Titanic artifacts in the Museum's collections


The White Star ocean liner Titanic set off on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, on April 10, 1912 with 2,227 passengers and crew aboard. At 11:40 p.m., the night of April 14, the ship struck an iceberg at full speed, on its starboard bow. The iceberg scraped along the starboard side of the hull below the waterline, slicing open the hull between five of the adjacent watertight compartments. If only one or two of the compartments had been compromised, Titanic might have stayed afloat, but with so many damaged, the watertight integrity of the entire forward section of the hull was fatally breached.

Less than three hours later, at around 2:20 a.m., Titanic sank approximately 13.5 miles east-southeast of the position from which its distress call was transmitted. More than 1,500 passengers and crew perished. Over 700 surviving passengers and crew, afloat in the ship’s 20 lifeboats, were rescued within a few hours by the Cunard Liner, Carpathia.

A few of the Titanic’s passengers were some of the wealthiest and most famous people of the era, including John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim. However most of the ship’s passengers were immigrants, headed for the United States. Some 150 bodies were recovered from the North Atlantic, but about half were never identified.

The deepwater wreck of the Titanic was located by a French and American scientific expedition team September 1, 1985, approximately 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland, Canada. In 1986, another expedition documented the shipwreck more thoroughly.


The National Museum of American History has acquired a few items related to the sinking of the Titanic through donations to the museum. The items are held within a number of the museum’s divisions. A selection of the artifacts can be viewed in the On the Water exhibition.

In the Photo History collection:

  1. Bernice Palmer Ellis' Kodak Brownie camera
    Sometime around her 17th birthday, Canadian Bernice Palmer Ellis received a Kodak Brownie box camera, either for Christmas 1911 or for her birthday Jan. 10, 1912. In early April, she and her mother boarded the Cunard liner Carpathia in New York, for a Mediterranean cruise. Carpathia had scarcely cleared New York when it received a distress call from the White Star liner Titanic on April 14. It raced to the scene of the sinking and managed to rescue more than 700 survivors from the icy North Atlantic. With her new camera, Palmer Ellis took pictures of the iceberg that sliced open the Titanic’s hull and also took snapshots of some of the Titanic survivors. Lacking enough food to feed both the paying passengers and Titanic survivors, the Carpathia turned around and headed back to New York to land the survivors. Unaware of the high value of her pictures, Palmer Ellis sold publication rights to Underwood & Underwood for just $10 and a promise to develop, print, and return her pictures after use. In 1986, she donated her camera, the pictures and her remarkable story to the National Museum of American History.
  2. Photograph: Titanic honeymooners Mr./Mrs. George A. Harder
    This picture identifies the young facing couple as honeymooners Mr. & Mrs. George A. Harder of Brooklyn, NY. The woman with her back to Palmer Ellis' camera is Mrs. Charles M. Hayes; her husband was President of the Grand Trunk Railway. He died in the shipwreck, but Mrs. Hayes and her two daughters were rescued by Carpathia.
  3. Photograph: The iceberg that sank Titanic
    The Cunard Liner RMS Carpathia arrived at the scene around two hours after Titanic sank, finding only a few lifeboats and no survivors in the 28 degrees Fahrenheit water. Bernice Palmer Ellis took this picture of the iceberg identified as the one which sank Titanic, almost certainly identified by the survivors who climbed aboard Titanic. The large iceberg is surrounded by smaller ice floes, indicating how far north in the Atlantic Ocean the tragedy struck.
  4. Photograph: Titanic survivors wearing borrowed clothes
    When RMS Carpathia arrived at the spot where Titanic sank, all the rescuers could see by the light of the moon was some wreckage and lifeboats with passengers. Many of the passengers had come up on deck in their nightclothes and they were totally unprepared for the weather. The survivors were struck by the cold outdoor temperature, suffering from exposure, extreme stress and shock. Carpathia was able to pick up more than 700 survivors. As they boarded, they tossed their life vests into piles on the deck and were handed heavy, warm clothes by Carpathia's sympathetic passengers.
  5. Bernie Palmer Ellis' Titanic contract with Underwood & Underwood
    The captain of the Titanic's rescue ship Carpathia, imposed a news blackout on all communications from his ship until all of the Titanic survivors had disembarked in New York. The demand for stories was unparalleled, and journalists swarmed Carpathia looking for firsthand accounts of the shipwreck and rescue. An unnamed newsman for Underwood & Underwood, a New York photography agency, scored one of the most valuable scoops when he met 17-year-old Bernice Palmer Ellis, a passenger on Carpathia who happened to have a Kodak Brownie box camera. She had taken pictures not only of the Titanic survivors on Carpathia's deck, but also of the actual iceberg that sank Titanic. The newsman offered to develop, print and return the pictures to Palmer Ellis, along with $10. Not realizing the extraordinary value of her photos, Palmer Ellis readily agreed, and Underwood and Underwood obtained unique images of the Titanic shipwreck for a pittance. This is the contract between Palmer Ellis and the Underwood & Underwood newsman transferring rights to the pictures. In 1986, Palmer Ellis gave her camera, Titanic photographs, and other associated materials to the Smithsonian.

