ACL container ship ATLANTIC CAUSEWAY on New York Harbor with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background. Photo from the SSHSA Archives.

The maritime industry is one of the main drivers of globalization and trade with ninety percent (90%) of all consumer goods having spent a portion of their journey on board a ship. These cargo vessels can move goods around the world safely, more efficiently, and with a lower environmental impact than other modes of transportation.

The transition from sail to steam in the nineteenth century had a dramatic impact on ocean transportation. The steamship shortened the trip from Europe to the United States from a few months to a few weeks, significantly impacting international trade. New types of cargo could now be carried safely and profitably. Steamships also had a greater degree of control while moving in and out of ports, which allowed for multiple stops before making the ocean transit.

The emigrant trade profited everyone involved. Emigrants got a second chance at life. Steamship companies filled their ships. And the United States gained an influx of people desperately needing and willing to work. The highly competitive business forced down prices and made it necessary to increase the number of passengers on ships. This also meant increasing the size of ships. The average size of a passenger ship jumped by 3,000 tons every decade. While some of the space was used for luxuries like libraries and smoking rooms for wealthier travelers, most went to increasing the number of steerage passengers, which was more profitable than carrying cabin-class passengers.

Glass plate image of workers unloading cargo, SSHSA Archives.

With the end of the Civil War, restrictions were lifted on navigation. Ships of the American Merchant Marine could travel to the West Indies and Central American to import tropical fruits. Before 1870, approximately only one in every 10,000 U.S. residents had ever seen a banana. Over the next 20 years, several merchants began importing bananas. The modern Merchant Marine can be dated to the passage of Postal Aid Law on March 3, 1891, which awarded contracts to American flag ships. It demonstrated Congressional willingness to interact with the merchant marine in general, and steamship business in particular.

With their shallow draft, steamships could sail closer to land and venture into the rivers. After the Second Opium War between Great Britain and China (1856–1860), additional Chinese coastal ports and inland rivers opened up for trade. The steamship, the Fire Dart alone turned a profit of $175,000 its first year. Worldwide trade ballooned in the second half of the nineteenth century. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, allowed for easier connection from Europe to its colonies and trade to the Middle East. After 1869, the steamship replaced the sailing ship on the Passage East. By the end of the century, between four and five thousand steamships a year passed through the Canal.

Container ship Americana.

Steamboats also provided a connecting link between sparsely settled or isolated river bottom areas in the United States and the outside world. Steamboats brought newspapers, letters and packages, and, most importantly, moved bales of cotton and timber to distant markets. They returned with boxes and barrels of foodstuffs and luxury items. Slaves also made up crews on steamboats traveling through the U.S. rivers. Unlike plantation slaves, captains gave riverboat slaves some amount of freedom. Sometimes they could go ashore and collect supplies for the ship or upload cargo.

Today, U.S. ports are still flourishing with ocean trade. In 2016, Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two biggest ports in the U.S, reported the best February traffic in their histories going back more than a century. Although we still import bananas and tea, today we get everything from furniture and electronics to apparel and machinery coming through our ports. With the technological advancements of the steam-powered engine, the transition from sail to steam allowed ships to bring goods and people to and from the United States with increased speed, efficiency, and reliability, changing American culture and society at large.

Lessons on Trade

Statistics in Trade

Refrigeration on Ships

Additional Resources on Trade

Click here to download the pdf of Houston History Magazine issue on the Port of Houston, Dredged to Excellence: 100 Years of the Houston Ship Channel.

Luigi Pascali, “The Winds of Change: Maritime Technology, Trade, and Economic Development,” (University of Warwick, 2014).

The Smithsonian Museum of American History’s online exhibit, Enterprise on the Water, 1800-1850, Fishing for a Living, 1840-1920, and Modern Maritime America, 1950-present.


Jeffrey A. Wiss, “Sail to Steam,” The Maritime Advocate.

John Maxtone-Graham, Crossing & Cruising: From the Golden Era of Ocean Liners to the Luxury Cruise Ships of Today (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1992).

Ian Dear, Great Ocean Liners: The Heyday of Luxury Travel (London: The Bath Press, 1991).

Mark H. Goldberg, “Going Bananas”: 100 Years of American Fruit Ships in the Caribbean (Kings Point, NY: The American Merchant Marine Museum, 1993).

“Speeding up the Trade: Clippers and Steamships,” A Chronicle of the China Trade, Harvard Business School, Baker Library.

Ian Marshall, Passage East (Howell Press), introduction.

Harry P. Owens, Steamboats and the Cotton Economy: River Trade in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1990).

“Slaves on the Rivers,” Antebellum Cincinnati.

Mathew Winkler, “As US Ports Go, So Goes the US Economy,” March 18, 2016, Bloomberg.