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I saw this phrase in this webcomic: http://explosm.net/comics/3932 . From the context I guess it means "long time ago". I couldn't find anything about this on the web except a book with the same name(http://www.amazon.com/When-Boats-Were-Made-Steel/dp/1491015179). Is this a reference to the book, or an english saying? What does it mean exactly?

Thanks in advance.

3

The English are famously nostalgic about their naval tradition, which mostly comes from the late age of sail, 1750-1850. During that era, ships were invariably built from wood, and the sailors who crewed them are, in imagination and literature, depicted as strong and unyielding- like steel. "Wooden ships and iron men" is something of a cliche in referring to that era.

The C&H cartoon imagines an old man reminiscing about the past, and suggests that he's alluding to that era of wooden sailing ships. But his further comment in the third panel reveals that he's really talking about an (imaginary, of course) battle between a navy with wooden ships and cyborgs- men literally made of steel: robots.

  • It would be better to say the British are famously nostalgic about their naval tradition, many great sailors came from Scotland, Wales and Ireland. – Sarriesfan Oct 28 '16 at 23:11
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The phrase was used to refer to men who served on smaller ships. Smaller ships like frigates, at some point, used to made from wood while larger ones like cruisers were made from steel. Life was harder on the smaller ones because the crew had less space.

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