Flashback: Shipping in the 1960s and 70s

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file photo

Published Jun 8, 2019 9:38 PM by Joe Zehner, James Taylor and Elroy Dittmer

The modern shipping office as well as the modern offices of today boast of many machines, devices and systems which were not imagined much less available when I was hired at a shipping agency office in New Orleans.  

Communication has always been at the heart of shipping as it is for almost all businesses. When I began my career in shipping in the mid 1960’s, the primary means of communication was by telephone.  Telephones were land lines, and long-distance calling was not as easy as it is today. Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) lines were used for long distance calls and did not permit simultaneous users on the same line. 

The closest system to E-mail that we had at that time was the telex machine. This apparatus was used for international as well as domestic communications and was our primary means of having what we would call a “paper trail” of communications or transactions. I will amplify more below regarding the telex. 

Cellphones were also a thing of fantasy. When not in the office, the use of payphones was the normal method of communication for agency personnel. In many companies due to the volume of outside calls required, operations personnel were issued rolls of dimes on a regular basis to defray the cost of the calls. 

Another difference from today’s operations is that most ship line owners or principals as they were referred to then were represented by agencies. Many of these agencies were local, however there were some national companies with offices in many ports and inland sales offices. There were some who even had foreign offices at strategic locations in the world. An example of this was Norton Lilly International who had an agency office at the Panama Canal Zone. To my knowledge, there were no computers in ship agency offices in the South.  The sound of typewriters was the norm in those days rather than the clack of computer keyboards. 

Office Locations

In New Orleans, Houston, Mobile and in most other U.S. Gulf ports, the offices were in the downtown area. It was not unusual for several firms to be in the same office building. This was generally the case for other shipping businesses as well. Clients included the ship lines (principals), actual manufacturers (shippers) and freight forwarders who acted as agents for the shipper. 

In this capacity, the freight forwarder often conducted services for the shipper such as selecting the ocean carrier, booking the cargo and arranging freight deliveries to the ship line terminal. Even though at that time there were many local forwarders, it was rare for a forwarder to have more than one or two offices in other cities and even rarer to have forwarders with offices in foreign countries.  
Steamship Agencies 

During this era, and other than American flag companies, it was unusual for a steamship line to have their own offices. Much of the shipping community were steamship agencies which represented foreign flag companies. Many of the agencies also had stevedoring companies, freight handlers (railcar unloaders) and offered other dock related services. The stevedoring and other services generally produced more revenue than the agency work. Nearly all cargo other than bulk materials moved on a breakbulk basis. Containers had not yet entered the scene, so bags, drums, crates, pallets, etc. were all handled by forklift and in many cases hand labor. 


Many of the agencies and American flag company offices employed relatively large staffs. The larger agency offices frequently consisted of up to 100 or more workers. Most of the workforce was male and relatively young. Female employees were usually secretaries and teletype/ telephone operators. At that time in the offices, these were vital positions mainly because the ladies had typing skills! 

The mid 1960s were only 20 years after the end of World War II, and many of the mid-level managers were WWII vets. The majority of the lower level workers were baby boomers. The senior managers were often the founders of the company or relatives of the founders of the agencies which had grown in the post-war years.  

In agencies representing foreign shipping lines there was usually a line manager, an assistant line manager and a cargo clerk. Various companies had their own policies of work responsibilities, but generally the line manager handled relations with the principal (ship line operator), the assistant line manager kept track of cargo bookings (space reservations all by pencil and paper) and the cargo clerk kept track of deliveries and stamped delivery orders.  

The delivery order was a document which provided a description of the cargo, where it was going and who would deliver it to the ship dock. The cargo clerk would stamp (rubber stamp) the dock order with the appropriate dock information which then would go to the delivering carrier rail or truck. When the cargo was delivered, the receiving clerk at the dock (employee of the terminal operator) would mark the dock order with pertinent information about the cargo including measurements and cargo condition. This completed form was then considered a dock receipt and a copy was sent to the agency office to keep track of what was delivered against a given booking. No electronic transmission!  

School Environment  

Some of the owner offices and large agencies had management training programs which exposed the candidate to all phases of the industry. Many of the lower level employees joined the agencies as their first job and on-the-job-training was often the method that was used. For most of the jobs there was no requirement for higher education or technical qualifications. No program certifications or computers were available. Some offices consisted of several young men, and this led to school-like atmosphere. If you were willing to learn, there were opportunities to take advantage of the experience of the mid-level managers and some “old salts.”  

