I. Norman H. Morse and the History of the Ocean Liner


Norman H. Morse (1921-2011) began collecting ocean liner ephemera at the age of fourteen when he made his first transatlantic passage to visit family in the Netherlands. The trip was made in second class aboard the Holland-America Line’s Veendam, as we can see from the ship’s passenger list. (These were a standard feature of first and second class, both as keepsakes and to facilitate interaction among passengers on long passages.)

“That was when I became really interested in liners. I had been aboard a few to see my relatives off when they had been here for a visit and they usually traveled on the Holland-America Line. . . . [T]he best way for me to find out what the other ships of the line were like was to ask for deck plans which were given out to travel agents and to prospective travelers or to travelers at the time they booked passage—and also illustrated brochures, as you will see. The publications were very elaborate and costly, but they were always given out free.

The early years of my collection was when I went around to steamship company offices in Europe and America and acquired these elaborate publications for no cost. Then I also started buying books, but not many books were published on the subject until the last thirty-five years, forty years. And then my relatives and friends would give me deck plans and brochures when I was fourteen, when they knew I was interested in it, and they continued to do so all of my life. And I continued whenever a new liner came out up until 1970 or ’71 to go to a steamship company office and acquire that plan or brochures because I wanted to know what they were like. I had the same curiosity as I did as a boy wanting to know what they were like.”

After studying architecture at the College of William and Mary, Morse joined the real estate offices of the Astor and Whitney families, for which he made occasional transatlantic passages to Great Britain and Europe. With Southport, Conn., as his home base and a New York City apartment that housed the bulk of his collection for the convenience of researchers, he summered in Christmas Cove, Maine. In 1988, he retired to Portland, where he generously supported non-profit cultural institutions in the area, including the Maine Historical Society, Portland Museum of Art, and Greater Portland Landmarks.

In 2009, Morse donated his collection of ocean liner memorabilia, nearly three thousand documents in all, to the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education. The Morse Collection offers a comprehensive overview of the development of the oceangoing passenger ship from the 1870s until its demise about a century later. The collection includes ships’ plans, brochures, pamphlets, postcards, rate cards, menus, passenger lists, snapshots and postcards, and a selection of reference books. Maritime historian Lincoln Paine inventoried and cataloged the documents and interviewed Morse in preparation for this exhibition, planning for which began shortly before his death last summer.

Morse wished for his collection to remain accessible to students, historians, and others inter-ested in travel and passenger shipping, and he was particularly delighted that the collection would be digitized in its entirety and made freely available on the internet. We regret that he did not live to see the launch of his collection before the public, but we know that he was con-fident it was well prepared for the long voyage ahead.