Exploring the lore of passenger steamships

Singapore Airlines and TWA announced rather quietly the other day they are introducing a joint around-the-world fare of $1,599 economy, $2,499 first class. I don't know how many travelers have the time for such an odyssey, and of course there are restrictions (the first leg must be reserved 21 days ahead), but on paper at least, the offer was enough to send my heart winging on the next TWA 747 to Paris, and on, and on.

If you wonder how airlines based in the Middle West and Far East could get together on a globe-circling schedule, the answer is that their routes connect neatly on the West Coast in one direction and in Paris, Athens, and Rome in the other. Pan Am, which circles the world all by itself, has a similar offer starting at $1,119, economy standby. While my heart was halfway to Mandalay, my feet were rooted to the floor of Manhattan's 42nd Street Library where I was confined to quarters doing a research project. But I found time for some vicarious voyaging in the annals of round-the-world travel.

I was not so much interested in the pioneers in the field such as Magellan or Drake or Phileas Fogg as in the ordinary travelers of 50 to 75 years ago who saw the world before airplanes, drip-dry polyester shirts, and air-conditioned hotel towers changed our traveling habits forever.

In a 1913 book, "The Critic in the Orient," George Hamlin Fitch advised round-the-world trippers in an appendix to buy their tickets from Thomas Cook. Price: $639.10 (which evidently covered all expenses including the rail trip to the point of steamship embarkation). Mr. Fitch praised Cook for its far-flung network of banks and offices and its guided tours, which he declared "absolutely necessary" in India, the Orient, and Egypt, but he warned against accepting Cook's automatic recommendation of that other British travel institution, the P&O liner.

P&O (which I was surprised to learn stood for, and still stands for, Peninsular & Oriental and not Pacific and Orient) was the traditional British link with the distant Empire, with that mysterious world Kipling called "East of Suez." According to Mr. Fitch, however, "all tourists say that North German Lloyd steamers give the best service."

Ship passengers were advised to get a room on the starboard or port side according to the prevailing wind and to see the bath steward on boarding to select an hour for the morning bath. "Should you neglect this, you will be forced to rise very early or to bathe at night."

Albert Bushnell Hart in "The Obvious Orient" published in 1911 was even harsher with P&O, calling its ships chilly and pretentious. He said the company's "handbook is one of the wonders of the tourist world -- a collection of 'don'ts': Don't ask for electric fans; don't try to pay your chits in anything but English currency." On the more relaxed North German Lloyd, it was permissable to drag one's mattress on deck on hot tropical nights. So informal was the dress code that men were seen on deck at 7 a.m. in "sleeping suits, pajamas, and Japanese heelless slippers, some in Malay trousers of a pink-struck-by-lightning color, or in sarong and bare feet." Thus attired, they sat in steamer chairs greetng the new day, but were expected to don trousers "after the ladies began to circulate."

Meanwhile, my travels took me no farther afield than the library's 43rd Street Annex, which has a treasure trove of old travel literature -- and which happens to be only a block from the Hudson River piers where so many of those round the world voyages began and ended. At the annex I found a series of travel guides published by the English journal Queen. One from the mid-1920s advised globe-trotters -- the term then in use for long-distance travelers -- on what clothing to pack:

"A winter overcoat, rug, and mackintosh are very useful articles, especially on the Northern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Flannel underwear, white drill suits, sun helmets, white canvas shoes can be obtained all over the East, from Port Said to Yokohama, at considerably less cost than in Europe. The less baggage taken the better. Guide books to the different countries can be bought in every Eastern port; books of travel will found in the steamer libraries. Strong, small wooden trunks with case locks, something like the American steamer trunks, should be used."

Egypt, India, China, and Japan were the obligatory destinations, but the Queen guide scolded travelers for pursuing this "narrowly limited track" and for trying to complete the trip in several hurried months. "Under no circumstances should the duration of the entire trip be less than six months, nor could it very well be extended to eight or nine months without serious inconvenience" caused by seasonal changes.

Travelers stopping in Singapore, said the guide, too often pass up side trips to Java and Siam (now Thailand). "A trip to Java can easily be accomplished within two or three weeks, and hardly anywhere else will tropical vegetation, magnificent scenery, active volcanoes, and an original and picturesque race be seen to such perfection."

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