Service labour on ships was feminised, but it was monopolised by men. Besides the limited role of the stewardess, women were not employed in general service positions until the 1930s when they began to be hired as waitresses in place of male dining-room stewards. This article considers the conditions of possibility for American and British lines recruiting white women in preference to men. This occurred at two significant junctures. Firstly, during the 1930s as race became more crucial to employment on American ships in transoceanic trades, and subsequently from the late 1950s as shipping companies responded to the rise of commercial aviation. By examining the changing face of service employment at sea and the labels used to designate male and female service labour as both parallel and foil to practices on land and in flight, this article casts new interpretive light on the relationship between gender, identity, work and status.