Value of Typing Skills  

In that era before e-mail, many men were not good typists. During this era, letters were still the principal method of communication. With copy machines still rare, letters were normally written with many carbon-copies. While the term carbon-copy is still used today, it means now a machine copy. In those days, copies were actually produced by having carbon paper between several pieces of paper which in some cases would be as many as four or five. If a mis-type happened, the correction had to be made by using an eraser on the original as well as each carbon-copy.  

The eraser was often a wheel of course rubber with a metal strap with a green brush attached and using a small metal shield to protect the paper below from getting smudged. This process was very time consuming and annoying. Letters were either dictated to the secretary who would use shorthand or dictation onto a Dictaphone machine (tape recorder). The recording was then typed as a draft and then approved by the sender prior to a final copy being prepared for signing and mailing.

Typing skills were also valuable for use in sending a teletype. The teletype was the fore runner of e-mail and transmitted over a special telephone line which was hardwired into the office. When someone opened an office, the first thing that was required was to arrange for the teletype machine. 

ITT had a lock on this method of communication. Transmission on the line was billed by the minute and therefore an economy of words was preferred. A jargon of teletype was developed, and in earlier days the word “stop” was used between sentences. Later, punctuation was used to for this function. To further shorten the time of transmission, the machine had a device which would punch a series of small holes in a yellow paper tape about one inch in width to represent characters. The writer would put the tape into the punch device and then type the message. When ready, the machine would dial on a rotary dial and when a tone was heard the tape would be activated and transmit the message. This method saved a lot of time as the teletype often was dictated to the operator. 

Most of the men in the office did not know how to operate the teletype. As shipping offices operated on a 24/7 basis, the teletype operator often had to standby for late messages. We stayed in the office for after hours or weekend work as working from home was not a practice at that time.


The telephone was the most common form of communication during this time and most offices had a switchboard. The company I worked for had a switchboard with a black panel with many holes and wires and a plug at the end. The telephone operators would direct the calls to the appropriate parties.  

The telephone operators were the very best source of information on what was really going on as they often listened into telephone conversations. A box of candy or a flower bouquet to the lady telephone and teletype operators was a good investment if you wanted to know what was going on with the company.

Office Layout  

The layout of the offices was usually bull pens without individual cubicles and offices for the managers and senior executives. Most steamship agencies had a long counter whose purpose was to receive documents and or lay out documents for consolidation. Couriers would bring documents to be stamped and then pick up documents that were completed. 

Walking Couriers  

As most offices were within walking distance of each other, there were courier companies who employed walking couriers who would carry documents between the agency offices, customers (freight forwarders) and the U.S. Customs House. Some companies used in-house employees as couriers as well as the outside courier companies.  

Office Attire

Most offices in New Orleans required men to wear a dress shirt and tie. Many men wore a suit. Like most young men, I bought cheap suits with two pair of pants, because you would hang up your jacket on arrival and probably not put it on again until leaving at night. In some other cities, office’s dress codes were more relaxed. For example, in Houston it was casual Friday all week in most offices.


Documentation generally meant bills of lading and manifests.  

The bill of lading is the essential document of shipping by ocean, and often by other modes of transportation as well. The bill of lading provides who is shipping to whom, on which ship from and two which ports and a description of the cargo being shipped. It also sets out the conditions of carriage with protections for the carrier. 

I have always thought of it as a check for the goods. The bill of lading is signed, and the consignee endorses the bill of lading to retrieve the goods at destination. In those days the bill of lading was on a printed form exclusive to the ocean carrier. While most conditions were standard some variances did occur. The information was placed onto the paper forms by use of a ditto master. The ditto master was a sheet of paper with a clay substance on one side. The information would be typed, or in rare circumstances handwritten, this produced a “master” which would be attached to the drum of a ditto machine and the bill of lading forms would pass through the machine and the images appeared on the forms in purple.  

Ether was used as a medium so one had to careful not to fall asleep running documents! The completed bills of lading were put together in sets, stamped and then signed by authorized personnel who were to verify the information prior to document release.  

Government regulations required a paper shipper's export declaration (SED) be filed at the customhouse. The document was numbered by U.S. Customs and the carrier then needed to have this on hand for all cargo. Shippers and forwarders used couriers to deliver these documents to the customhouse and to the agent's offices. This was decades before the electronic filing of export declarations.  

The SEDs had to be assembled for presentation to U.S. Customs within four days of the clearance of the vessel. Customs would audit that agencies to confirm compliance and heavy fines were issued for any discrepancy. SED information was then and still is collected by the Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce in order to generate import and export statistics. U.S. Customs collects the SEDs and issues any fines for late and or incorrect filings.

Employees called freight cashiers handled the release of the bills of ladings, and they determined if a given forwarder or shipper had “Due Bill” privileges (credit agreement) or were required pay cash to obtain the original bills of lading. The consignee would need the original bill of lading to retrieve the cargo at its destination. At that time, there was no electronic transfer of documents and infrequent wire transfer of funds.

