My Great Aunt & A Great Ship

I recently watched a documentary on Amazon called “SS United States: Lady in Waiting” about the American luxury liner “United States.” She is the fastest passenger liner ever built and still holds the record for fastest time from New York to Europe across the North Atlantic. It’s said the United States could go faster in reverse than most modern cruise ships can go forward. In her day, she was one of the most luxurious ships afloat and the way to travel to Europe for American tourists.

Sadly, today, she sits tied up at Philadelphia, gutted and rusting awaiting a future restoration that may never come – hence the title of the documentary.


SS United States currently docked in Philadelphia.

But, in May 1955, when my great aunt Maudine Sweatman boarded her, the SS United States was gleaming and new and the pride of the United States Line. Aunt Maudine was my maternal grandmother’s aunt. As I’ve written in another post, she was kind of our family’s “auntie Mame,” world-traveler and a bit eccentric. Her 1955 trip was what used to be called the “grand tour.” Maudine was gone from May until August 1955 seeing Europe and the Middle East and ending up in London in time for the Baptist World Alliance Jubilee Conference at the end of July, 1955 before returning home.

Both the beginning and ending legs of the trip were spent aboard the SS United States.


Aunt Maudine (front, left) in the tourist class dinning room on the SS United States August 2, 1955

Aunt Maudine prepared an extensive scrapbook of the trip. In it she writes of the trip aboard the United States:

This ship is only three years old when we we made our trip (beginning on) May 26, 1955, returning August 5, 1955.  We crossed the Atlantic in 4 1/2 days and docked at Le Havre at 3:45 am on May 31, 1955. Breakfast was on the ship at 6:00 am. Cleared French customs then disembarked and boarded the Boat Train for Paris.

The 48-star US flag she’s wearing in the picture above is preserved in the scrap book as are the passenger lists for both legs of the trip, luggage tags, ship-board newspapers and menus among other things. It’s a veritable time capsule of travel to Europe in the 1950s. I’m slowly working through it to preserve the memories it contains and document them as part of our family history.

Aunt Maudine died when I was twenty-one-years-old. I have fond memories of her and am reminded of her daily because the diamond in my wife’s engagement ring belonged to Maudine. She and Uncle Tom had no children so her personal effects were passed along to my grandmother who offered the diamond to me when I became engaged to my wife.

If you’d like more information on the SS United States and efforts to preserve her, check out the SS United States Conservancy.

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