We are grateful to John Sayers for this intriguing post, which ideally demonstrates the way in which ephemera can provide pieces of the jigsaw of social history.
One has to wonder who gave the captain this charming gift. Was it the shipping line itself, or a frequent passenger who always tried to sail with Cüppers? Captains had the power of medieval kings on board their ship. No doubt if you could ingratiate yourself with the captain, you would be given whatever you wanted. But what ship was he on when he received this presentation? Pictured is a fascinating piece of ephemera – a cigar case presented to Captain Cüppers of the North German Lloyd line on the occasion of his 100th voyage. It appears to be made of Papier Mache shaped into the form of a convenient-sized cigar case that would fit easily into a pocket of the Captain’s uniform. On one side is the inscription shown here, and on the other side is the name and the crest of the North German Lloyd shipping line. The lettering is very professional, so it may have been made and presented on shore prior to the voyage.
Postcards give us the answer. A colour postcard picturing Cüppers is undated, but the undivided back places its age near the beginning of the career of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse which made her Maiden Voyage in 1897 and captured the Blue Riband that year. Was this Cüppers ship? Another card showing Captain Cüppers has a divided back, pictures the newer Kaiser Wilhelm II, is postally used, and the year ‘1908’ can be discerned from the postmark. We hit the proverbial Jackpot! The date matches our cigar case.
Was the Kaiser Wilhelm II a prominent ship, or just an ‘old tub’? Not just an ‘old tub’. When you name your ship after the Kaiser, it has to be the best. The Kaiser Wilhelm II made her Maiden Voyage in 1903, and in June 1906 she captured the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic. But Captain Cüppers already had a long-standing record as a captain. In an article in The Illustrated American of March 8, 1895, Captain Cüppers was pictured and included in an article profiling important German ship captains.
We can’t find what became of the Captain, but six years later the Kaiser Wilhelm II was interned in New York on the outbreak of the First War and if he were still its captain, Cüppers would have been detained in America and been subsumed into American history.
This ephemera and a large number of other Ocean Liner items is contained in The Sayers Collection in the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library. A vast quantity of other ocean liner ephemera capturing social, shipping, historical, and commercial information in The Sayers Collection, will continue to migrate across the Atlantic to the John Johnson Collection after lockdown!