In 1907, my grandfather, his brothers, and sister all came to this country from Austria on an ocean liner. They were in steerage, that means “last class,” which one can compare to often overcrowded general admission seating vs. spacious and well-managed box seating at a sporting event. I do not think a “steerage” journey enticed them, but getting to America and Ellis Island was the objective – come “hell or high water.” Excuse me, for I digress.
Let me get back to the classy stuff. Who would not want to travel in the style of kings aboard these mammoth floating palaces? These behemoths traveled in four days to ports that 100 years earlier took a month or more to traverse. The rolling seas were subjugated for much of the passage and life on these ships could be compared to wartime: 90% pleasant sailing and 10% sheer panic, depending on the time of the year you were crossing. Note the fine china, linens, crystal, and artwork throughout the first-class dining rooms and lounges, all breakable items on solid ground, so consider the effort necessary to keep them safe on the rolling sea!
Life Onboard Ocean Liners
Imagine taking a step back to the year 1910. A steamship passenger would journey from their home in London by private train, to arrive at the Southhampton cruise line docks. They had to navigate through hundreds of people going in every direction, many of which were passengers accompanied by a ship’s steward and their domestics.
Now imagine emerging from the cruise line terminal and being caught off guard and unaware. Surrounded by the hum and hustle of the crowd, you peer up towards the elegant ship with an impressive chiseled bow sending sleek lines back to the stern. The painted superstructure dwarfed by three or four rising stacks which belch smoke from the engine room boilers located far below the waterline.
Add to that steam whistles blowing, baggage handlers hollering instructions, and pages and stewards organizing and herding elegant passengers up the gangway. All of this combined to create a cacophony of sound. You likely see women adorned in long flowing gowns with atrocious feather and flower-laden hats milling about alongside men in top hats, carrying canes, toking on cigars in their well-tailored bespoke suits. Near the gangplank are mountains of luggage and steamer trunks unloaded and ready to be taken aboard the ship. It is hard to imagine being a part of all this or truly understand what it might be like boarding the steamship and commencing a journey full of elegance, refinement, fabulous people, haute couture, amidst decadent luxury. Are you ready for more?
Turn of the Century Fashion on the High Seas
In the early 1900s, it was not unusual for a grand lady of the day to have multiple steamer trunks, additional suitcases, at least one maid, and a secretary to handle her needs before and during the voyage.
Each day, at least three outfit changes for the ladies – and sometimes five – were planned. Never wearing the same ensemble twice meant a great deal of pre-planning was required. The days aboard ship were spent socializing, reading, writing letters, and featured a lot of “parading” around the promenade deck to be seen. Heck, with such frequent changes of couture, it made sense to “share” one’s sense of fashion.
There were, of course, endless meals, some theatre, and a lot of dancing. Bars housed the men and their cigars actively engaged in a variety of card games. The women played cards too but were a bit more discreet. Of course, at hand were other board games, billiards, squash, and quoits (ring toss). Deck games such as shuffleboard were fun on light seas as were gymnasiums for men and women. A favorite of many passengers was the Turkish baths and some of the newer ships even had indoor heated salt water swimming pools. All this, of course, was a necessity for maintaining the ladies’ classic 23” waist!
The Social Scene of Luxury Travel
Newspapers and magazines often listed the passenger manifests with names of everyday folk, like my relatives in steerage. Passengers traveling in First Class, especially those who didn’t have the largest and most expensive cabins, must have been excited to see their names in “First” listed alongside titans of industry and society such as the Astors, Rockefellers, or Mellons. That society news would be entirely too much fun to miss! Photographers would line the pier and venture onboard to photograph those preparing to set sail. The next day pictures and narratives of the most notable and the notorious passengers would fill the papers’ society pages. Even though they hadn’t made it to their next port yet, the socialites featured in the newspaper would have “arrived” the day after they departed!
Crossings from Le Havre, Liverpool, or Southampton to New York were coveted and orchestrated to maximize social and economic realities. Certainly, traveling in luxury was a perk, but traveling with those established in elite social circles was one of the main attractions of these luxury voyages. Every passenger was “trapped” on the ship with nowhere else to go and no one else to see. The socializing, networking, and advancement that could and did happen on these luxury voyages were just too delicious an opportunity to miss. Bon Voyage!
I hope you enjoyed this whimsical treatise of early 20th Century first-class steamship travel. If you could have experienced it, where would you travel to? With whom would you travel? Would you dare go unaccompanied? Who would you like to meet of notoriety aboard ship? What would you say and what would you want to talk about? The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
That is the approach that I took when I wrote my novel, Braxton’s Century. I hope you will take a moment to learn more about the fabulous life of Prince Braxton as he traveled the world aboard luxury trains and ocean liners…
Please share this blog and do take a moment to make comments. If you’ve enjoyed this post, help support the publication of Braxton’s Century by donating on GoFundMe.