Travel before the Twentieth Century
Until the twentieth century, travelling abroad was mainly restricted to the wealthy or those wishing to migrate to a new country. There was no doubt that their status had to be reflected in the way they were treated on board the ship. The wealthy 2/3 of passengers, who could afford a private cabin, travelled with modicum of comfort and three meals a day, whilst the rest of passengers lived in dorms and shared food cooked on an open deck.
This changed with the growth of the passenger liner business at the turn of the century…
The Emerging Middle Class
Whilst wealthy people continued to travel, an emerging and expanding middle class received a newfound security of capital and greater disposable income. This growing affluence in the 1920s therefore provided opportunities for greater leisure time. Foreign travel was not only a sign of wealth, but it came to represent the cultural aspirations of a class that had made its fortunes in industry and commerce.
The Holiday with Pay Act of 1938, which legalised three consecutive days of paid holiday, established the right for UK citizens to have paid holiday from work. This shifted public opinion towards time off from work and away from the home- something that had never been considered prior the 1900s. This allowance, coupled with increased disposable income, made pursuits such as foreign travel, day cruises and holiday parks more appealing and the commercial leisure market expanded as a result.
The expansion of the tourism industry included the establishment of sporting enterprises, voluntary associations such as brass bands and youth clubs, as well as the growth of public facilities such as parks and playing fields and the expansion of the cruise and ocean liner business. Affordable and popular recreational activities were sought after experiences that prior to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were only available for the wealthy to indulge in.
Change in Immigration Laws
Whilst the emergent middle classes looked for new opportunities and experiences, the working classes, who hoped travel abroad would change their life, were affected by the alterations to the US Immigration Laws during the 1920s.
Between 1880 and 1920 net migration to the US was approximately 18 million people with around 8 million entering in the first quarter of the twentieth century. As a consequence of the immigration laws, these annual figures decreased from 1 million steerage on board ocean liners to 150,000. Overall immigration in the 1930s was estimated at just one tenth of the previous decade.
These restrictions on immigration to America caused a serious decline in the number of third-class passengers and created a major shift in the lower priced tickets for third class travel on transatlantic ocean liners.
These passenger liners were forced to attract new clientele with multiple liner companies competing for the wealth of the growing middle class and creating opportunities for holidays and access to destinations previously beyond reach to the average person.
The Booming Ocean Liners Business
This created a competitive race to offer the best quality, in terms of comfort, luxury, technology and speed among ship companies to attract new customers. The ships built during this period were able to reach speeds inconceivable 40 years previous and could therefore travel further and quicker than ever before. These liners were no longer simply a means of transport but could become pleasant places to relax – a destination in themselves.
Ocean liners were fitted with comforts such as swimming pools, restaurants, public spaces, shops, beauty parlours, sport facilities and much more. The objective of these ocean liners was to make people forget they were on a ship!
By the turn of the century, the ocean liner business was booming.
Northland Ship Plan
Take a look at the Northland Ship Plan! The passenger liner included various accommodation for first, second- and third-class passengers as well as gender and class specific baths and lavatories. The plans also include designs for a lounge, first-class smoke room, state rooms and a separate dining and saloon for each class. It was important to maintain the British class system on board ocean liners. The first-class passengers wanted to retain their social status, privileges and comfort that came with the price.
Note ‘steerage accommodation’ located on the main deck is surrounded by cargo space, baggage rooms and the boiler. Although the worst accommodation had long gone by the early 1900s, passengers paying lower fares would have been very aware they were aboard a ship. Structural features were often apparent in both public rooms and cabins of even recently constructed ships.
The Smoke Room and Saloon
The Northland is a great example of how the hierarchy and patriarchy of society played out on board passenger liners. Note the separate social spaces, accommodation and baths designated for different genders and classes on the plans.
Take the Saloon and Smoking Room as an example:
The main public room onboard a passenger liner was the saloon. It functioned as a dining room and social hub with staterooms arranged on either side of this large centred space. The saloons in the early steamers, were overwhelmingly populated by men travelling unaccompanied by family, whilst women comprised on average slightly fewer than one in five adult passengers. By the 1850s, the interior architecture of a liner adopted gendered spheres- the saloon was rigidly divided into a ladies and gentlemen’s cabin separated first by physical partitions and later by simply symbolic barriers.
By the turn of the century, the old order of public spaces on ocean liners had been completely overturned. The saloon - the old social centre - had become simply a dining room, located on a lower deck from other public rooms. The social centre of the ship remained above, divided between the gendered spaces of the music/drawing room and smoking room. By the 1870s, liners had completely transformed the ladies’ cabin into a parlour occupied by women and their escorts.
The smoke room emerged as a male retreat for social activities. The transition had been made by the White Star Line debuting it on the iconic Oceanic class steamer. They introduced a new interior architecture for passenger spaces in first class- they set the first-class passengers and their public rooms at the centre of the ship. As part of this redesign, the smoking room began a rapid rise to prominence as a major public room, first rivalling then overshadowing the other gender segregated space- the ladies’ room.
