Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Photo Archives Spotlight: Shipboard Life on a Merchant Steamship

(by L. Bianchi, Project Archivist)

Black-and-white negative, 4 x 5 inches. Alexander Ryan is standing looking at the camera with his hands behind his back in his crew uniform on the deck of a ship, possibly Manoa (built 1913; merchant vessel).
Alexander Ryan
(P77-003 Ser. 1.3 File 3 Item 85)
Although photographs of ships seen underway from a distance can be nice, sometimes you might find yourself wishing you could zoom in to see what sort of mischief (if any) the crew and passengers are getting into on board. The Alexander Ryan Photographs recently processed by the Historic Documents Department staff here at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park provide a peek into this world. The collection contains 307 images mostly split between glass plate and nitrate film negatives, the bulk of which was likely photographed by Ryan between 1900-1920. Besides cargo, merchant ships carried crews and passengers. Alongside the regular work, shipboard life was filled with activities to combat the boredom of a long passage--games and costumes were common along with the occasional shoreside excursions.

A web link to the Alexander Ryan photographs guide with more information about this collection including content, arrangement, histories and access.
Click for Collection Guide
Alexander Ryan photographs, circa 1895-1926. Collection No. P77-003 (SAFR 23353)

Black-and-white negative, 4 x 5 inches. Men are at work on the propeller of Manoa (built 1913; merchant vessel) while in drydock at Hunters Point, San Francisco, California. A young boy is seated on the scaffolding. A man, possibly a ship officer, is seated at the base of the scaffolding and looking at the camera.
Manoa in drydock. (P77-003 Ser. 1.3 File 1 Item 26)
Alexander Ryan (1871-1964) served as chief engineer aboard steamships operated by various shipping companies, including American-Hawaiian Steamship Company, Oceanic Steamship Company, and Matson Navigation Company. The photographs depict his travels aboard various merchant steamships including Californian (built 1900; cargo vessel), Lurline (built 1908; merchant vessel), and Manoa (built 1913; merchant vessel). Among the collection you'll find photographs of vessels in drydock, decks awash from heavy weather, and glimpses inside engine rooms. The collection also contains views of other miscellaneous sailing, steam, and naval vessels, and as well as views of coastlines, waterfronts, and scenery ashore in San Francisco, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. One group of 8 photographs depicts views of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition waterfront in 1915 as seen from the San Francisco Bay.

But have you ever wondered, "What did women do during long, monotonous ocean voyages? Did they stay in their cabins and knit?" Well, if they're anything like the ladies photographed in this collection, they cross-dressed! In this collection you'll discover women in borrowed officer's hats, and sometimes full uniforms, posing with crew members. One particularly brave woman is photographed climbing a mast with the assistance of a crew member during her voyage aboard Lurline. Another woman wearing the captain's uniform fully embraced her new look by adding a fake mustache and goatee to her ensemble while aboard Manoa.

Black-and-white negative, 4 x 5 inches. Woman dressed in a ship captain’s uniform wearing a fake mustache and goatee and leaning against the binnacle on the Manoa’s (built 1913; merchant vessel) deck.
She’s no landlubber. (P77-003 Ser. 1.3 File 3 Item 6)
And there are plenty of men sporting mustaches as well.

Black-and-white glass plate negative, 4 x 5 inches. Crew portrait of sixteen men seated and standing on an unidentified steamship’s deck. All but 3 have mustaches.
‘Staches galore. (P77-003 Ser. 1.4 File 3 Item 284)
Yet being a chief engineer requires more than just posing for photographs with passengers or letting women try on your uniform. For those interested in the more technical side of engineering, the Maritime Library holds a book formerly in the possession of Alexander Ryan on the construction of the steamship Maui titled Specifications for building a steel twin-screw geared turbine passenger and freight steamer to three-deck rule, hull No. 127, November 18, 1915. Built by Union Iron Works Company, San Francisco.

Make an appointment to take a closer look at Alexander Ryan’s photographs documenting early 20th century merchant steamship travel. Peruse the collection guides on the Online Archive of California to explore more, and know our reference staff is here to help in person.

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