Letters of Credit then as they do now may impose restrictions on what the bill of lading must or must not state and how many originals were to be issued.

Manifests were required and were also produced by means of ditto master to make the required number of copies. For ships making long international voyages, bill of lading copies and manifests would be sent by international courier. Company employees would sometime carry them via air flight to the destination. 

Unlike today where we often send export manifests to ports of discharge electronically, in the 1960s there was no e-mail or computers. In many cases and particularly if the vessel's transit time to her first foreign port was short, the documents had to be placed onboard prior to sailing. This mandated the line and or their agency to get all the documents printed, assembled and rushed to the vessel prior to sailing. The volume of paper documents was very often quite large. Naturally, it often had to be transported and delivered by hand usually in the middle of the night due to the 24-hour nature of the shipping business. 

In connection with import cargo coming into the U.S., the basic procedures for handling the cargo in many ways mirrored the protocols used for export goods. Cargo manifests were received from the origin port(s) by the agent at the discharge port. If your port was the first on the itinerary, your agency was responsible for assembling and presenting the “traveling manifest” for U.S. Customs. 

The first port agent also was required to keep a full copy of the traveler in case of any inquiries or discrepancies. The importer or owner of the import goods would employ a CHB customs house broker (CHB) to prepare the required Customs entry. The broker would obtain from the client all information needed to prepare this entry including the payment of any relevant duties or fees due to the government. 

Brokers as did forwarders outline above offered a range of services in addition to customs clearance such as inland trucking, payment of pier charges and document deliveries to the respective parties. Prior to cargo pickup, the agent for the vessel had to receive the endorsed original bill of lading for the goods to prove ownership. The agent also had to receive prior to cargo release a written copy of the customs clearance. 

In the modern era, most releases are done electronically via AMS (automated manifest system). In some ports for example New Orleans, cargo wharf age fees assessed by the port authority also had to be paid in advance by the cargo owner or their CHB. A copy of the delivery order must also be delivered to the agent in advance with the OBL and customs clearance. It is customary for marine terminals to charge a loading and or unloading truck, rail or barge fee based on the cargo type. This fee must be paid at the time of delivery and is normally arranged by the CHB who have an account with the terminal. 

Marine ports/terminals normally allow a certain number of “free days” that the cargo may be stored on the terminal to permit the above required protocols. If the cargo remains past the free days specified, the port/terminal will assess a penalty (demurrage) that also must be paid prior to the cargo release. This charge is also normally paid for the client by their CHB. Any cargo damage sighted on delivery must be reported to the line and or agent. After a decision is made by the cargo owner, cargo condition must be documented on the delivery order before cargo release.

Office Machines  

Common office machines were: Manual adding machines (with handle) most offices had electric (not electronic) adding machines. Some offices still used comptometers which is a mechanical adding machine with about 100 keys. Look it up on the internet, these were usually used to audit calculations.  Mechanical calculators again not electronic but manual. 

A copy device called a “jelly roll” machine was a table covered with a clay substance, a master of a manifest or bill of lading was created with a special two-part sheet, typed. This was then spread on the clay surface and removed. A blank form was then laid on the image, pressed with a squeegee and the image was then transferred to the blank form. Several copies of the document would be created this way.  This method was used prior to the ditto machine which instead used an ether-based fluid to copy from a master form to make multiple copies of bills of lading, manifest and other documents.  

At first the ditto machine was operated by hand crank. In later years, ditto machines were electric powered. At that time, electric typewriters were rare, so most offices used manual typewriters to type the ditto masters. The purple ink got on everything! Instead of the IT person now coming to help with a malfunctioning computer, the call back then was made to the typewriter repairman to solve the problem. 

Operations and Husbandry  

This function included vessel docking and undocking, pilotage, vessel boardings 24/7 and contact with government agencies including customs, plant quarantine and public health. In addition, arranging ship’s crew matters/needs as well as stevedoring coordination fell under this department.

Vessels would send their estimated time of arrival (ETA) at the sea buoy of their arrival port and the agent would then coordinate with the pilot organizations. For example, in New Orleans as in some other U.S. ports, there is more than one pilot authority. Coordination with the pilots as well as the tug companies and line handlers was essential to avoid any delays in transiting, docking and sailing.  

Delays could be costly with emphasis on the stevedores (longshore labor was ordered on arrival) as well as some safety issues. The agent was responsible also for coordinating with all government agencies such as U. S. Customs (Customs name before becoming part of DHS). Since 9/11, all government entities which included Immigration, Plant Quarantine and Public Health which in past operated as separate agencies now fall under the umbrella of the DHS.  

