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.
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.
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.
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
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
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.
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.