On the Water

Comfort, Courtesy, Safety, Speed

Beginning in the 1920s, shipowners tried to sell all passengers on the pleasures of the journey.

A few wealthy travelers—and immigrants by the millions—filled ocean liners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, steamship lines did not try to attract the potential travelers in between. But in the 1920s, changing immigration laws halted the flow of immigrants and eroded the shipping lines’ profits. Then they began to market their ships as delightful ocean-going experiences for nearly everyone—smart, modern, safe, affordable, and fun.

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.

Ship model, RMS Mauretania [1907]
Ship model, RMS Mauretania

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

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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.

  • 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

Skylight and Plaster Panels from RMS Majestic [1890]
Skylight and Plaster Panels from RMS Majestic

Gift of Thos. W. Ward, Ltd.

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

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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



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.

RMS Titanic Life Vest [1912]
RMS Titanic Life Vest

Life Vest from the Titanic

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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 Ellis' Kodak Brownie Camera [ca. 1912]
Bernice Ellis' Kodak Brownie Camera


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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.

A Disaster in Song, 1912

Singers and songwriters found different meanings in the loss of the Titanic. At first, many songs mourned the loss of the passengers and applauded the bravery of the crew. But as time went by, songs began to focus on a reckless captain, an arrogant shipping line, and cowardly passengers and crew. The wreck was a moral lesson, according to some, that pride ends in disaster and that the poor always suffer at the hands of the rich. These songs express some of the grief, pride, and outrage that the disaster inspired.

“The Titanic’s Disaster” song sheet cover

“My Sweetheart Went Down with the Ship” song sheet cover

Titanic Heroes” song sheet cover


The steamship United States was the fastest ocean liner ever built. It crossed the Atlantic in a record-setting eastbound time of 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes in 1952. But during the 1960s, commercial flights overtook sea voyages as the most popular way to cross the oceans. No ship could hope to compete with the speed of jet aircraft. Ads for ocean travel focused on fun and relaxation for all aboard, first class through fourth. As Cunard Line put it in its 1950s ad campaign, “Getting There is Half the Fun.”

Mural Painting, The Currents  [1952]
Mural Painting, The Currents

Transfer from Department of Commerce, U.S. Maritime Administration

The Currents

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Anne Urquhart and Dorothy Marckwald designed all the passenger interiors on the United States. They hired Raymond Wendell to create the painted aluminum wall panels, called the Currents, in the first-class observation lounge. The panel’s unusual materials—paint and metal leaf on aluminum—met the naval architects’ aim that the ship be fireproof.

One thing we don’t do on a ship is use color that is at all yellowish green—you know, anything that will remind a traveler of the condition of his stomach.
—Dorothy Marckwald, interior designer, S.S. United States
SS United States Poster
SS United States Poster

Relaxation and a Pleasant Voyage...

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Posters, brochures, and ads like these reminded travelers that ocean voyages, even for business, were a vacation. You arrive faster on an airplane, but you would arrive happier on an ocean liner.

Newest, Largest and Fastest

United States Lines poster, about 1952

Brochures and deck plans for Tourist, Cabin, and First Class, 1960s

Print ads for the United States portrayed sailing as leisurely and fun when undertaken on “a ‘playground’ 5 city blocks long.”


The United States

The passenger liner United States was built at Newport News, Virginia, in 1952. Its capacity as built was 888 first class, 524 cabin, and 544 tourist class. The ship sailed with a crew of 1,036.

Subsidized by the U.S. Navy, the United States could be converted from a 2,000-person passenger liner into a 14,000-person troop ship in a few days. To cut the ship’s weight and reduce fire hazards, naval architect William Francis Gibbs insisted on aluminum throughout. He even tried unsuccessfully to commission aluminum pianos from Steinway & Sons. All 22,000 pieces of furniture aboard were framed in aluminum.

Wardrobe Trunk [ca. 1930]
Wardrobe Trunk

Wardrobe Trunk

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Max Isenbergh, a Washington lawyer, used this trunk from the 1930s to the 1960s for travel around the United States and to Europe. He and his family relocated to Paris in 1956 when he took an appointment at the American embassy. The Isenberghs used this trunk in their first-class stateroom aboard the S.S. United States.

Gift of Michael R. Harrison

Modern Luxury

Cabins aboard the United States looked modern and metallic, marked by glass, aluminum, plastic, and man-made textiles. There was nothing opulent or Victorian about the ship’s interior design.

All of the artifacts here were used on the United States. The aluminum panel, painted by Constance Smith, is from the “Duck Suite,” one of the ship’s deluxe passenger suites. After one cruise, these woman’s evening shoes were found in a ceiling light fixture.

Painting from the Duck Suite, SS United States [1950s]
Painting from the Duck Suite, SS United States
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Ash Tray, SS United States [1950s]
Ash Tray, SS United States
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Salad Fork, SS United States [1950s]
Salad Fork, SS United States
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Champagne Bucket, SS United States [1950s]
Champagne Bucket, SS United States
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Dessert Plate, SS United States [1950s]
Dessert Plate, SS United States
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Champagne Glass, SS United States [1952]
Champagne Glass, SS United States
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Courtesy of Joan Browning and the SS United States Conservancy

A Family Cruise

Eight-year-old Joan Browning and her family sailed to and from Europe on the SS United States in 1955. During their voyages, they played bingo, watched the sights from the decks, and enjoyed the ship’s food and service. Years later, Ms. Browning called the ship “the best America had to offer.”

Dinner menu from April 18, 1955

Bellboy Rota

All of the officers and engineers and most of the crew of the United States were Americans. Joe Rota, at the left, signed on in 1956 as a bellboy. Occasionally, the ship’s schedule allowed the crew a day off in London or Paris.

Courtesy of Joseph Rota

Celebrities Aboard

Waiters and stewards often encountered celebrities on board. Singer and actress Judy Garland is seen here at dinner in 1956.

Courtesy of Joseph Rota