In the Work and Industry collection:

  1. Titanic life vest
    Chicago physician, Dr. Frank Blackmarr, was a passenger on Carpathia who helped rescued survivors suffering from hypothermia, exposure and shock. He collected a Titanic life vest during the voyage as a souvenir, and later donated it to the Chicago Historical Society. In 1982, the Chicago Historical Society donated it to the Smithsonian’s National Watercraft Collection held at the museum.
  2. Photograph of Titanic clearing the port of Southampton, England, April 10, 1912
    Because Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, few original pictures of the ship exist. Most of the photographs were taken in the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, while the ship was under construction. There is one that shows the new ocean liner entering the port of Southampton, England, with the help of tugboats several weeks before the ship was to take on passengers. There are also a few taken of Titanic as it cleared that port on its maiden voyage April 10, 1912 with a full load of passengers. The museum owns one of the last of these photographs, showing the starboard or right side of the ship against the wharf. The wave at the bow of the vessel indicates that it is already picking up speed, as it readies for the open ocean.
  3. Harry Cheetham 1911 radio operator's license
    Harry Cheetham was one of the pioneers of early radio in the United States. His 1911 radio operator's license was issued shortly before Titanic sank, and the Boston Globe newspaper hired him to listen for and intercept radio communications messages from Carpathia while it steamed back to New York with the Titanic survivors aboard. Although Carpathia's captain had imposed a general radio blackout, it did communicate the names of survivors for the benefit of the families ashore, who were anxiously awaiting news of their relatives' fates. Cheetham intercepted one of the survivor messages and sold the information to the Globe for $175.
  4. Harry Cheetham's Leyden jars
    Shortly after RMS Carpathia's rescue of Titanic survivors, the ship visited Boston, Mass. There Marconi Wireless Radio employee Harry Cheetham boarded Carpathia to service the radio, which had been damaged during the Titanic operations. He replaced two Leyden jars used for storing electric charges. One is intact and the other is broken. Fortunately the broken one shows how the jars were constructed inside to store and relay an electrical charge. Cheetham kept these artifacts as Titanic souvenirs, and donated them to the Smithsonian in 1930.
  5. Cheetham antenna breaker:
    RMS Carpathia's wireless radio was damaged during the rescue of Titanic's passengers, and the next time the ship was in Boston, Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company employee Harry Cheetham went aboard Carpathia to service the wireless. At the time, shipboard radios belonged to the radio company, not the shipping lines. One of the items Cheetham replaced was this lever. Analysis of photographs of contemporary radio rooms indicates that it most likely was a manual breaker for the antenna connection to the radio, which would have been opened in storms to prevent lightning from striking the radio.
  6. Picture of Cheetham next to Mass. Volunteer soldiers
    Harry Cheetham was President of the Somerville High School Wireless Society from 1906-1909, after which he went to sea briefly. This photograph taken shortly before World War I shows Harry in civilian clothing, to the right of the radio among other members of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia.
  7. Langdon Carpathia image
    Both the British and the Americans held formal inquiries and hearings on the Titanic loss. The investigations revealed that although several vessels heard Titanic's distress call and one was closer even than Carpathia when the call went out, only Carpathia responded in time to rescue survivors. As a result, Carpathia saved more than 700 Titanic passengers. The ships that returned to the area of the wreck site later only found bodies and debris that had floated up from the depths.
  8. Titanic Sheet Music (two pieces are reference materials in Work & Industry)
    Shortly after the loss of RMS Titanic, piano sheet music was sold in major cities to capitalize on the catastrophe. In the days before television, widespread movies or even radio, people gathered around the pianos in their parlors or living rooms and sang songs. These social and musical gatherings presented opportunities to think and talk about contemporary events in the recent news. The sheet music covers often had scenes evoking emotional reactions from their users.

In the Archives Center:

