THE MS GRIPSHOLM 1939 CRUISE MENU AS A MOMENT

SETTING THE TABLE:

The MS Gripsholm’s Vikingsland-Russia Cruise on August 19th 1939 symbolizes a collection of unique moments in American history including: new economic opportunities for service workers, the impact of romanticism and escapism on ideas of luxury and travel, the conflicting realities of Americans in the 1930s, and lastly this blissful isolation and luxury afforded to few Americans at the eve of World War II. 

THE MS GRIPSHOLM, “THE FLOATING PALACE”:

The MS Gripsholm was built in 1925 and remained one of the three ocean liners employed under the Swedish American Line for both immigration and tourism passenger services. The MS Gripsholm, MS Drottingholm, and the MS Kungholm were heavily involved in immigration transport dating back to 1915. The SAL ocean liners had immigration stops through New York, Gothenburg, and Halifax, and were responsible for “carrying ⅔ of all Finnish emigrants from North America [to the Soviet Union],” Golubev and Takala.1 The Swedish American Line’s main fleet held many different uses at any given time, pushed either by economic opportunity or wartime standards, giving the vessel itself a peculiar setting for a final meal before the eruption of world war. 

Gripsholm Castle, Gerhard Hubert 2012.

Sweden itself has a rich maritime heritage and romanticism toward its naval travels, hence why the MS Gripsholm was named after the 14th century Gripsholm Castle in Sweden. Romanticism and escapism were popular cultural themes following World War I, reflected in the proliferation of cruise ships and travel services, as well as more accessible cultural means like film and music exploring “exotic” and foreign places. These cultural ideals of escapism combined with the excessive luxury held for few wealthy Americans are found evident in the grandeur style of the MS Gripsholm.  The MS Gripsholm was able to carry a little under 1600 passengers who all felt the influence of Sweden’s Gripsholm Castle in the “spacious saloons” and lounges adorned in the Gustavian style, and with precious materials like marble fireplaces throughout, passengers hailed her as “the Floating Palace,” Othfors.2 

Dining Hall, Gosta Liden 1925.

The ambiance of the luxurious ship allowed the passengers to slip more into the allure of leisure and lively consumption on board, mirroring the cultural trends in the 1920s. Passengers on the Ms Gripsholm were reminded of the status of their voyage with every inch of the vessel maintaining beauty and class. Glamorous dining halls and decadent table arrangements accentuated the quality of the ship’s menu, and the overall experience of tourists at sea. Included are some photos of the ship’s interior and cheery passengers from the 1920s and 30s, featured in the digital archive of the Sjöhistoriska Museum collection on the Swedish American Line.

Passengers of the Gripsholm, Okand 1920s.

The inviting and extravagant setting of the MS Gripsholm cruise’s gave passengers more room to enjoy and get lost in the voyage and all of its activities, dancing, various performers, pools and hot tubs, spas, but especially through its dining services. Entertainment and leisure are historically tied with the enjoyment and appreciation of meal times, and the MS Gripsholm was no different, truly encapsulating its nickname of “the floating palace.”

ROMANCE AT SEA, REALITY AT HOME:

Smoking Room, 1920s.

The MS Gripsholm’s tourism cruises benefited from a culture craving romantic escapism from the harsh effects of WWI, its regality attracting many tourists and first-class passengers in the 1920s. With cultural works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and a popular proclivity of partying in excess taking hold of America, it was inevitable for tourism cruises like the MS Gripsholm to mimic and intensify these feelings of escapism from the devastating impacts of WWI – ensuring their vessel held the finest decorations, food, entertainment, and most importantly a sense of uplifted status from the surrounding grim world. 

Garbo’s Departure from Sweden, 1929.

This romantic escapism is illustrated in the video of Swedish actress Greta Garbo leaving Sweden for America, longingly saying goodbye to her home after a visit in 1929. This movie truly captures the romance and grandeur of the 1920s, as Garbo weeps leaving her home to work under the spotlight in Hollywood, the Gripsholm’s other passengers adorned in their finest clothing smile gleefully in the presence of Garbo, unable to hold back their excitement of enjoying a fine, first class cruise with an internationally acclaimed silent-film actress. This clear contradiction of Garbo emotionally returning to America juxtaposed with the bubbly and excited passengers ready to party with a star really illustrates the moments leading up to the Gripsholm’s 1939 cruise, where the passengers again were fortunate enough to escape from the reality of the eve of the second world war, surrounded in decadence and luxury, reminding them of their enjoyably removed, high-status relative to average Americans.

At the time this movie of Garbo was taken, it is clear that the MS Gripsholm held a degree of luxury and exclusivity fit for international stars and celebrities. By 1939 though, the Depression made leisurely spending limited even more to the securely wealthy, further amplifying the Gripsholm cruises’ luxurious status. The economic context of 1939 is important here to analyze as it further asserts this menu as a moment in history with conflicting themes, one still in the midst of the effects of the Great Depression, where relatively few wealthy Americans are able to travel and actually escape, with others waiting at home in breadlines. 

