The company was founded in 1824 by Ferdinand Laeisz as a hat manufacturing company. He was quite successful and distributed his hats even in South America. In 1839, he had the three-masted wooden brig Carl (named after his son) built and entered the shipping business, but lack of success made him sell the ship a short five years later.
Ferdinand's son Carl Laeisz entered the business in 1852. It was he who turned the F. Laeisz company into a shipping business. In 1857, they ordered a barque which they named Pudel (which was the nickname of Carl's wife Sophie), and from the mid 1880s on, all their ships had names starting with "P" and they became known as "the P-line". The last ship without a "P-name" was the wooden barque Henriette Behn which was stranded on the Mexican coast in 1885.
The Laeisz company specialized in the South American nitrate trade. Their ships were built for speed, and they soon acquired an excellent reputation for timeliness and reliability, which gave rise to the nickname "the Flying P-Line". The five-masted barque Potosi made the voyage from Chile to England around Cape Horn in 1904 in just 57 days, which was a record at the time.
The Laeisz company had some of the largest sailing ships ever built. They experimented with steel-hulled five-masters, first the barque Potosi (1895) and in 1902 the huge full rigger Preussen with a length of 147 m, 5.081 GRT, and over 7.800 tons dead weight. She could sail faster than 18 knots and her best 24-hour distance was 392 sm in 1908 on her voyage to Yokohama. However, these ships turned out to be too big: their crews didn't like them, and it became increasingly difficult to achieve a satisfactory utilization on the outbound leg from Europe to Chile. The later ships, such as the Peking or the Passat, returned to being smaller four-masted barques.
During World War I, many of Laeisz' ships were blocked in Chilean ports and had to be handed over as war reparations. However, the Laeisz company was able to re-acquire many ships after the war and put them into service again.
Towards the end of the 1920s, the company began pulling out of the nitrate trade and increasingly started transporting other goods, e.g. bananas. They also sold some of their older ships, for instance the Pamir to Gustav Erikson in Finland who already had acquired the former Norddeutscher Lloyd-ship Herzogin Cecilie. The last sailing ship ordered by the Laeisz company was the Padua in 1926. Subsequently, the Laeisz company only ordered steam ships.
Four of the Flying P-Liners still exist today:
Other famous Flying P-Liners were the five-masters
and of course the four-masted barques
The Laeisz shipping company still exists today, operating many freighters under traditional names.