  1. The Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music
    The DeVincent collection was donated to the National Museum of American History by Sam DeVincent in March 1988. DeVincent started collecting sheet music from an early age and the collection he amassed was one of the largest American sheet music collections in private hands. The collection contains many pieces of sheet music with illustrated covers related to the sinking of Titanic. The collection is housed in the museum’s Archives Center and contains the following items:
  • “As The Titanic Sank Beneath The Waves,” 1928,composed by Mrs. Howard McCarty, in Perry’s Musical Magazine
  • “The Band Played ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ As The Ship Went Down,” 1912,words by Mark Beam and music by Harold Jones
  • “Carpathia Grand March,” 1912,by E. Moore
  • “The Fate of the Titanic,” 1912, words and music by Delbert Rhoades
  • “The Great Titanic Wreck,” 1915, words by Robert Malcom and music by Carl Heil
  • “I Just Cannot Say Goodbye (Memorial Edition),” 1912, words by John G. Knight and music by A. D. Magbee
  • “Just As The Boat Went Down – The First Titanic Song (Souvenir Edition),” 1912, words and music by Marvin Lee
  • “Just As The Ship Went Down,” 1912, words by Edith Maida Lessing and music by Sidney Gibson and Bernie Adler
  • “My Sweetheart Went Down With The Ship,” 1912, words by Roger Lewis and music by F. Henri Klickmann
  • “Titanic,” 1982, by Robert W. Thuggerson
  • “Nearer, Nearer God To Thee,” 1912, words by Ida. A. Long and music by Paul Eugene
  • “Oh! Mister Captain,” 1915, words and music by Clarence A. Stout
  • ”The Sinking of the Titanic March,” 1913, by Mrs. Lulu Wills\
  • “Titanic for Pianoforte,” 1912, by N. Bek Amir-Khan
  • “The Titanic,” 1980, words and music by Howard Crockett and John Whitten
  • “Titanic Disaster,” no date, by Jessie Bailey
  • “Titanic Heroes,” 1912, words by C. P. Nedergard and music by A. Reuterdahl
  • “Titanic In The Shadows Of The Deep,” 1912, words by John Boland and music by W.M. Held
  • “The Titanic’s Disaster,” 1912, (Title also in Hebrew) words by Soloman Small, arranged for piano by H. A. Russotto
  • “The Wreck Of The Titanic,” 1912, by William Baltzell
  • “The Titanic’s Doom,” 1912, words by Washington Sherman and music by Hazel Fem Sherman
  • “Wreck Of The “Titanic” in Characteristic and Descriptive Pieces for the Piano,” 1912,  by Jeanette Forrest
  • “The Band Was Playing As The Ship Went Down,” no date, by Robert Donnelly
  • “Be British! Descriptive Song and Recitation,” 1912, by Paul Pelham and Lawrence Wright
  • “Death Song of The Titanic,” 1912, words by Mrs. C.W. Hea and music by L.F. Malkemus
  • “The End Of The Titanic In The Sea,” 1912, by Jackson and Wright
  • “Heroes Of The Titanic,” 1912, by Signora Peppina Muratori Greeley
  • “A Hero Went Down With The Monarch Of The Sea,” 1912, words by J.W. Willis and music by M.C. Hanford
  • “The Hidden Side,” 1912, by John E. MacCallum
  • “Men Be British”(Solo), 1912, by C. A. Fram
  • “Our Sea Heroes,” 1912, words by Miss E. J. Thibaut and music by Charles J. W. Jerreld
  • “The Parting Of The Ways,” 1912, words by Geraldine B. O’Connor and music by R. Graham Harvey
  • “The Ship That Will Never Return (The Loss Of The “Titanic”),” 1912, by F. V. St. Clair
  • “The Shipwreck Song,” 1912, words by Ludwig Olson and music by Charles J. W. Jerreld,
  • “The Sinking Of The Titanic,” 1912, by Marcellus O. Ruch
  • “The Titanic,” 1912 by Louis S. Florence
  • “The Titanic That Never Returned,” 1912, words by Mrs. E. S. Potter and music by M. C. Hanford
  • “The Wreck Of The Titanic A Descriptive March,” 1912, by John J. Thomas
  • “The Wreck Of The Titanic Descriptive Musical Sketch For The Piano,” 1912, by Haydon Augarde
  • “Nearer My God To Thee” – The collection contains 27 copies of this piece, including a variety of musical arrangements.

In the Numismatics collection:

  1. Titanic gold medal
    Founded in 1904 by wealthy financier Andrew Carnegie in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission (CHFC) exists to honor acts of individual civilian heroism in the United States and Canada. It is still active today; recipients include both the living, the dead and persons directly affected by the loss of a heroic relative.

    The emotional impact on the general public of the April 1912 loss of Titanic was astonishing, and the continually updated story lasted for months in the contemporary newspapers. In Pittsburgh, Penn., the Commission felt compelled to honor all the heroes who had risked their lives in the rescue of the more than 700 passengers, so at their April 26, 1912 meeting they authorized a nine-oz. 22-k gold medal to be struck, mounted in an elaborate bronze base, inscribed and presented to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian accepted the gift and displayed it before adding it to the Numismatics Collection in the National Museum of American History.

What is on view?

The following items are currently on display in the On The Water exhibit at the National Museum of American History:

  • Photograph: The iceberg that sank Titanic
  • Photograph: Titanic survivors wearing borrowed clothes
  • Bernice Palmer Ellis' Kodak Brownie camera
  • Titanic life vest
  • Titanic Sheet Music (two pieces from Work and Industry collection)