Over the last couple of months, the former FIU Director of Libraries Dr. Laurence Miller and I have been collaborating on a new library exhibit with the working title: “Class Distinctions: Selections from the Laurence Miller Collection.” The materials under consideration feature post-World War II promotional materials published and printed by the French Line and the Cunard White Star Line for their first, second, and tourist class prospective customers and passengers.


Before embarking on the first of future exhibition projects making use of this extraordinary collection, there was much to be done in terms of preparation. First, the tens of thousands of steamship and cruise line industry advertising brochures, menus, deck plans, sailing schedules, and other printed ephemera that Dr. Miller had donated to the museum library in September 2008 had to be processed and accessioned, and organized and rehoused in archival boxes. Afterwards, collection level bibliographical records had to be created for each steamship company represented, with detailed notes concerning the contents of each box. To provide the general public and scholars with a sense of what was included, select items from within each box were digitized and provided with metadata descriptions that would allow a patron to locate images, deck plans, or menus created for specific ships. It is impossible to imagine how, with only two full-time librarians on staff and a handful of part-time interns, we might ever have been able to process, catalog, and digitize this awesome collection had Dr. Miller not also donated so much of his own time and expertise.

As the work has progressed, Dr. Miller and I began to consider some themes for displaying discreet areas of the collection. While the first exhibit will focus on the ways in which cruise line companies appealed to different social strata, we envision many other interesting ideas for future exhibitions. Today’s blog post is intended to provide my readers with a sense of some of the other strengths of the collection, including its ability to document the heyday of a particular passenger and cargo service: the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company.

Even before receiving the Laurence Miller gift, The Wolfsonian rare book and special collections library was known for its holdings of steamship line promotional materials from the interwar period. In the case of the Union Castle, the Wolfsonian possesses some rare materials documenting service in the First World War and a number of advertising brochures, pamphlets, and schedules from the 1930s.

These items were enhanced by Dr. Miller’s donation of materials documenting the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company’s dominant role in the British-Africa shipping market in the aftermath of the Second World War.


For several decades following the end of that conflict, Union Castle ships sailed from Southampton, England, to as many as twenty African ports, including: Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Durban, South Africa.


As the company’s name indicates, the Union Castle steamers not only carried settlers, tourists, and British businessmen and their families, but also profited from its mail and cargo service.


As mail carriers, the ships were accorded docking priority at all ports, an advantage that enabled them to keep to a strict schedule—something appreciated by their passengers and shippers.

On the southbound route, the ships carried British manufactures and exports such as Scotch; on the return route, which frequently included stops in the Canary Islands, the ships carried cargoes of gold bullion and copper ingots, as well as South African apples, oranges, and wine.

The Union Castle service to Africa ended in the late 1970s, as much of their cargo trade was lost to new container shippers, and their passenger trade began to be siphoned away by the jet airline industry.

~ by "The Chief" on May 27, 2011.

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