“boats were made of wood and men were made of steel”

I saw this phrase in this webcomic. 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. Is this a reference to the book, or an English saying? What does it mean exactly?

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 1
    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
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 23:11
  • @Sarriesfan - "many great sailors came from Scotland, Wales and Ireland" I'm sure they did but are they famously nostalgic about it? That is the question. Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 14:00
  • Yes as ship builders and ship’s engineers, that’s why Scotty is on the Enterprise in Star Trek.
    – Sarriesfan
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 19:40


The poem "Clipper Ships and Captains" by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet, starts with:

There was a time before our time,
It will not come again,
When the best ships still were wooden ships
But the men were iron men.


This phrase is a clever analogy referring to the the strengthening of man’s technology and the weakening of man’s physical strengths and abilities. Boats were made of wood and our forefathers were fearless and tough. Now boats are made of steel and we are frightful and weak. Our forefathers used to hunt for food and now we just press buttons on a phone while sitting on the couch. Our forefathers fight diseases and illnesses now we cower in our homes for protection instead of addressing preexisting conditions that make us more susceptible.


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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