STCA

STCA letterhead, 318.03 Passage, 477 Students’ Triges (1925), HAL Archives

I came across the records of the Student Third Class Association (STCA) in the Holland America Line archives in Rotterdam while I was on the endless chase to track-down records on the Floating University, which also sailed on a Holland America Line ship. At first I could not believe what I was reading. Was it really possible that a major transatlantic shipping company ran a student organisation as a front for their commercial rebranding? The answer, it seemed, was yes.

My article on the STCA, which was founded in the early 1920s by a student of Yale University called James Stanton Robbins and sponsored by the Holland America Line throughout the interwar period, has just been published in Diplomatic History, and it sheds light on much bigger questions in the history of U.S. foreign relations in this period.

Working for the Holland America Line in the 1920s, J.S. Robbins presented the Student Third Class Association as a student organization and the voyage across the Atlantic as an extension of college life. Deftly exploiting cultures of trust embedded in elite East Coast college life, Robbins recruited students to sell third class travel to each other, and in the process played a major role in laundering the reputation of steerage travel by commodifying university prestige. The indignities of Ellis Island, the notorious conditions in steerage, and the prevalence of white, middle-class fears of racial and class-based contamination are well established in the history of 1920s United States, as is the generally white and elite nature of East Coast colleges and universities. This article shows that in the mid-1920s, the STCA used U.S. students to foster the idea that long distance travel was affordable, accessible, and acceptable to the U.S. middle-class.

Yet Robbins and his fellow student travel organizers have disappeared almost entirely from the history of Americans abroad in the early 1920s. The rapid growth of student third class travel across the Atlantic in this period is usually portrayed either as part of the history of U.S. tourism (a 1925 innovation of the shipping companies in response to the dramatic reduction of steerage traffic from Europe to the United States after the introduction of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Restriction Act) or as a footnote in the history of international education (which tends to cast the shipping companies as merely a means to get to Europe for the summer). This article provides a new account of the cultural and economic politics of travel in the interwar period, showing how the ground of post-1945 mass overseas tourism was laid in the 1920s by U.S. college students who, both as travelers and retailers, remade the hierarchy of steamship travel and the politics of class formation.

I think the history of the STCA is important to the history of U.S. foreign relations because it collapses boundaries between consumer and producer, campuses and commerce, and the United States and the world in the 1920s. In doing so it helps de-naturalize this series of binaries that remain stubbornly entrenched in our histories. The STCA highlights how central universities and colleges were to the United States’ commodifying empire, not just as engines of expertise and ways of knowing, but also as sites that fashioned what Paul Kramer has recently called “bourgeois internationalism’s structuring habitus”—the college ties, elite mobility, and geopolitical imaginary that functioned as a key component of U.S. internationalism and cultural and dollar diplomacy before and after the Second World War.

In uncovering the intimate relationship between the expansion into Europe of the networks of this commercial empire and the thick cultures of sociability cultivated in elite white East Coast college campuses in the period after the First World War, this article responds to Kramer’s call for “bridge-building projects that join local, subnational, and national histories of U.S. capitalism to transnational histories of the capitalist world economy.” Highlighting the centrality of college students as commercial as well as cultural intermediaries, both domestically and abroad, it shows how post-1945 U.S. foreign relations drew upon the commercial and cultural entanglements of the interwar period.

You can read the full text of the article here.

Tamson Pietsch, “Commercial Travel and College Culture: The 1920s Transatlantic Student Market and the Foundations of Mass Tourism” Diplomatic History, Volume 43, Issue 1, pp 83-106 https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhy059