Speed and Luxury

For wealthy Americans, travel in Europe was a mark of status. In the early 1900s, passenger ships catered to these customers by providing extravagant spaces at sea on a par with fine hotels and restaurants. Britain, Germany, and France competed to create showpiece “ships of state,” and new steamers appeared every few years that could lay claim to being more spacious, more luxurious, swifter, and safer than anything that had sailed before.



British passenger liner Mauretania

Built at Newcastle, England, 1907

Passenger capacity as built: 563 first class, 464 second, 1,138 third & steerage

Crew: 812

Gift of Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Mauretania

The Mauretania was built for speed—to recapture the prize for the fastest Atlantic crossing, called the Blue Riband. The ship boasted the first steam-turbine engines on a passenger liner. But the Mauretania was luxurious and versatile as well as fast. The British government also insisted that the vessel be capable of conversion into an armed warship. In September 1909, the Mauretania won the Blue Riband with an average speed of 26.06 knots (30 mph). The record stood for 20 years.

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Arriving in England

Mauretania passengers from America land by tender at Plymouth, England, 1925.

Photograph by Gill

Courtesy of Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Games at Sea

Passengers traveling on the Mauretania in second class enjoy games in mid-ocean, 1911.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress


Style Afloat

English architect and landscape designer Harold A. Peto planned the Mauretania’s interiors. Typical of ocean-going style at the time, he treated the ship’s most elaborate spaces in a mixture of historic styles that matched the look of fashionable hotels, clubs, and apartment houses. The ship’s builders hired 300 woodworkers from Palestine for two years to carve the ship’s decoration.

Smoking Room

This smoking room evoked a late-Renaissance Italian palazzo. Men traveling in first class retired to this room after dinner to drink, talk, and play games.

Dining Saloons

The first-class dining saloon was inspired by mid-16th century French châteaux. Above its oak splendor rose a dome dotted with the signs of the zodiac. The same space in third class was simple and utilitarian. Both spaces had communal tables and swivel chairs, holdovers from the 1800s.


Luncheon menu from the Lusitania, the Mauretania’s sister ship, 1908


The Black Gang

Coal-fired steamships like the Mauretania stayed on schedule only through the backbreaking labor of the boiler-room crew. The “black gang” included trimmers, who shifted coal inside the bunkers; coal-passers, who brought it by the barrowful to each boiler; and firemen, who worked the fires. Stoking and tending the furnaces took considerable skill.

It was also relentless, dangerous, hellishly hot, and amazingly dirty work.

The stokehold of a steamship

From J. D. Jerrold Kelley’s The Ship's Company and Other Sea People, 1896

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Cunard Line advertising graphic, 1907

Stokers shoveled between 850 and 1,000 tons of coal a day to keep the Mauretania moving at speeds of 20 to 25 knots (23–28.8 mph).


Seagoing tourists

New immigration laws dramatically cut the flow of immigrants to the United States in the 1920s. Facing a devastating loss of income, steamship companies converted their steerage spaces into low-cost cabins marketed to middle-class tourists and business travelers. Steamship lines also began to experiment with cruising—sending their ships on leisure trips to scenic spots around the world. The Mauretania made 54 cruises between 1923 and 1934.

White Star Line brochure highlighting the amenities of the new “tourist third cabin” accommodations, 1920s

“And She Sails the Ocean Blue”

Cunard Line cruise brochure, 1934


The Mauretania’s first-class lounge


Gift of Thos. W. Ward, Ltd.

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Skylight and Plaster Panels from R.M.S. Majestic

Ocean liner skylights (lanterns) brought filtered daylight into various interior spaces of the ship, adding elegance to dining areas, libraries, and lounges. The skylight above was one of several installed in the White Star Liner Majestic.

These plaster panels decorated the first-class dining saloon on the Majestic. They depict early vessels and naval battles. When the Majestic was broken up in 1914, the shipbreakers installed the panels under this skylight in their boardroom.


First-class dining saloon on R.M.S. Majestic, 1890s

Photograph by Underwood and Underwood

Courtesy of Paul Louden-Brown—White Star Line Archive