With modern transportation, crossing the Atlantic or Pacific oceans is absurdly safe. It might be pricey, but when I get on an airplane, there is no doubt that I’ll arrive safely at my destination. Yes, there are occasional accidents, and those are generally not survivable - but the odds favor me so heavily that I never stop to think “is this trip worth the risk that travel poses?”
My question is: When did this become the case? That is, when did trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific travel become so routine that, for most people, the question of their physical safety wouldn’t have been a factor in deciding whether or not to travel?
My guess would be the early 20th century - the Titanic sinking shocked the public, and so I assume that people believed ocean liners of this type to be generally safe. But what about the age of sail? If a ship sank in, say, 1850, would that have elicited comments of “meh, these things happen” or “Oh my god! What went wrong?!”
Doubtful. Many tens of millions of nearly penniless peasants from Europe sailed here starting in the mid-18th century. True, steerage lacked a few of the luxuries of modern cruise ships but the price was minimal, even in today’s dollars.
The age of sail was gone by 1850. Steamships had been around for decades. The early ships had problems with boilers exploding, and hundreds of ships blew up even under safe conditions, like on the Mississippi. Undoubtedly many of those were because idiots were showing off for speed, but safety devices and government regulation brought the problem pretty much under control.
If you look at the page on Coffin ships, which were cheap boats used to exploit Irish trying to flee the famines, even those were regulated by 1867. The number of immigrants also rises sharply after 1870.
So somewhere around 1850 people with money could get a secure passage, and around 1870 almost everybody could. But the newspapers would have treated every major disaster as NEWS. The Titanic was the story it became because the company made loud claims that it was unsinkable, which implies that earlier boats were totally sinkable. Nothing is ever 100% safe. Commercial airplanes are the safest way to travel: when was the last time a big U.S. plane went down? But private planes kill people all the time. So where does flying rank on the absurdly safe scale?
By the time the Black Ball Line (a regular passenger service between England and the U.S.) was established in 1817 you started to see major improvements in safety. Really, it’s a pretty steady relationship between time and safety.
The most dangerous voyages were those in the early age of exploration, 15th and 16th centuries. The ships were less sophisticated, the captains and crews were not much experienced with deep ocean travel. Remember, before establishing the “New World” European sailors mostly operated near coastlines or in the relatively mild Mediterranean Sea, crossing an ocean is a far different feat. Navigation improved, training and seafaring improved, and the ships improved.
By the time of the 18th century when Britain was involved in several wars that involved forces across the globe there was a pretty good likelihood that any given ship would be fine. The things that tended to take out ships by the 18th century were big hurricanes and such (the British lost an entire fleet to a major hurricane in the 1780s, for example.)
I’d say that by the 18th century, while sea travel still was not a common thing for most people, it was “relatively” safe. Safe enough that losing ships at sea was probably a less common cause of death for seafarers than general disease and various dangers of being on a working ship.
By the mid-19th century faster, better clipper ships were developed and steamships had started to make a name for themselves. As the 19th century came to an end steamships became more and more prominent. The steamships could be larger and safer, and they could make the journey in 15 days. Just through pure statistics, a fifteen day Atlantic crossing is far safer than the customary 60 days for traditional sailed ships, the more days at sea the more time there is for something bad to happen or something to go wrong.
The more modern clipper ships and later steamships were a big source of the heavy immigration to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century.
Earlier than the early 20th Century, certainly. The first regular service from Britain to the US started in 1818,, and steamship service started by the 1840s. Ships occasionally were lost, but I think by this time transport was reasonably reliable. Even in the 1700s, I don’t think that a trans-Atlantic crossing was considered to be extremely risky.
Hmmm. “Many” would surely have to be at least six or eight, right? Let’s call that 70 million. Yet the entire US population didn’t reach that number until around 1890.
Here’s a list of fares from 1856, showing the lowest cost for steerage passage from Liverpool to the US (Portland ME) as 6 guineas. Online inflation calculators yield a current value of just over $600, which is more than the low-end cost of a one-way plane ticket today.
Even by the early 1700’s, insurance underwriters (like LLoyds, London) were writing policies for many kinds of ships. This meant that an Atlantic crossing was a relatively safe thing.
Not to say that it was very pleasant. Samuel Johnson once said of ship travel, that it was “like being in jail, with the added possibility of being drowned”.
Dickens travelled to the USA, and complained that his berth was more like a coffin.
It didn’t get comfortable till the 1880’s-if you had money.
Right - and you’ll enjoy a dramatically higher level of service. Steerage-style accommodations are no longer available, or in demand.
(Upon reflection, it occurs to me that this may not be strictly correct in view of the fact that people are occasionally smuggled inside shipping containers.)
But note that the OP was examining available ways to cross oceans, and not restricting this to ships.
It does depend on what you mean by “safe.” The risk wasn’t truly removed until ships could avoid storms, and probably not eliminated until after World War II (when radar came into use).
Ships sunk often enough that the US set up a life guarding service to rescue passengers from ships that sailed by in storms and were wrecked. Most trips were fine, of course, but a shipwreck was a common occurrence in the 19th century.
It sounds like it happened in stages. The Titanic brought awareness to the dangers, and increased regulation. After WWII radio, radar, sonar, and reports from aircraft added new levels of safety. Now we have GPS, satellite weather reports. It seems we’ve reached a stage where it takes a great act of stupidity to sink a ship.
Over 10 million immigrants arrived through the entire period, which didn’t end until WWI.
1856 is very early in the era of mass emigration. Ships were smaller, less frequent, and aimed at a limited audience. Prices had another 70 years to fall to take advantage of economies of scale so that eastern and southern Europe could empty out. You’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
The rest of that page gives contemporary examples of crew and passengers who thought the ship was unsinkable. And it shows a picture of an advertising brochure which states that the ship was “designed to be unsinkable.” The company could have weasel worded that away, but it’s intent is unmistakable.