Skip to Main Content

Merchant Mariners


Merchant shipping is an old industry that developed out of the need and desire to trade and travel. In the early days of the American colonies, commercial shipping was very important. Deep-water rivers and channels provided perfect launching sites for water vessels built by craftspeople who emigrated from other countries.

Between 1800 and 1840, U.S. ships carried more than 80 percent of the country's commerce with other nations. The first steamship crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1819, and large iron ships began to be built in the mid-1800s. With the mass production of these iron ships, trade increased and Great Britain dominated the industry through the end of the century. Most U.S. trade was carried by foreign ships.

The merchant marine has always been a private industry, but the government has relied on it to help in a military capacity during times of war. The maritime industry benefits during wartime because the country's defense department contracts shipbuilders and merchant mariners to serve as auxiliaries to the military. In fact, the end of the world wars caused a depression in U.S. merchant shipping. During World War II, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy was established at Kings Point, N.Y., to offer training for merchant officers (it didn't admit women until 1974). There are now seven maritime academies in the United States.

Since the 19th century, the size, speed, and carrying capacities of nonmilitary transport ships have increased greatly. The various types of merchant marine vessels—including supertankers, freighters, barges, and container ships—now carry millions of tons of food, machinery, and petroleum across the waters each day under the flags of many countries.

Despite such advancement, however, much has changed in the business since colonial days. Today, U.S. merchant shipping continues to lag behind other nations because shipbuilding and operating costs are much higher here than elsewhere.