On the Water - Exhibition Theme: Dangerous Waters

Giant ocean liners were the technological and industrial marvels of the early 1900s—far larger than any other machines on earth. They had grown longer, heavier, faster, and more luxurious with nearly every passing year. Liners were works of art for ship designers and sources of national pride. The White Star Line called their flagship Titanic “practically unsinkable.”

The Wreck of the Titanic

On April 14, 1912, during the Titanic’s first voyage, the ship struck an iceberg and sank in less than three hours. Some 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers and crew perished.

A few of the Titanic’s passengers were among the wealthiest and most famous people of the day, such as John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim. But most were immigrants headed for the United States. Some 150 bodies were recovered from the North Atlantic, and about half were never identified. The best-known shipwreck in history inspired songs, books, movies, and an underwater expedition that found the fractured vessel on the ocean floor in 1985.

A Glorious Departure

The Titanic departs Southampton, England, about noon, April 10, 1912.

Life Vest from the Titanic

This canvas and cork life vest is from an unknown survivor of the Titanic disaster. Chicago physician Dr. Frank H. Blackmarr was headed to Europe on the Carpathia and tended to survivors aboard the rescue ship. The vest may have been a gift or memento from one of the survivors.

Transfer from the Chicago Historical Society

I saw the floating deck chairs...
—Bernice Palmer Ellis, January 22, 1986


Bernice Palmer Ellis was aboard the Carpathia when it came to the rescue of the Titanic passengers. She used this camera, which she had received as a gift in the winter of 1912, to take these photographs of the survivors and the icebergs.


Survivors of the Titanic aboard the Carpathia rested on deck chairs, wrapped against the cold.

Photograph taken with the camera above by Bernice Palmer Ellis, courtesy of Cara E. Bute


Icebergs in the Atlantic could be seen from the deck of the Carpathia the morning after the disaster.

Photograph taken with the camera above by Bernice Palmer Ellis

This Cunard Line map from 1912 shows the proposed route of the Titanic’s voyage. The hand-drawn additions were made by Bernice Palmer Ellis shortly after the sinking.

“Practically Unsinkable”

The Titanic was more than a ship and a tragedy. Over the years, people have come to see it as a moral lesson and a cautionary tale. The luxurious vessel was created in an era of advancing technology, economic progress, and social privilege. Even the ship’s name smacked of pride.

News of the wreck brought disbelief at first, and then profound grief and doubt. If the Titanic could go down, was anything in the modern world safe and certain? The loss of the Titanic undermined people’s faith in technology and progress.