A vessel arriving from an overseas port was considered a “foreign arrival.” This entailed the presence of all government agencies to clear the vessel for entry into the U.S. The vessel was considered in quarantine until cleared, and no outside parties were permitted to board until the quarantine flag was taken down from the ship’s mast. 

If arriving from another U.S. Port, it was considered “coastwise” arrival. If the ship was transiting coastwise, she had to have a “traveling manifest” which listed all cargo on board for each discharge port. Back then, all of this was done on paper. Often the agent was boarding with U.S. Customs, Plant Quarantine, representatives of other government authority. This group was called the “boarding party.” Many functions had to be followed up at the Customs House. Regulations were very strict and remain that way today although many functions are handled electronically today.

In the 1970s, government agencies were more active than they are today. U.S. Customs officers boarded every ship on arrival no matter what the arrival time. This was curtailed later due to budgetary reasons, as officers were perceived to be making too much overtime. 

Any ship that could not produce their port clearance was subject to a fine or possible arrest. Ships were required to account for their transit if longer than expected by Customs. Any extended diversions had to be accounted for with copies of ship's log. A significant problem was ships coming from the vicinity of Bermuda and or the Bahamas due to drug trafficking. 

A foreign arrival was a major event on the East Coast particularly in those days. If a Soviet vessel arrival, the boarding party included the customs, immigration, USDA, USCG and the State Department. A foreign arrival often required using two boarding agents due to the volume of paperwork for all the different government agencies involved. There were many restrictions regarding Warsaw Pact crewmen, and majority of the crew were not allowed ashore.  

As we had not yet entered the electronic age, immigration officers carried thick books with the records of all seaman. Those with a record of rules violation or illegal shore activity would be detained on board and, in some cases, require having a security guard on the vessel. All Warsaw Pact vessels were considered a security risk, and advanced arrivals were strictly monitored. Any port with significant U.S. Navy or other Department of Defense activity was forbidden to these vessels which were considered SIV ships (Special Interest Vessels).  

Communications with the ship while in port was done in person, as ships were not allowed to use their radios transmitters while in port. It was usual for the agent to visit the vessel every morning to communicate with the Captain on any ship's needs. When a ship was at anchor, the agent would have to visit by launch. If communications with the office were needed the agent would have to take a launch ashore, contact the office by payphone and then launch back to the ship.  

Entry onto the ship could either be done by a gangway hanging over the rail of the ship or a pilot ladder which is often called a “Jacob's ladder.” This method was and still is an interesting climb especially when carrying a briefcase crammed with many pages of manifest and other documents. Handheld two-way radios came into being in the 1970s and later include a “phone pad” which allowed us to make a telephone call via the marine operator. There were no cellphones then, as they also arrived only in the late 1970’s. It is common practice now for most agencies to place a cellphone on the vessel on arrival allowing direct communication with the vessel while in port. 

An important item for boarding agents to have in those days was carbon paper. Most ships did not have copy machines thus anything that required a copy would be written using pencil carbon so that the agent and ship had a copy.  

Most of the above relates to breakbulk cargo shipments, but most agencies also represented bulk carriers which are sometimes referred to as full cargo vessels. These vessels often had to arrive and anchor and be inspected prior to being put on a waiting list for the bulk terminal which would perform the cargo loading.  

The vessel had to be boarded with a boarding party as mentioned above. Inspectors had to be arranged, and when the vessel was deemed ready for loading, a Notice of Readiness had to be presented to the loading terminal and other parties. This was all required to be done on paper and presented in person. Telephone coordination of all these functions was required and often from pay phones in all kinds of weather.  

For some of us older shipping folks, we wonder how we were able to function back then without all the modern computers, cellphones, e-mail, electronic transmission of documents and many more of the devices we take so much for granted now but that did not exist in the 1960s and most of the 1970s. When handheld radios were introduced, we thought this was about as good as it would get. Despite all the changes in the modern era, some of the shipping practices of the 60s and 70s are still being used today. This is particularly true in the vessel operations department. It would be very difficult and maybe even impossible, to operate modern container ships without computer assistance. We are now on the doorstep of autonomous ships and perhaps even self-operating container cranes. 

Breakbulk cargo still moves to ports around the world, and many of the practices followed many decades ago are still employed. However, specialized vessels, containers and modular cargoes are capturing some of this cargo as well. Integrated systems can now record when cargo is loaded into a container, the container can be tracked from manufacturer's loading dock to ship terminal to on board, at sea and when it arrives. Fewer and fewer people are needed to be in the loop. Transportation is not the only field that this trend exists.  

Shipping was a community in the 1960s and 70s – some of us even had fun!

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.