The smoking room was redefined in the 1920s. There was a gentle push for women to enter the smoking room, with campaigns in newspapers such as the New York Times. To balance this gendered space, the authors advocate two smaller gender-segregated public rooms; the drawing-room which "need not be large" but "should be definitely set aside for women in the same way as the smoking room would be set aside for men”.
Yasukuni Maru Ship Plan
This is one of our favourite ship plans in our collection. You can truly imagine how each distinct social class operated and played out on Yasukuni; from the separate first- and third-class entrances, to separate dining halls and baths, each social class had very distinct public spaces. To name just a few separate spaces; separate dining halls to accommodate different menus and clientele, separate public spaces so that first class men and women would not have to socialise with steerage and infringe on the luxury and comfort that ensued in first class accommodation.
Unlike the other ship plans in this exhibition, the Yasukuni Maru also details the crew quarters, dividing them into ‘Waiter’s Wing’, ‘Steward and Cooks Rooms’, ‘Butcher’, ‘Bakery’, ‘Sailor’s Rooms’, and ‘Crew’s Quarters’ just to name a few. Just have a look at how much space was needed for 177 crew members to run an ocean liner for fortnightly travel across the world!
European and Japanese Galleries
We can understand the developing interior design architecture of passenger ships by observing the Yasukuni Maru. Ocean liners at the turn of the century, had essentially been transformed into showcases for national artistic production, and in some cases were even extraordinary opportunities for experimentation and innovation in the fields of design. The main objectives of this interior décor were first to glorify the power of the ship owner and the country of origin and secondly, to hide the naval structures and make passengers forget they were on board a ship.
The inclusion of European and Japanese art galleries was part of the illusion created by ocean liner companies to make the first-class passengers forget they were on board a ship. These galleries would appeal to passengers of both ethnicities and artistic tastes travelling on the Europe-Japan route.
These liners were not simply a means of transport but an expression of beauty and design. Everything that was featured on these liners were placed to create a fantasy world away from the everyday worries of society on land; a place where the rules of the outside world no longer applied, and one can indulge in drinking and eating without moderation and enjoy beautiful art, dance with beautiful people and buy beautiful things.View full details
RMS Empress of Ireland Interior
The first-class decks of these liners were places of escape that offered passengers a modern fantasy- a world away from their lives on land, where they could dine and relax among luxury and sophisticated surroundings. As with other ocean liners, the Empress was no different in trying to offer a haven of comfort, exclusivity and luxury. The interior design of the ship was considerably thought out to project a space of expensive tastes.
The first-class accommodation was located on the upper and lower promenade. It included access to the open boat deck and two enclosed promenades which wrapped the full exterior of the upper and lower promenade decks. The upper deck included a music room with built in sofas, a grand piano and a glass dome over the first-class dining room.
Similar to the designs of the Titanic and the Oceanic, the Empress also featured a glorious staircase to the dining room. The dining room could accommodate 224 passengers at one time and had a separate room to seat up to 30 first-class children. The Empress recreated the spaces of the highly decorated drawing rooms, restaurants and ballrooms you could see in luxury hotels to create familiar environments and make people feel as if they were not at sea at all! Remember, the purpose of this interior design was to bring the comfort and luxury of home to sea!
Her second-class accommodation was located in the stern on the Lower Promenade, Shelter, Upper and Main Decks. The second-class smoke room was located at the aft end of the deck and designed in a similar fashion to first-class, with built-in sofas lining the outer walls and an adjacent bar. Behind the main landing was the second-class social hall, laid out in a fashion similar to the smoke room and provided with a piano, while forward of the entrance was the second-class dining room, large enough to seat 256 passengers in one serving.
Old and New Steerage
RMS Empress of Ireland ship plans symbolise the dramatic shift of immigrant travel on the North Atlantic at the turn of the twentieth century. The layout accommodated both the ‘new’ and ‘old’ steerage. Passengers travelling in these two classes had some shared public spaces including the shelter deck and the open space on the upper deck which spanned the full width and length of the two watertight compartments with wooden benches lining the outer walls.
The accommodation provided for ‘new steerage’ or more commonly referred to as Third Class, was provided for 494 passengers and ‘old steerage’ for 270. Shipping liners promoted sea travel to a new potential customer by enticing middle class clientele abroad inviting them to travel in a new fare class named ‘tourist third’. To distinguish Tourist Third Class from Steerage, the passengers were treated more like those in higher classes when it came to the formalities surrounding landing regulations or allowing a more relaxed lifestyle. By offering travel on ocean liners at a cheaper cost, it allowed the average person the opportunity to travel abroad whilst the ocean liners fulfilled their quotas.View full details