ALBERT BALLIN – Inventor and father of the pleasure cruise. Liner and Cruise Ship History – Today’s mass-market cruise industry got its start in the 19th century by Albert Ballin.
SS Albert Ballin was an ocean liner of the Hamburg-America Line launched in 1923 and named after Albert Ballin, visionary director of the line who had killed himself in despair several years earlier after the Kaiser’s abdication and Germany’s defeat in WW 2. In 1935 the new Nazi government ordered the ship renamed to Hansa (Ballin having been Jewish).
Albert Ballin – Inventor of the pleasure cruise and ship operator for the Kaiser
The German shipping magnate Albert Ballin was responsible for turning Germany into a world leader in ocean travel prior to World War I. It was Ballin who also invented the pleasure cruise in 1891.
(Left: Albert Ballin) Born in Hamburg on 15 August 1857, Albert Ballin was destined to become a pioneer in making ocean travel a more pleasant, even luxurious experience. As a Jew, for most of his life he would walk a fine line between social acceptance and scorn. But the “Kaiser’s Jew” long enjoyed financial and political prominence before falling out of favor and being branded a traitor to Germany as the First World War and his own life drew to their bitter end in 1918. Born in a poor section of Hamburg, Ballin (pronounced BALL-EEN) had achieved greatness and strongly influenced the passenger ship industry by the time he took his own life at the age of 61.
A decade before Albert Ballin’s birth, the company he would later head, the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (Hapag) had been founded on 27 May 1847, with the goal of operating a faster, more reliable liner service between Hamburg and North America, using the finest sailing ships. At that time a “fast” east-to-west Atlantic crossing took about 40 sailing days. The return voyage, with favorable west winds, required “only” 28 days.
(LEFT: This German postage stamp was issued in 1957 for the 100th anniversary of Albert Ballin’s birth in Hamburg.) A “packet ship” gets its name from the time when ships were employed to carry mail packets to and from British embassies, colonies and outposts. The term “packet service” later came to mean any regular, scheduled service, carrying freight and passengers – such as the Hamburg-American Packet Company (Hapag).
Nevertheless, there was stiff competition for passengers on the North Altlantic route. Internationally, shipping lines in Britain and Prussia (after 1871) fought to attract passengers, but there was also competition within Germany itself between the port cities of Bremen (Bremerhaven) and Hamburg. In 1856 Hapag, under its first director, Adolph Godeffroy, put its first steamship, the Borussia, into service, becoming the first German shipping firm to do so. As time went by, coal-powered steamships would cut the travel time between Hamburg and New York down to just six or seven days.
From Morris & Co. to Hapag
Albert Ballin got his start in Hamburg at the age of 17 when his father died in 1874 and he took over the family’s ship passenger booking service, known as Morris & Co. At first he shared that job with his older brother, but when Joseph left to become a stockbroker in 1877, Albert became the sole operator and soon turned the slumbering operation into a thriving enterprise that eventually drew the attention of the major shipping lines.
BallinStadt: “BallinCity” was the name given to the complex that Hapag built in 1907 to better house and protect impoverished emigrants before their voyage to the New World aboard its ships (in steerage). But Albert Ballin also had very practical motives for his generosity.
In 1881 Ballin teamed up with shipowner Edward Carr to get more directly involved in the passenger trade – and avoid sharing fees with other shipping firms. By 1886, Carr and his partner, cousin Robert M. Sloman, had a fleet of five ships in their Union Line. They cut costs by using converted freighters that offered no luxury but far more space for passengers in steerage class. Working with Ballin, they began to drive down the price of a North Atlantic crossing and put pressure on the larger shipping lines.
Soon the cost of a ticket for an Atlantic voyage in steerage had fallen to just six dollars. Hapag and the other major lines were now losing money in an ongoing rate war. In 1886 a shareholders’ revolt led to a major shakeup at Hapag that resulted in Ballin being hired to head the company’s passenger division. Only two years later, Ballin was made a member of the Hapag board of directors.
The Augusta Viktoria had her maiden voyage for Hapag in 1889. Two years later she embarked on the world’s very first Med cruise (in January 1891).
From Steerage to Luxury
Although Albert Ballin came from a humble backgound and had achieved his initial success by catering to steerage passengers (Zwischendeckpassagiere), the next stage of his business rise would come from his revolutionary view that a sea voyage should be more a pleasure cruise than a test of one’s endurance. While his competitors became obsessed with speed and winning Blue Ribands for the shortest Atlantic crossing times, Ballin used luxurious accommodations to attract a wealthier clientele. In the process, he would also invent the sea cruise.
The Prinzessin Viktoria Luise was the world’s first ship built specifically for pleasure cruising. Named for Kaiser Wilhelm’s daughter, the 407-foot-long vessel – here seen on a Hamburg-Amerika postcard – was launched on June 29, 1900.
Having enjoyed his stays in luxury hotels in Paris, London and elsewhere, Ballin sought to recreate a similar atmosphere aboard Hapag’s ships. Although his luxury liners still had space for low-cost steerage passengers, the upper decks were designed to rival the palatial homes and hotels that more aristocratic, wealthy passengers were accustomed to.
Ballin was also a pioneer in the technical realm. Hapag was the first German line to put twin-screw ships into service – at a time when the technology was still considered unproven. This gave Hapag’s ships not only more speed but better stability and safety. When its Bremen competitor NDL failed to do the same, Hapag had a distinct advantage for many years.
Ballin Invents the Pleasure Cruise
The world’s first pleasure cruise departed Cuxhaven, Germany on 22 January 1891. Aboard the luxury steamship Augusta Victoria were 241 passengers, including cruise host Albert Ballin and his wife Marianne. This first-ever “Med cruise” lasted 57 days, 11 hours and three minutes. Ballin’s guests enjoyed first-class cabins. There was also first-class cuisine to match and a daily newspaper printed on board. The cruise called at over a dozen ports, complete with shore excursions, beginning with Southampton, then sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean ports of call included Genoa, Alexandria, Jaffa, Beirut, Constantinople (now Instanbul), Athens, Malta, Naples and Lisbon. When the Augusta Victoria returned home after its two-month voyage, the cruise was judged a great success. Every year since then (except for periods of war), Hapag and other lines have offered similar cruises. Such ocean cruises to exotic places are considered normal today, but that was a pioneering idea in 1891.