NEW TECHNOLOGIES:

The MS Gripsholm gained some of its allure from its newer technological advancements, such as its newly introduced diesel engine and dual propellers, making for much faster sea travel compared to the popular steamboats of the day. The Gripsholm cruises still attracted passengers for many other amenities like air conditioning which, by the 1930s, was commonplace for naval travel but rarely found in the average American home. One such new technology on the MS Gripsholm were its updated v/w compressor refrigeration systems; introduced roughly in the late 1930s, these refrigeration systems had faster-powered engines than those prior used on cruise ships. “These machines were smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the older vertical compressors,” making them easily adaptable to the demands of a cruise ship kitchen, keeping large quantities of food fresh for longer periods of time.3 These cooling coiled refrigerator systems grew in popularity and availability, however at their start they were first implemented into passenger cruise ships, varying harshly from the conditions for naval and sea industry workers, who had to hunt and fish for their own fresh meat throughout their travel.4

1925.

MULTI-CULTURAL INFLUENCES IN MENU:

The escapism of popular culture found itself in the freezers, refrigerators, and preserved goods in the MS Gripsholm. The selected August 19th menu includes dishes like olla podrida, a stew originating from Spain and Portugal with various meats, vegetables, and legumes. The menu also features many French and Italian dishes, such as consomme florentine and chateau potatoes. There is also ample evidence of English cuisine in the 1939 menu, with such delicacies like smoked eel and veal cutlets westmorland. English influences have been common in Swedish cuisine dating back to before the 19th century, with historical cookbooks like the Fullstandisgaste Swiss-American Cookbook from 1897 which holds similar jellied eel recipes, an English tradition, as well as Swedish pickling dishes. The Fullstandisgaste cookbook is translated in both English and Swedish, highlighting the cultural transfusions between these two cultures and their greater influence on the 1939 menu and the broader multi-cultural cuisine consumed in America. These historical cookbooks use interesting and somewhat non-specific language to describe the methodical process of the recipe, with instructions like “wait until blood-warm” or “cook quite hot, in a quick oven.”5

The multicultural menu focussing on Swedish dishes excited the MS Gripsholm’s voyagers, with many returning for annual vacations, excited for the changing menu as well as classic dishes. One such classic meal aboard the Gripsholm was its’ h’ors doeurves platter, including “pickled herring, eel, salmon, fish canapes, cold cuts, head cheese, pig’s feet and “the salads.” [as well as] “hot foods”: boiled potatoes flavored with dill, egg and salmon, fish balls, etc.”6 There is a detailed historical account of one family, the Swansons, that went on regular cruises aboard the MS Gripsholm, including various letters written to friends and family at home and family photos, enjoying their vacations and detailing the excitement and joy in traveling aboard the Gripsholm.

ON THE EVE OF WAR, A CONFLICTING MOMENT:

These conflicting realities in 1939 represent the importance of this cruise as a transformative moment in American history, one shielded from the public’s strain during the Depression, and simultaneously shielded from the imminent reality of global war, sheltered in excess and fine living. The MS Gripsholm was quickly transformed from a luxury cruise ship, to a neutral vessel transporting wounded soldiers/prisoners of war back to America, and returning to its earlier usage of deporting European Americans. Here again, the theme of the MS Gripsholm’s juxtaposed uses in both fine cruises and deportation/immigration both before and after WWII reflect the conflicting experiences of people of different socioeconomic backgrounds that was exacerbated during the conditions of the 1930s. The Gripsholm’s dual usage however fostered positive relations between Sweden and the U.S., and the MS Gripsholm eventually returned to a tourism cruise ship and had continued success into the 1950s and 1960s, with former passengers excited to dive into vacation again after WWII.

Notes

  1. Golubev, Alexey, and Irina Takala. The Search for a Socialist El Dorado: Finnish Immigration to Soviet Karelia from the United States and Canada in the 1930s. Michigan State University Press, 2014.
  2. Othfors, D., 2020. Gripsholm (I) – TGOL. [online] Thegreatoceanliners.com.
  3. . Briley, George C. A History Of Refrigeration . ASHRAE.
  4. Noble, Dennis L., and Truman R. Strobridge. “Early Cuttermen in Alaskan Waters.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 3, 1987, pp. 74–82. JSTOR.
  5. Enberg, and Holmberg. “Fullständigaste Svensk-Amerikansk Kokbok : Swedish-English Cookbook.” Fullständigaste Svensk-Amerikansk Kokbok : Swedish-English Cookbook | MSU Libraries, Michigan State University, 2019.
  6. Enberg, and Holmberg. “Fullständigaste Svensk-Amerikansk Kokbok : Swedish-English Cookbook.” Fullständigaste Svensk-Amerikansk Kokbok : Swedish-English Cookbook | MSU Libraries, Michigan State University, 2019.

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