A piece of the Titanic…up close and personal

Sophia, Karina and I went to the Aquarium of the Pacific today. Regretfully I hadn’t considered Spring Break. By the time we struggled with older children and their oblivious parents pushing and jostling younger children—like my granddaughters—we gave in and went outside for sunshine and a view of Long Beach Marina and Bay.  We also enjoyed a perfect view of the Queen Mary.

After retirement in 1967, she permanently moored here as a hotel and event facility. In this photo pay attention to a large white dome behind the ship. The dome is now part of the boarding facility for Carnival Cruise lines, but it previously housed Howard Hughes’ famous Spruce Goose.

With so much attention this month on the centennial anniversary of the Titanic’s ill-fated end, I’ve had great luxury ocean liners on my mind.  From this month’s National Geographic and Smithsonian to today’s local newspaper, there is plenty of Titanic-talk.  Commemorative materials and books have rolled out this year rich in background stories of both the lost and survivors, with more emphasis than ever before on the circumstances surrounding second and third class passengers. We already knew quite a bit about the names Astor, Strauss, and Guggenheim.

I’ve read many interesting anecdotes. One article quoted David Savage, a behavioral economist at the Queensland University of Technology as believing that British passengers on the Titanic died in disproportionate numbers because they queued up politely for lifeboats while Americans “elbowed their way on.” After what I experienced today at the aquarium I don’t have any trouble believing this account!

When visiting Las Vegas last month we eagerly purchased tickets for “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” on display at the Luxor Hotel. As we arrived at the door of the exhibit a “purser” handed us a White Star Line boarding pass as a passenger ticket from one of the people who sailed on Titanic in April, 1912. The ticket included name, age, cabin number, place of origin and accompanying passengers, as well as where they were traveling to, the reason for the trip and a passenger fact. We were told we’d know “our” fate at the end of the experience. My pass was for a welder by trade, traveling second-class to begin a new job in the United States…it turned out I was correct in feeling uneasy about his outcome.

Over the years I’ve been to many smaller Titanic exhibits, but this one displayed hundreds of items from dishware to large diamond rings and other exquisite pieces of jewelry. Perfume bottles by perfume maker Adolphe Saalfeld were recovered and the fragrance can still be detected emanating from the vials. One cavernous room contained a very large piece of the ship’s side. It was discovered in 1994, and raised on its second attempt in 1998. After undergoing an extensive conservation effort it, and the rest of this really informative exhibit will remain at the Luxor for seven additional years—the remaining portion of a ten-year contract.

The memorabilia on display at the Luxor represents fascinating history, but I’m sure I was most interested in the exhibits outfitted with precise replicas of how the rooms on the Titanic were furnished and how the different classes of passengers experienced travel.

I’ve had friends tell me that they’re really not that interested in seeing “more artifacts” or reading about the ship’s history—“we know what happens,” but I’m very interested in this entire period of history. The Titanic, as an event, figures prominently at the end of the Edwardian Era (In America we call it the Gilded Age).  Strictly speaking the Edwardian era was 1901 to 1910, but a broader interpretation stretched from 1880 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.  By the end of this historical period, class structures began to shift and change.

The Titanic had extravagant amenities for that time. Elevators, private libraries, a swimming pool, squash court, and first-class suites with their own bathrooms. A first-class ticket then was $2,500—closer to $57,000 in today’s currency.  In third class a $40 ticket bought you a room shared with nine other passengers. The 700 passengers in that category shared just two bathtubs.

The Titanic exhibits and artifacts provide a very strong emotional snapshot of the end of an age.

I do have a little touch of Titanic fever. Somewhere in the mid-1960s I got hooked watching the 1959 Golden Globe winning “A Night to Remember.”  Do you happen to remember television’s “Million Dollar Movie?”  It broadcast the same movie five evenings in a row and multiple times on weekends. I don’t know how many times I cried through the final scenes as the doomed band played Nearer My God to Thee as the ship went down.

The clip may be a little longer than you have interest in watching, but it’s a great  piece of movie history. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts, too. 100 years later people are still talking…and hopefully reading and piecing together some interesting historical context.

If you made it to the end of this post, I hope you found it interesting and not entirely too long! How do you shorten a story about the Titanic?

