The stowaway craze of the 1920s

In the 1920s, young Americans kindled a new craze: Stowing away on ships bound for overseas adventures. The goal? To get famous and, in predigital media, go viral.

My friend Laurie Gwen Shapiro has just published a book about one famous stowaway who went all the way to Antarctica, and in this New Yorker piece she describes the rapid growth of the trend …

The stowaway fad, however, was a different kind of social phenomenon. It was part of the attention-seeking aesthetic of the Jazz Age, a larksome activity similar to flagpole sitting, outrageous swimming challenges, and "buildering"—the art of climbing skyscrapers. But, unlike other stunts, becoming a stowaway wasn't just for kicks. Many of these rapscallions, like the New Yorker Billy Gawronski, who dived into the Hudson and climbed on board an expedition to Antarctica, were determined to see new worlds. Such youngsters wanted a taste of the adventures they had glimpsed at the movies. And, in the new age of the mass media, each stowaway's story of success incited more attempts.

The fad reached its peak around 1927 and 1928, when more than five hundred stowaways were caught and deported from Ellis Island, including many young women who were looking for a shortcut to fame. In 1929, one reporter asked, "Who are the flapper thrill-seekers who now run away to sea—usurping a prerogative once held solely by the boys?" The article recounted the tale of the twenty-year-old Rose Host, the eldest of five children of Czechoslovakian immigrants in Brooklyn, who had been a member of the impresario Earl Carroll's "Vanities" stage troupe, billed as a revue of the world's most beautiful women. Host had also won two beauty contests, and was fixated on a career in motion pictures. After a row with her dad, she used a visitor pass to get aboard a Panama-Pacific liner to California. With a shiny half dollar and a volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, she hid herself for several hours after the ship set sail, then presented herself to the captain, saying that she simply had to get to Hollywood, but didn't have a cent to spare. She offered him her Emerson book, certain that it would lead him to treat her kindly. It didn't wash, though he did forgo putting her in chains. She was put to use in the purser's office, stamping passenger forms. The newspapers rushed to publish her story, and when a New York producer learned about the travails of the former chorus girl, he gallantly paid for her passage. Host was set ashore in San Diego, and was almost immediately given a role in a Paramount picture, "Shootin' Irons."

Stowaways were a popular device for novels of the age, too, many of which are pre-1923 and thus freely readable/downloadle online. For your reading pleasure tonight: The Stowaway Girl, Reminiscences of a Stowaway, The Arctic Stowaways, and Silent Pete: Or, the Stowaways.