Online Exhibitions & Stories

Ship Plans and the Growth of Travel in the Twentieth Century

Photograph of SS Cleveland in 1913.

Class Boundaries

Before we can delve into ship plans and the growth of the passenger liner business, we must first take a look at the twentieth century class structure. British society was traditionally divided into three main distinct classes: aristocracy/upper, middle and working class. But by the end of the twentieth century, these class boundaries became blurred. Popularity, attitude, fame and wealth now played a larger part in defining social groups than hereditary wealth and status. The twentieth century experienced dramatic social and political change, such as war, the growth of mass media, civil rights, the introduction of the welfare state and changes to education. The ability to change social class became increasingly easier.

The Oceanic

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…

Flags of various shipping companies

Golden Age of Passenger Liners

The twentieth century has been described as the ‘Golden Age’ of passenger ships. You see the growth of the passenger liner market, which started to focus on the widening needs of the passenger and their experiences onboard the ship. From the late nineteenth century, you see a growth in the size of ships allowing the possibility for greater comfort. Why is this?

Photograph of a 1920's Car

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.

Photograph of Third Class Cabin onboard the Royal George

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.

Photograph of the Dining Room on the Oceanic

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.

Union Castle
‘Comfort at sea is of even more importance than speed’- Edward Harland
Comfort at Sea
Ship Plan of Saint Patrick

Ship Plan and Survey Report Collection

These changes in design, growth of leisure and the booming ocean liner business can be seen through various ship plans we have in our Ship Plan and Survey Report Collection.

The Northland


The Northland was built in 1926 specifically designed for travel between Montreal, Quebec, the Gaspo Coast and Newfoundland. It provided comfortable accommodation for both middle class businessmen and holiday seekers. It was hoped that giving direct service between Canada and Newfoundland may stimulate trade between the two locations. She was designed to carry 142 first class passengers, 66 third class and a total of 62 crew members with a deadweight of 2150 tons of cargo, provisions and stores. One of its most remarkable features was its 1200 square foot dance floor on the boat deck with a large and lofty lounge attached. This feature allowed first class passengers to partake in a fun recreational activity, at their comfort, for the very first time.

The Northland Ship Plan

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.

Dining Saloon on Mauritania

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”.

Entrance to the Aquitania
“Physical separation of the two genders aboard the boats and elsewhere can be read as purchasable class status, as recognition of the necessity to offer women refuge from men's uncontrollably bad behaviour..." – Dunlop
Separate Spheres
Gymnasium on Empress of Asia
“Gentlemen will find their tastes consulted in the fittings up of a club smoking room, large and well ventilated, warmed, too with steam-pipes, and furnished with easy chairs, lounges and Foctables. The windows have an uninterrupted view in every direction.” – New York Times
Yasukuni Maru

Yasukuni Maru

Yasukuni Maru was a Japanese Ocean Liner launched in 1930 by Mitsubishi Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. It was built with the purpose of a fortnightly highspeed European service starting in Autumn 1930 and was specifically designed to cope with tropical conditions, fitted with state-of-the-art air conditioning to cope with travel through the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. It provided accommodation for 121 first-class, 68 second-class and 60 third-class passengers as well as a crew of 177- a much smaller ocean liner than the RMS Empress and The Northland. Yasukuni was also the first ship on the Europe-Japan route to offer wireless telephone technology for passengers to make telephone calls.

Yasukuni Maru Ship Plan

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!

Yasukuni Maru Postcard

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.

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RMS Empress of Ireland

RMS Empress of Ireland

RMS Empress of Ireland was a Scottish ocean liner built in 1905 that provided successful transport for North Atlantic trade between the United Kingdom and Canada until its collision in 1914. It provided accommodation for 310 first-class, a capacity of 468 for second class and steerage accommodation for 764 third class passengers. She sank in the Saint Lawrence River following a collision in thick fog with Storstad, a Norwegian Collier in the early hours of the 29th May 1914 and is named one of the largest maritime disasters in Canadian History.

Empress of Ireland Staircase

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.

Empress of Ireland Ship Plan

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.

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William Blumer 1920 Ship Plan


Simply by observing three ship plans, you can learn about class, the rise of leisure, gendered spaces and interior design. Take a look at our other amazing ship plans in our online Ship Plan and Survey Report Collection to discover even more!