…Debra

43 thoughts on “A piece of the Titanic…up close and personal

  1. A Night to Remember was required reading when I was in grammar school and I’ve been interested ever since. The thing is, though, Debra, as much as I’d really like to see the artifacts, I prefer they be left on the ocean floor, a memorial, of sorts, to our own hubris. To me, and I realize I’m in the minority, the wreckage field is hallowed ground, much like a cemetery. May they rest in peace.
    By the way, Grandma, Mom, and Zia travelled to France in the mid-1920’s on the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister-ship. My blog’s banner photo is cropped from one of their passport photos. :)

    • I’m glad you shared your very thoughtful perpective, John. I can’t say that I don’t see your point…it is a tragic resting place. I will say that as these things go you would have minimally appreciated the care that went into humanizing the event, uncharacteristically without a high degree of sensationalizing. The exhibit designer may or may not be genuinely concerned about this, too, but did state the hope that in part the exhibit would educate visitors in better understanding that what began during the early Industrial Revolution as a “grand idea” also “hid a dark consequence.” And now I will have a whole new appreciation of your blog’s banner photo! How meaningful. My own grandmother and her family came over on a White Star Line luxury liner, too. I want to say it was the Homeric, but I may need to review my family history. They would have come over in the mid-1920’s, also. It’s all very interesting to me. Thanks for participating in the discussion and I really do value your thoughts about the artifacts…I wish we could sit and discuss the historical implications and fascinating social context. I have been on a reading frenzy! :-) Debra

    • I don’t remember the David Niven version, Frank, although it seems hard for me to believe that I never saw it. I love old movies, so I think it would be interesting to go back and watch as many of the older versions of the story as I can find. The exhibits are very eerie, I agree. The exhibit I referenced was very reverent and hushed. It was very moving. Remembering the event doesn’t have to be a spectacle! Thanks for stopping by this morning. Debra

  2. How nice to read a post by a fellow history lover! I agree with you that the history behind events and eras are so fascinating. Some artifact exhibits can give me chills, just imagining the pieces being used in their time and what life was like at that time. That’s probably why I love shows like Downton Abbey so much! :)

    • Oh Downton Abbey! My yes! I credit that show with my new fevered interest in this particular period of history. Now I just need a little more time to keep up with the reading it has inspired. While viewing the very ornate and elegant pieces as well as viewing the replica of the grand staircase and the beautifully appointed staterooms, I couldn’t help but think of Downton Abbey! And then the staterooms of the third class passengers brought to mind the staff…what rich characters they all are, and how much they have contributed to my knowledge of the period! I do love history…I wish I had more time for study. Every time I learn a little more I find I have more questions! :-) Debra

  3. Debra, I learned so much from your post! Thanks so much for writing about Titanic — I’m a bit of a fanatic as well, but I’ve never seen the exhibit in Vegas or the movie you mentioned. I’ve got lots to study yet! I’m reading a book right now called Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic, The Ocean’s Greatest Disaster by Marshall Everett. It was originally published in 1912 and is written in the style of the times, reporting from survivors points of view. I’m loving it! They lived in different times, but human interest stories are always relevant — the beauty of studying history is the people. :-)

    • I agree with you, Natalie! It is about studying the people that I, too, find really interesting. I’m also reading another book from 1912. It’s simply titled, “Titanic,” written by Filson Young. Even in 1912 there were some who “got it” from the very beginning. “The Titanic was in more senses than one a fool’s paradise. There is nothing that man can build that nature cannot destroy, and far as he may advance in might and knowledge and cunning, her blind strength will always be more than his match.” I wonder if we’ve learned that yet? Hmmmm. I would like to look into the book you are reading. I think we can learn about that particular period in history from studying the event itself. THanks so much for sharing, Natalie! Debra

  4. We’ve been fascinated by all things Titanic here as well. Our local newspaper has carried some personal stories… I think that’s what carries this story forward, it’s so poignant…

    • There is something almost mesmerizing by the magnitude of the event, I agree, Barb! I am sure that the story is fueled from decade to decade by the fact that no one believed a disaster at sea was even possible. And maybe we keep loooking at it because in our hearts we do the same thing today…it is macabre, but I seem to be intrigued. I’m in good company.. which is not always the best arbiter of taste :-) I’ve been learning a lot on my little historical reading journey, and that’s been very enjoyable. Thanks for stopping by today! Debra

  5. I hope you always put all the words down that you want too! I enjoyed reading your post! I knew it was extravagent, but wow that is a lot for a ticket…interesting and sad!

  6. I once saw an exhibit of belongings recovered from a passenger ferry that sank — don’t remember where, but it may have been in Kansas City. It was fascinating. It’s the details like the perfume bottles you mention, the two bathtubs for seven hundred passengers, or in the ferry’s case, all of the porcelain buttons that were in someone’s luggage.

    • I felt “hushed” and deeply saddened to view very personal items and to know that these things meant something to the people and in some ways are all that is left to tell their story. All the items, not just those belonging to the wealthy, were so beautifully well-made, and obviously of a time long, long ago! Not a lot of plastic stuff, Sharyn–Read your post last night :-)

    • I’ve had several of my friends tell me that they remember watching the movie when we were children. And some are eager to see it again, while another friend told me that as a child it so bothered her that she was never able to see Cameron’s film! I hope to see it again, too…I was so surprised to see how many people have put clips of the film on youtube!

  7. Lovely post! I was just watching a show Debra on Sunday that spoke about the perfume bottles by perfume maker Adolphe Saalfeld that were recovered and the fragrance can still be detected emanating from the vials. The man that spoke about that scent was very emotional! Imagine going throw all the things and smelling such a sweet smell among so much chaos and wreckage…

    • I would have loved to see that interview, Jen! They built an acrylic box to house the vials, and the box has some holes. The fragrance was very odd, as it certainly has dissipated a lot, but then they all combined into one fragrance that reminded me of dead flowers. Almost macabre, but somehow very fitting. Each of the personal items brought me shivers, really. These items meant something to another’s life, and I’m sure if we want to think about, should make us think a bit about what we hold onto so tightly. I think it’s best we don’t overthink it, though, don’t you? Debra

  8. I’m very interested in the Titanic too! There is so much history and so much mystery there. I saw an article the other day about the pets that were on the ship. Only a few were recued because they were small enough to fit on a life boat, one person refused to leave their dog behind…it breaks my heart! I might have had that same problem if I were on the boat. I love the idea of giving tickets with real people who were on the ship, that is how to make history fun!

    • I heard something, too, about the pets, Corri, but I didn’t key into the conversation until it was almost over. I would like to read a bit more about that. I am sorry to say that until this year I had never even thought about pets. Probably because today’s cruise liners don’t usually allow pets and it didn’t occur to me that it would have been possible then. Since they are putting more emphasis on the personal stories of the passengers, the whole of the event has taken on new proportions for me. It is a tragedy that doesn’t stop feeling very troubling! Debra

    • Wow I had no idea that pets were allowed on the boat. How dreadfully sad to think that some people chose to leave their pets behind. I don’t think I could do that.

      • I didn’t know that much about the pets either, Rosie. I think we all learned lot about the Titanic passengers with this anniversary. I am surprised at how little I really knew! Debra

  9. I had to watch the clip. Haven’t seen that particular movie in decades. Still makes me angry that arrogance and profit took precedence over safety. Humans never seem to learn, either…or don’t want to. We still do it all the time in different ways. So tragic.

  10. I remember watching A Night to Remember in our living room. It was one of the first movies featured on Saturday Night at the Movies and I have been fascinated by and horrified over the Titanic ever since.

    What a meaningful post, Debra, with bits of history I didn’t know about, such as the cost of those first class tickets. The opulence of the rich, the treatment of the impoverished, all those lives lost or forever changes. I think that the story of the Titanic will always fascinate us, don’t you?

    Kate Shrewsday’s father has a wonderful blog with poetry. I don’t know if you’ve ever popped over to read it, but, you might want to read this poem about the man trying to get the distress signal out about the ship’s collision.
    johnell74.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/phillips/

    • Fascinated and horrified…perfect pairing to describe what I feel, too, Penny! I had a friend tell me yesterday that she saw the movie when she was still quite young and it so upset her that she has never been able to see Cameron’s TITANIC–she simply gets too emotional. I don’t think the story will ever get any smaller, I really don’t.

      I didn’t know about Kate’s father’s poetry blog! Why am I not surprised that she has a poet-father-ha! I will immediately get onto his site! Thank you.

      I hope you had a good Easter, Penny–I’m sure you had a good time if you were with that little girl :-) Debra

  11. Debra, I learned quite a bit about the Titanic from your post! Was intrigued by the behavioral psychologist’s analyzes on more Americans surviving because they were more aggressive.

  12. I too am fascinated by the Titanic. My son saw the exhibition in London. He had to assume he was a second-class passenger. The man was a cinematographer and was paid by White Star Line to film the maiden voyage. He perished along with 1500 others. My son bought me a cookbook of all the meals that were served on that journey. I have cooked some of the recipes and have them on my blog listed in the recipe section. It’s a great cookbook full of interesting information about the voyage. You might be interested in buying the book. It is written by the grand-niece of the principal violinist who ‘played until the end’. Great post! xx

    • It is the story of the people themselves that just melts me! The irony in the story of the passenger you’re talking about…on-board to film the voyage! Wow! My daughter bought the cookbook for my mom, but I didn’t really get a chance to look at it. I will! How interesting that it would be a family member of the principal violinist. My imagination has been so super-charged since talking so much about this that I’m beginning to feel a great curiosity about learning even more about the individuals. As I do there may be even more interesting stories to tell! Thanks for sharing about the cookbook! I need to take a peek. D

  13. When I read the title, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read the post . . . but, I am pleased to report, I’m glad I waded in to the pool ~ what a difference in the class accomodations. Imagine that . . . 900 people to 2 bathtubs. And 10 people to a room.

    Quite a compelling read, Debra ~ sorry about your welder, though.

    • I’m glad you shared your “I’m not so sure” instinct, Nancy. In a variety of conversations over the past week I’ve really discovered a wide variety of responses to the entire topic of Titanic “lore” or fascination. It has been very interesting to me. I haven’t felt that strongly about the Titanic disaster, but I have certainly been that way about other events and at times I’m very sensitive to a story and will deliberately shield myself. The historical underpinnings of the event–the class distinctions and story lines of everyday people are indeed very compelling, though, aren’t they! I’m so glad you did stop by after all! Debra

  14. I’ve been fascinated for years with the missions to retrieve artifacts from the wreckage. A mixture of grave robbing and preserving what will eventually be dust on the bottom of the sea pervades the whole thing, but I lean toward be glad these things are being preserved. They make the people who perished real……somebody selected that particular perfume for the journey…….somebody else wore that ring to dinner……….Thanks for sharing such a lovely post, Debra.

    • I think you’ve probably hit upon why so many people do have trouble with the retrieval expeditions–grave robbing! After all, at core that is exactly what it is, and I admit I hadn’t really seen it with quite that much clarity. Now I have chills…and feel a little odd about the whole thing. You pegged it, Andra! Debra

    • Thank you, Meg. I’m glad you found the article interesting. I certainly agree with you that the people themselves, at least probably the majority, were very heroic in the worst of all possible situations. Thank you for stopping by…Debra

  15. Thank you for this post. I was eager to hear all about the artifacts you saw; and I had not seed A Night to Remember (at least I don’t think I had)…how heart wrenching…..thank you so much for this post, Debra~

  16. Noty a word too long, Debra, amnd thanks for the clip. I haven’t seen any exhibitions on the Titanic, though a new museum has just opened at Southampton, the port from which the Titanic sailed on her ill-fated voyage. There is Titanic fever in the UK too, with a new TV series, which we’re missing, but will catch later, and a lot of interesting articles on the BBC website.

    • I wonder if we’ll eventually get the TV series, Perpetua. I’d be interested. I’ll check out the BBC website and see what I can find. I have seen some newspaper articles about events and commemorations taking place in the UK, including stories of a ship that was sailing the same path as the Titanic, I believe. Something about it also not being able to complete the voyage. It’s all very sad, but the stories are compelling. I think this particular exhibit may be the last one I need to see, though. I think I got my fill! Debra

      • Thank you so much, Perpetua. It will help me in my search! There seems to be a hunger in the United States for British series…I know that I am huge fan of so many, even though a good portion of them are decades-old. :-)

  17. Gosh Debra I didn’t think it was possible to tell an interesting story about the Titanic, and you did. Congratalations on a great piece of storytelling. I’ve never seen a Titanic exhibtion and
    was fascinated – like some of the others – to learn about the cost of the first class ticket and that 10 people shared a room and 900 people shared TWO bathtubs, but the thing that really interested me was the David Savage quote that
    British passengers on the Titanic died in disproportionate numbers because they queued up politely for lifeboats while Americans “elbowed their way on.”

    Good gracious!

    • There is an exhibition right now in San Diego…they do come around now and again…but if you could make it to the one in Vegas I know you’d be thrilled. It is a real museum exhibition…it will be there for a while, so perhaps you will! Debra

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