Charles E. Peabody was born into the old-line family that launched the infamous Black Ball Line's scheduled sailings in 1817 out of a New York pier with the packet ship James Monroe. The Black Ball Line was initially known for textile importer Benjamin Marshall's revolutionary idea for prompt, reliable service on boats that departed and arrived on schedule, full or not. From the 1820s through the 1840s regular transatlantic passages were run year round from New York's South Street to Liverpool, England and back again. Although there were at least four shipping companies that took part in this business, the Black Ball Line and Swallowtail Line are perhaps the most famous. In operation for some 60 years, the Black Ball Line took its name from its flag, a black ball on a red background.
Regular transport of goods and passengers across the Atlantic has not always been like what it is today. Ships used to sail at wildly unpredictable times. If a vessel was only half-full, it might stay in the harbor for a week or two, awaiting more cargo.
All of that changed in October of 1817 when the Black Ball Line decided to establish a policy of regularly scheduled departures. The original plan explained that a ship would depart from New York on the 5th of each month while, on the 1st of each month, a ship would leave Liverpool.
The EVENING POST in 1817 boasted that the commanders of all these ships were "men of great experience and activity." This article also speculated that "the regularity of their times of sailing . . . will make them very desirable opportunities for the conveyance of goods." This, of course, turned out to be quite true. Thanks to the Black Ball Line's innovation, New-York became a top-notch port, outshining Boston and Philadelphia.
Prior to January 1818, transatlantic sailing ships were general carriers sailing on no fixed schedule. In 1817 a group of New York merchants decided to experiment with a scheduled service to and from the port of Liverpool. Thus was founded the Black Ball Line along with an assemblage of a large enough fleet of vessels to guarantee a sailing from each side of the Pacific on a given day each week, whether the ships were fully loaded or not. The gamble, however, was a success. As it turned out, shippers were willing to pay higher rates to know that their goods were leaving on a certain date. Competing lines were soon established at New York and at other major East Coast ports.
The Black Ball Line of three ships was established in April 1817, with the ships originally intended to sail in succession, though not, like the later packets, on a fixed schedule. The addition of the JAMES MONROE as a fourth ship, on October 24, 1817, led to the announcement of the first regular transatlantic ship service: "To sail on their Appointed Days, full or not full." The fifth of the month was fixed as the departure date from New York, while ships were to sail from Liverpool on the seventeenth, beginning in January 1818. The proprietors of what came to be known as the Black Ball Line were Isaac Wright & Son, Francis Thompson, Benjamin Marshall, and Jeremiah Thompson.
Jeremiah Thompson was an English immigrant from Yorkshire who had come to New York at age seventeen in 1801 to join his uncle in representing the family's woolen manufacturing business. From that base they engaged in shipping and ship owning. Thompson, dealing in volatile markets for finished imports and raw exports, wanted faster, more reliable service. He conceived the notion of a transatlantic ship "line" ~ several vessels under coordinated private management, sailing on known dates between established ports, and locked into an unchanging departure schedule for the foreseeable future.
The JAMES MONROE and her three sister ships, the PACIFIC, AMITY and COURIER, were all about 400 tons. Soon afterwards, other ships joined the line, some registering 500 tons. Joining the Black Ball "downhill" races across the North Atlantic to Liverpool were NEW YORK, EAGLE, ORBIT, NESTOR, JAMES CROPPER, WILLIAM THOMPSON, ALBION, CANADA, BRITANNIA and COLUMBIA.
Nobody tried to compete against the Black Ball Line for the first few years, but by 1821 everybody wanted a line. On the first and the sixteenth of every month a Black Ball liner sailed to Liverpool. Those dates became the European mail days throughout the United States.
Coming only four years after the opening of the first scheduled packet service in the United States—between Albany and New York City—this was an extraordinarily bold and uniquely American initiative that sought to capitalize on the new need for more reliable and faster service for passengers and smaller (though more numerous and hence more lucrative) consignments of various non-bulk cargoes, both of which would generate increased revenues. The start of regularly scheduled sailings encouraged the development of ever faster ships, both sail and steam, and initiated a revolutionary way of serving customers, seen today in the myriad companies offering "next-day" delivery virtually anywhere in the commercial world.
Named for the newly elected president, the JAMES MONROE inaugurated this service on the cold, windy morning of January 5, 1818, when she departed New York under Captain James Watkinson with eight passengers and a cargo consisting of apples, flour, cotton, cranberries, hops, and wool; her holds were only about three-quarters full. The departure had been advertised in the Commercial Advertiser since the October 24, 1817 newspaper edition. On January 1st, the COURIER left Liverpool, bound for New York.
The JAMES MONROE arrived at Liverpool, England on February 2, 1818, a respectable time for the season, especially when compared with the majority of other ships sailing at the same time. The return passage started on March 3, but the ship was forced to return to Liverpool for repairs after a storm in the Irish Sea.
JAMES MONROE returned to New York only a week before her next scheduled sailing. Overall, in their first year of operation the Black Ballers averaged 25 days eastbound and 43 days westbound. Because of a shipping glut on the North Atlantic, profits were low for the first three years of service, and it was not until 1821 that the next regular packet service was established by the New Line, or Red Star Line.
Even as the Black Ball Line was the first and most famous American packet ship line to carry passengers and cargo from New York to Liverpool and back, the steamship's arrival in the late 1800s paved the way for the demise of the sailing ship.
The steamship was faster than the sailing packet, virtually cutting the voyage time in half. The steamship CITY OF GLASGOW set the precedent in 1850 when a profit was made by carrying 400 emigrants. By 1863, 45% of British emigrants to America traveled by steam and just three years later the figure had risen to over 80%. The major sailing packets continued until sometime, but three of the five largest packet lines all closed down before 1878. By the summer of that year, even the famous Black Ball Line was forced to close down. The Red Swallowtail Line was the last to go in 1880.