Funnels (smokestacks): Did migrant passengers care how many a ship had?

According to a number of historians (Fletcher, Braynard, et. al), immigrant passengers


"attached considerable significance to the matter of funnels, the number of them in particular. Somehow, to their minds, this was directly related to the power and reliability of the ship. Two stacks were better than one, three stacks even more attractive and four the very acme of marine dependability."        (Maxtone-Graham, Way to Cross, pp. 30-31).


It was clearly a "myth" (Maxtone-Graham) that "the more funnels...the safer the ship" (Braynard p. 31), but is it even true that many migrants thought so?


It is difficult to determine the travel anxieties and preferences of 11 million migrants a century and more ago. The Voyage Database of 1900-1914 does, however, track the number of steerage class passengers on each voyage of each North Atlantic steamship then, and the number of funnels on each such steamship.


If migrants, or at least the relatives and agents who booked passages for them cared significantly about the number of funnels, then it might be expected that more migrants would have actually traveled on vessels with, say, 3 or 4 funnels rather than 1 or 2. The effect might be small, because most advance tickets apparently did not specify the ship by name, but departure dates were usually announced well in advance. If the funnel count was really of paramount concern, one could anticipate that at least some, and probably a detectable fraction, of migrants would have made arrangements, such as the timing of their arrivals by land in European embarkation ports, to get on the higher-funnel ships.


Other data included in the Voyage Database enable at least a partial ruling out of two other possible reasons why ships with more funnels might have carried more steeragers:


1) Up to about at least 1910 [the Voyage Database could determine this exactly, but that calculation hasn't been done yet], at least in general, the newer the ship, the more funnels it had. Migrants fairly consistently preferred newer ships [a result also derived from the Voyage Database, but not written up yet], so some increased usage of many-funnelled ships would have been coincidental to their also being newer.


2) The larger the ship, the more funnels it had, on average (partly because ship size grew over time, so newer ships (point 1) above tended to be larger than older ships). Vessels with more funnels thus tended to carry more passengers partly just because those ships could hold more passengers.


To analyze the possible role of funnel numbers in shaping westward steerage passenger flows by vessel, the comparison made is therefore

  1) between vessels placed in service within the same 1-2 year time period, and on the same route, or similar routes, but having different numbers of funnels

  2) between passengers relative to capacity, rather than sheer number of passengers.


The results do not corroborate historical suggestions that migrants, in general, cared much about the number of funnels (stacks), at least not to the strong degree often implied. There were no really suitable comparisons between 3-stackers versus 1 and 2 stackers. There were quite a number of 1 and 2 stack vessels introduced at the same time and place, but there is really no consistent pattern of 2 stackers getting more traffic, relative to capacity, than 1 stackers of the same age and route or route area.


The 4 funnel ships did beat their like-aged competitors quite handily in most cases.  HAPAG's 4 stacker Deutschland of 1900, and two of three North German Lloyd 4 stackers introduced in the period had capacity utilizations well ahead of 1 and 2 stack German contemporaries. An exception was the Kronprinz Wilhelm of 1901 which barely held its own against other HAPAG and NDL ships that started service then.


The most dramatic triumph of the 4 funnelers was that racked up by Cunard's Lusitania and Mauretania ("triumph" in terms of numbers; in terms of profits, the achievement was less significant due to those two ships' very high fuel costs): This pair, each with four funnels, and White Star's Adriatic (2 funnels) all made maiden voyages in the second half of 1907. For the 18 month period ended in December, 1908, the Cunard duo made 33 voyages from England to New York with a capacity utilization in westbound steerage of 58%. The comparable utilization ratio for Adriatic's 23 voyages was only 24%


There is therefore, some basis for thinking that migrants' beliefs (albeit mostly superstitious) about more stacks being safer, may have affected their travel patterns to the extent of making ships with four funnels preferred choices over those with fewer. The capacity utilization calculations done here are, moreover, for the westbound direction. Eastbound, one might well expect a yet stronger implied preference for four stackers, for the basic reason that eastbound migrants were older, more experienced, and better informed about travel choices, and more able and willing to act upon their knowledge and preferences. On the other hand, the 4 stackers were unusual rarities: these were the most discussed, the most attended, and the most hyped of North Atlantic vessels. They were built to break speed records, confer prestige, and compete solidly (in terms of on-board conditions) against competitor ships. Ruling out their relative size and newness, as done here, does not eliminate all reasons (besides funnel numbers) for migrants wanting to travel on them, and doing so in large relative numbers. Migrants believing in the myth of funnels meaning safety thus does not appear to be a complete myth itself, but does seem exaggerated in prior historiography.



Passenger vessels with four smokestacks making

maiden voyages on the North Atlantic during 1907-14

(and voyages by vessel between Europe and USA, calendar 1907-14):


Lusitania                     1907    (Cunard)                             (96)

Mauretania                1907    (Cunard)                             (96)

Kronprinzessin Cecilie     1907    (North German Lloyd)     (76)

Olympic                        1911     (White Star)                       (41)

Titanic                           1912     (White Star)              

France                             1912     (Comp. Gen. Trans.)        (30)

Aquitania                        1914     (Cunard)                              (3)


Source: Voyage Database



                                     This page last updated 7-April-2015