On March 30, 1923 the world’s first continuous passenger cruise ship arrived back in New York City after a 130-day voyage.
This four plus-month trip was the first of its kind, on the SS Laconia, a Cunard passenger liner, chartered by the American Express Company, paved the way for the world cruises of today. It hit Japan, Singapore, Egypt and India and went through both the Suez and Panama Canals.
The ship was built to accommodate some 2,200 passengers, but American Express restricted passenger numbers to just 450. The aim was to create a luxury experience.
Two sisters, Eleanor and Claudia Phelps snapped photos and kept journals about the experience.
The Phelps sisters were from a wealthy, South Carolina-based family who’d made their fortune from a mix of flour mills, fine china, railways and politics.
Stephanie Wilds, Eleanor Phelps’ granddaughter and Claudia Phelps’ great niece told CNN,
My great grandmother was trying to introduce her daughters to proper suitors.”
Claudia and Eleanor describe some interaction with other passengers, but it’s not obvious that they were interested in meeting eligible suitors. She saw the voyage as her daughters “coming out” into society. (It meant something different then.)
Claudia’s described her first glimpse of Mount Fuji, in Japan:
Its perfect cone, snow clad, glowing a soft gold through the haze. I can imagine no lovelier view than our first one and now know why the Japanese consider it sacred.”
Eleanor wrote of India’s Taj Mahal
there are no words, no possible means of expression. Nothing could possibly do it justice and so I shan’t try.”
Great niece Stephanie Wilds says that the sisters traveled with an “open-mind”,
I appreciate their curiosity and their tolerance.
They just approached things with a very good humor, for the most part. I just think that’s just kind of wonderful. I think that’s how people ought to travel, curious, open minded, tolerant.
That’s how we ought to approach the world.”
Growing up, Wilds was close to her great aunt Claudia, whom she says upheld that attitude throughout her life and myriad travels.
She had a great sense of humor, and a fair amount of humanity – and so she was not worrying about how comfortable she was or how well she was treated.
She was really looking at the people.”
Today, when she talks about her family’s time on the Laconia, Wilds says she gets mixed reactions. Some people are fascinated by an insight into travel 100 years ago, others see the diaries and photographs as unfortunate remnants of a time when travel was mostly confined to wealthy White travelers.
It gets into sort of a class thing.
I’m always pleased that they were on the Laconia and that they had that experience and that they were able to share that legacy. And here 100 years later, we’re still talking about it.
I think that’s pretty marvelous.”
In the last page of her journal, Eleanor tried to sum up the experience, saying,
How can one come to a conclusion or express an opinion on the world as I saw it in 130 days?”
Today, the Phelps sisters’ Laconia collection is held by the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections.