely for passengers. It had all the bells ; whistles. Countless staterooms. Shops. Entertainment. Food. Excursions at various destinations. The works. It was comfortable and very close to modern cruising.

Unfortunately, the boat sank about 6-years after it launched. However, the ship had made its mark on the industry. Companies were now realizing that there probably was a market for these purpose-built ships.

The Titanic

Enter, The Titanic. We are sure that you have all heard the story of The Titanic, right? It hits an iceberg. It sinks. Around 90 years later, James Cameron decides to make a film, with rousing success.

At the time, The Titanic was the largest passenger ship on the water. It shows that the world of cruise ships was on the up. Companies (including The White Star Line) were working overtime to create the most luxurious experience possible and, until it ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, The Titanic was the most luxurious ship imaginable.

Even if The Titanic didn't enter a watery grave, it would still go down in history as marking a turning point in the world of cruise ships. Around the same time, luxury liners such as The Majestic and The Teutonic (both from White Star Line) and Campania (Cunard) started to appear. Companies were starting to outdo each other. But then something in the industry changed.

The Decline Of Cruising

The sinking of The Titanic was a huge deal in the industry. In people's minds, a ship that was billed as unsinkable shouldn't really sink. In fact, cruise ships probably shouldn't sink anyway. As a result, a lot of people have now been put off the idea of cruising. The industry was in tatters. But, with what was just around the would be torn to shreds.

Enter, World War I. Cruising was out of the question. All those cruise ships were fitted into warships, and most of them ended up being sunk. Same during World War II.

Did the industry recover? Nope. It didn't have the opportunity to. By the 1960s, transatlantic flight was now a thing, and this meant people don't need cruise ships. They want planes.

The industry has never recovered from this...although, companies are doing their best.

The Rise Of The Cruise Megaship

After the 1960s, the ocean liner cruise ship wasn't going to work. Sure, it was going to get you where you wanted in style, but most people would have preferred to fly. This killed off many cruise ship companies. Although, some decided to stick around in the industry. They had an idea.

Rather than compete with transatlantic flights (and other long-haul flights), they wanted to cruise to be an experience. They wanted cruise ships to be epic hotels on the sea. A vacation in itself. These ships would hold thousands of passengers at a time.

Sovereign Class cruise ships were the first big hint that the world of cruise ships was changing. After that, things got bigger. We had the Vista class cruise ships and, more recently, the Freedom-class from Royal Caribbean.

Ocean liners have pretty much died off at this point, with the mega ships being the big deal in the world of cruising. The only one that really survives now is the Queen Elizabeth II, operated by Cunard, although she is now a floating hotel in Dubai.

The Future Of Cruising

It is hard to predict the way that cruising is going to go. The pandemic caused a massive hit to the cruise ship industry. However, for the past 20 years, we have been seeing 9 new mega-ships enter service every single year, so we don't expect things to come to a grinding halt in the near future. What you can expect, however, is ships to get bigger. Boast more luxury. That is the way that the cruise ship industry has gone for well over a century, and we really, really do not see it changing now.