Why Gilded Age ocean liners were so luxurious

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Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between roundups of historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

If you’re traveling this summer, chances are you’ll board a plane and arrive at your destination in just a few hours. But a hundred years ago, it wasn’t so easy.

At the turn of the 20th century, anybody with a wanderlust for Europe relied on a transatlantic ocean liner to carry them to their destination.

Companies like the French Line, the Hamburg-America Line, the Cunard Line, and White Star Line dominated oceans with superstructures that not only took people abroad but also competed with each other: in size, in speed, and in luxury.

Those richly decorated, largely first-class, interiors of ships—like Cunard’s RMS Aquitania, The French Line’s S.S. France, and White Star Line’s RMS Olympicdominate the lasting impression we have of this period of travel, but what led to this moment of Gilded Age maritime design? Why were these ships so luxurious?

The first-class lounge of the RMS Lusitania. Via Creative Commons.

In many ways, the opulent interiors were meant to make travelers forget they were at sea. While it may take about six hours to fly from New York City to London today, in 1917 it took the better part of a week to complete the same journey by ship. The aim was to create an environment akin to the grand hotels that first-class travelers would have likely stayed in while abroad.

“If you’re a wealthy steel magnate from the Midwest, and you’re going on a grand tour of Europe, you’re likely boarding a ship out of New York,” says maritime historian William Roka of the South Street Seaport Museum, whose exhibition Millions: Migrants and Millionaires aboard the Great Liners, 1900–1914 opened on Friday, June 23. “The ocean liners helped to create a continuous world of luxury to bridge the gap between the hotels one would stay at in U.S. and [in] Europe.”

To that end, designers of famous European hotels were sometimes tapped for ship interiors. The Hamburg America Line hired Charles-Frédéric Mewes, the designer of Hotel Ritz outposts in Paris and in London, to design a number of their ships, most notably the S.S. Imperator of 1912 and her sister, the S.S. Vaterland.

The dining room of the Ritz Hotel in London, approximately 1907. Via Creative Commons.

Later on, the British-based Cunard Line would hire Mewes’s partner, Arthur Davis, to design RMS Aquitania of 1914. The obsession with hotels led the turn-of-the-century art critic Bernard Berenson to coin the term “Ritzonia” to, in part, describe the world created by these ships.

“That’s why, for instance, you often see a lot of glass domes in ships—those were quite popular in hotels,” says Dr. Nils Jean, who runs the Instagram account called Ocean Liner History. “The result of these interiors was a concoction of styles, ultimately duplicating what travelers were familiar with on land to create a seamless transition during their journey.”

The first-class common areas and staterooms were designed to appeal to a predominantly American clientele, who made up about 80 percent of first-class passengers in the early-20th century, says Roka. American millionaires were obsessed with establishing themselves in the legacy of European nobility to raise their own social profile.

As a result, the interiors were always rooted in historical precedent. “Depending on the ship, everything from the style of French kings to British monarchs would be used for inspiration,” says Roka. Many of the largest staterooms would also have lofty titles—Cunard’s RMS Lusitania had a “Royal Suite,” for instance—and Roka says that some ships would be advertised as offering a better nights sleep than even Napoleon could get in his own bed.

“You’re a nobody American millionaire, but now you’re sleeping better than European royalty. They didn’t just want to be rich. They wanted to be considered at the equivalent of European aristocrats,” adds Roka.

The elevator on the RMS Mauretania. Via Creative Commons.

Big names weren’t always the ones attached to ships’ designs. Sometimes, like in the case of the White Star Line ships RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, interior architects and designers were much lesser known. “The names of those who worked on many British ship were less well known,” says Dan Finamore, Curator of Maritime Art & History at the Peabody Essex Museum, which just launched the exhibition Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style.

“A chief designer might be hired that was then highly scrutinized and controlled by a steering committee. Many of the great designers either pitched an idea and were then kicked out, or left and decided not to participate at all.”

The choice to forgo a land-based architect isn’t an entirely surprising decision. “You need a different skill-set to design the interior of a ship,” says Jean. “You can’t just transpose normal architectural language at sea, because there are different proportions and scales that need to be considered.”

While in first class the idea was to create a gracious hotel-like environment that provided the illusion that travelers were not at sea, there were a different set of motivations in the other classes.

