Nautical nostalgia: ‘Sailing to the Sun’ pictures reveal how we used to cruise

CNN  — 

Growing up in 1950s New Jersey, William Miller loved watching the great ocean liners coming and going from New York Harbor.

“I thought to myself, ‘What would it be like to be on one of them?’ looking back at New York, in the other direction,” he says.

In 1961, Miller accompanied his grandmother on a cruise, from New York to Europe, fulfilling that dream.

“I was immediately bitten by the magic of standing on the deck of a moving ship,” he tells CNN Travel.

This first transatlantic voyage sparked a lifelong fascination with the cruise industry. Now, Miller’s downloaded his years of research, travel and collecting into a new book, “Sailing to the Sun,” filled with vintage pictures, posters and stories of the world of cruising.

Floating palaces

Let's hope that colorful confetti was biodegradable.

Now 72, Miller is a leading authority on ocean liners and the author of some 60 books on cruising past and present.

He’s been a guest lecturer on ships for 40 years, speaking about the industry’s fascinating history.

Over the years, Miller noticed that each time his lectures finished, at least one person would approach him to share their memories of traveling by sea.

A woman daringly displays her forearms on a sailing to the Mediterranean in the early 1900s.

“Some of my favorite stories are the stories told by former crew members who recounted numerous experiences on the ships that you couldn’t make up yourself,” says Miller.

He gives an example, an anecdote from the former head chef of the Queen Mary, the retired British ocean liner that traversed the Atlantic in the mid-20th century.

“He was telling me how they used to get so tired of washing the plates in the kitchen – the galley – they used to toss them out the porthole. So he joked with me when he said: ‘You can practically walk across the Atlantic from New York to England with all the plates that are on the bottom of the sea.’”

On board the Berengaria in the 1930s, passengers eagerly await the advent of video games.

These stories form the basis of “Sailing to the Sun,” complemented by the visual imagery Miller’s carefully accumulated over the years.

“I have a big archive at home and access to thousands of photographs,” says Miller. “It started with a little cookie tin when I was a boy […] I used to write to the shipping lines and get postcards.

“I began to build up this archive which soon outgrew my cookie tin and then filled a couple more boxes and then gradually, over the years, it’s just amassed into thousands of pictures.”

From the beginning

Cruising in 1895. The guy lurking on the far right didn't get the "nautical hat" memo.

Miller’s book charts the evolution of the great ocean liner from what’s regarded as the first cruise ship, the British vessel Ceylon – a prototype leisure vessel that would be unrecognizable to cruisers today.

From the 1890s to the advent of World War I, the industry grew and by the 1920s, grandeur was beginning to become standard.

Still, there were no swimming pools until the 1930s – and of course no air conditioning – so passengers seeking relief from high temperatures would splash into makeshift canvas water tanks.

There were no fitted swimming pools on the vessels until the 1930s -- so passengers found alternatives.

Rooms were well-equipped but didn’t have private bathroom facilities – they were shared among passengers. An alternative option was using metal scoops attached to portholes.

Passengers went less for luxury and more for adventure.

“Back in the day, it would have been the appeal to go to faraway places,” says Miller.

“It was a big venture – not just an adventure – it was a venture. You had take clothes with you. You had to be prepared to be away and out of communication for a long time.”

World cruising, today a mainstay of the industry, grew in popularity in the 1920s and ’30s.

The first cruise liner to circle the world entirely by sea was Cunard’s Laconia – which departed New York in November 1922.

The 22-week cruise was populated by 300 millionaire guests, according to Miller’s book.

Glamorous affair

Even in the early days of cruising there was onboard entertainment.

With the advent of the 1930s came the glamor we so associate with 20th century seafaring.

Miller highlights Canadian Pacific’s Empress of Britain boat, which had its own tennis court and traveled through the Mediterranean and Suez to India, Java, Bali, China, Japan, Hawaii, the American West Coast, and back to New York via Panama.

A ticket on this swanky ship was a pricey affair: minimum fares in 1935 started at $2,100 and a suite could cost a hefty $16,000.

Miller notes that one of the biggest changes from then to now is the relative democratization of cruising.

“It’s not just something that’s for the rich […] It appeals to everyone in one way shape or another,” he says.

Future of the cruise ship

We might be living in the age of budget flights and luxury first class aircraft cabins, but the cruise ship industry remains thriving.

“At the moment there’s 125 new ships being built or planned,” says Miller.

“I’ve been to the shipyards – it’s phenomenal. It boggles the mind. It’s like a giant puzzle how they put these ships together and it’s all done with orderly efficiency.”

Miller predicts that each new cruise ship will continue to try to push each vessel to the next level.

“Continued growth, expansion and and unique – the design word of the day is to wow – w-o-w – the potential guest or to build something new and different.

Is this snapshot of a cruise ship cabin the most 1970s image ever?

So these ships have to have some little hook that draws people in and, as that goes on, you find that the ships are so incredibly diverse, with so many features and all sorts of things that make people want to go onboard.”

Miller also highlights the dining experiences and entertainment options. Plus, there’s the inherent excitement of seeing a new location each day.

“You get a sampling of all these wonderful new places and then, by dinnertime, you move on to another place,” he says.

Old school romance

Vintage posters in the book capture the romance of cruise travel.

But while Miller’s grateful for the ship’s of today, with their air conditioning and speedy airport connections, the writer still daydreams about the old school ocean liners.

“I love the old steamship posters – the big giant things they used to use – because they’re so artistic and so evocative. You just look at them and you can feel a faraway place or you can see the sea and almost smell the salt in the air,” he says.

“I wish I could have experienced those old ships because they had a certain – a different – style. Today the ships are wonderful but they are floating resorts, floating hotels.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Miller’s favorite cruise ship harks back to a bygone era.

White Star Line's Homeric moored off Villefranche. Homeric was operated by the shipping company from 1922 to 1935.

“One of the journeys that I love myself is the crossing on the Queen Mary 2 between New York and England or vice versa. It’s so reminiscent of the old days – and Cunard Line, which is very famous, keeps the glamor of yesteryear with chandeliers and ballroom dancing and gourmet dinners and things. They have brought forward the glamor of yesteryear to today.”

Plus, it affords him that favorite view – the unforgettable, sweeping panorama of New York harbor.

But whatever the ship, Miller thinks it’s special.

“There is a certain, I’ll use the word ‘romance,’ about it – going away on a ship, visiting faraway places – there’s still that illusion of star-filled nights and sunny afternoons.”