While Presbrey’s is full of information regarding nautical terminology, how to read a compass, how to chart ship speed and ocean depth, it also offers information on shipboard culture so that passengers understood the routines and could avoid costly or embarrassing mistakes.
Not surprisingly, the first thing passengers were advised to do after coming on board was to “apply at once to the proper officer for a seat at the table.” From the earliest days of ocean travel, cabin-class passengers (in other words, first- or second-class passengers) were always advised to stake out their seat in the dining saloon immediately. Once a passenger was assigned a seat, it could not be changed without effort and justification. Thus, it was important to secure a seat next to friends or family, and also, to take into account the distance between the seat and the door in case a person knew that he or she suffered from sea-sickness.
Next, passengers were advised to locate the deck steward and secure a place for their steamer chairs, assuming they had reserved one when booking passage. These chairs cost roughly one US dollar rental fee. Transatlantic voyages were not known for calm seas or mild weather, and for the roughly 41 percent of first-class passengers who were willing to rent a chair, where to place it was important. In summer, when demand for steamer chairs obviously increased, port side on an eastward voyage offered the best location, and starboard side on a westward voyage.
Photo of passengers reclining in steamer chairs on a transatlantic liner, from the Nautical Gazette: An International Weekly Chronicle of Shipping. Jan., 1921
Baggage presented many challenges because staterooms were small, even for wealthy passengers, and of course space was at a premium. The more space one needed, the more one paid. First-class passengers were allowed a steamer trunk in their staterooms measuring thirteen to fourteen inches in height and four feet in length; these trunks were designed to fit under a berth.
Steamer Trunk, Montgomery Wards Catalog, 1895
Valises and parcels were also allowed in the stateroom, but one was allotted no more than 20 cubic feet of space for stateroom luggage, and if more space was required, a passenger paid for it by the cubic foot. Airline restrictions today resemble the types of restrictions steamship passengers faced then. On a steamship, a passenger’s other baggage for the overland part of the trip was placed in the hold and retrieved upon arrival at port.
Because Presbrey’s was targeted at first-class passengers, we don’t discover anything about second-class or steerage accommodations, except for the following bits of information. Servants were booked “at special rates and given special accommodation.” Except when their services were required by their employers, they were strictly relegated to the servants’ quarters. Presbrey’s did not specify where those quarters might be, but depending on the cost of the first-class passenger’s ticket, it was likely a designated area in second class or steerage. If cabin passengers wished to “visit the steerage,” they had to “secure permits from the captain.” It was common in this time period of immigration for families to split up, with women and small children travelling second or first class and men traveling steerage in order to save a great deal of money. Shipping lines understood that some passengers would have reasons for wanting to visit steerage, and hence, it was possible. Nonetheless, the fact that one was required to secure a permit from the captain suggests that the areas were not only strictly segregated, but that fraternization was not exactly encouraged. The events taking place aboard the Titanic in James Cameron’s film version of that shipwreck voyage of course hinge on breaking the rules in respect to class segregation.
Finally, the cost of the voyage beyond the actual ticket price is interesting to consider. “Epigrammatically speaking,” Presbrey’s writes, “it costs first class on an average, ten dollars per day per person by sea the world over and five dollars on land.” Factored into ocean travel had to be tips. Presbrey’s recommended the following: Table stewards were customarily tipped $2.50 for each person, room stewards expected $2.50-$4.00 depending on how many occupants, deck stewards should be tipped $1.00 if his services were considered “valuable,” stewardesses (if a lady required a stewardess’s assistance) no more than $1.50, bathroom stewards .25 per bath, the Chief Steward, if his services had been required for a special need, $2.50 and up, and smoking room fees and fees for the ship’s band or orchestra were based on the passenger’s discretion. The total budget then, for tips, amounted to $6.00-10.00 per person, to be given to the appropriate staff at the end of the voyage, just as passengers aboard cruise ships today are asked to save their tips for the end of the voyage as well.
Guidebooks such as Presbrey's are somewhat hard to come by, but they offer historians the same access to rules and customs that they offered the first-time travelers at whom they were originally aimed.