“In the 19th century, 80 percent of the passengers were in the lowest class of travel, and there might’ve been only a couple hundred people in first class,” says Finamore. “The third class is carrying the financial load of the trip—that’s where the company’s profit center is.”

The third class, predominantly made up of immigrants, had a design that was meant to efficiently and safely carry as many people as possible to port. Roka says that if an immigrant was deemed “unhealthy” at Ellis Island in New York, the shipping company would suffer a fine and would have to pay for that person’s return journey.

Finamore also notes that in the decade between 1910 and 1920, a number of immigration laws were passed which effectively stopped mass immigration on ships. Companies then pivoted to try to save a vital source of income. “Usually, those third class spaces were renovated into budget-tourist-travel spaces,” adds Finamore. “That’s when student summer travel, the grand tour, kicks in again—by the 1920s.”

The dining room on the RMS Lusitania. Via Creative Commons.

The companies behind these great ocean liners didn’t just want to make money; they wanted to beat each other at their own game. According to Roka, there was a rivalry between England and Germany to build the fastest ocean liner—a title held by Cunard’s RMS Mauretania until the 1920s. Once the Germans realized they wouldn’t win at speed, they focused on size and luxury.

“The ships kept ballooning in scale,” says Roka. “The German-designed S.S. Imperator—substantially larger than RMS Titanic—and S.S. Vaterland were able to divert the vents for their main funnels around the sides of the ship, an architecturally significant move that allowed lots of space to free up in the center of the ship, which allowed for incredibly grand spaces like ballrooms to enter the picture.”

The first-class common areas would have certain standard rooms that would be decorated in different ways. There would usually be a smoking room, a writing room, a lounge, a grand staircase, and a veranda café or some other space that evokes the greenery of a winter garden.

The grand staircase of the SS France. Via Creative Commons.

Inspiration ranged from the oppressively heavy woodwork of gentleman’s clubs to the delicate Rococo filigree of Louis XVI architecture, like on the S.S. France, which Jean says is perhaps the most coherent interior design scheme of the period.

Also notable is Cunard’s RMS Aquitania, which Roka says became known as “the ship beautiful” thanks to light, airy, and elegant rooms that differentiated it from the more overpowering aesthetic popular on German and French liners. When the RMS Aquitania launched in 1913, The New York Times reported “Cunard Company officials say she will be the ‘last word’ in comfort and luxury.”

While a dining room was another standard room on the ship, a new type of room—one that was characteristically Edwardian—debuted on German ships at this time: the “a la carte restaurant.”

The first-class lounge of the SS Imperator. Via Creative Commons.

Albert Ballin, the director of the Hamburg-America line, tapped Cezar Ritz (see a trend here?) to operate and manage restaurants on German ships. These restaurants would be billed extra on top of the already exorbitant first-class ticket prices. They were not only a way to make additional money, but also a way for first-class passengers to further exhibit their wealth by ordering extravagant meals. Restaurants quickly showed up on the ships of other lines, from White Star Line to the French Line.

The use of these ships continued into World War I, when a number of them were outfitted for naval use. Some—like the Lusitania—sank during the war, losing 1,100 souls in a tragedy almost on the scale of the RMS Titanic, whose ill-fated maiden voyage lost 1,517 passengers. Others, like the RMS Olympic, sister ship to the RMS Titanic, continued to serve transatlantic passengers in the interwar period, earning the nickname “Old Reliable.”

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But by the 1920s and 1930s, tastes were changing and the new Art Deco aesthetic was emerging through transformative ships like the S.S. Normandie of 1935. By the mid-20th century, if the ships hadn’t already been lost at sea, they were scrapped. “None of the pre-WWI ocean liners survive,” says Roka. “The one that held on the longest was probably the RMS Aquitania, which was scrapped around 1950.

And what of their remarkable, hotel-like interiors? Some of the paneling from rooms have wound up in museums—the Seaport Museum has panels from RMS Mauretania’s smoking room—and parts of RMS Olympic’s lounge are now installed in a hotel in England, these fragmented rooms and finishes that are vestiges of a short-lived moment in maritime history.

“This is the golden age of transatlantic ocean liner travel,” says Roka. “For these giant ships, who they were carrying, why they were carrying them, the way they were carrying them—it was definitely the golden age.”