Harrods of London 1909

Fashionable Londoners in front of Harrods, 1909. The trailing skirts and broad-brimmed hats of mid-decade are giving way to narrower dresses and hats with deep crowns. Men wear top hats with formal morning dress or bowlers with lounge suits.

As the sea closed over the Titanic, Lady Cosmo duff Gordon in Boat 1 remarked to her secretary Miss Francatelli, “There is  your beautiful nightdress gone.”

A lot more than Miss Francatelli’s nightgown vanished that April night. Even more than the largest liner in the world, her cargo, and the lives of 1502 people.

Never again would men fling a ship into an ice field, heedless of warnings, putting their whole trust in a few thousand tons of steel and rivets. From now on Atlantic liners took ice messages seriously, steered clear, or slowed down. Nobody believed in the  “unsinkable ship.”

Nor would icebergs any longer prowl the seas untended. After the Titanic sank, the American and British governments established the International Ice Patrol, and today Coast Guard cutters shepherd errant icebergs that drift toward the steamer lanes. The winter lane itself was shifted further south, as an extra precaution.

It was also the last time a liner put to sea without enough lifeboats. And it was the end of class distinction in filling the boats. Not all the women were off the boats, it was at the end when dozens of women suddenly appeared. The statistics suggest who they were-the Titanic’s casualty list included four of 143 First Class Women (three by choice) . . . 15 of 93 Second Class women . . . and 81 of 179 Third Class women.

Not to mention the children. All 29 First and Second Class children were saved, but only 23 out of 76 steerage children. Neither the chance to be chivalrous nor the fruits of chivalry seemed to go with a Third Class passage.

In covering the Titanic, few reporters bothered to ask the Third Class passengers anything. The New York Times was justly proud of the way it handled the disaster. Yet the famous issue covering the Carpathia’s arrival in New York contained only two interviews with Third Class pasengers. This apparently was par for the course-of 43 survivor accounts in the New York Herald, two again were steerage experiences.

The night was a magnificent confirmation of “Women and children first,” yet somehow the loss rate was higher for Third Class children than First Class men. It was a contrast which would never get by the social consciousness (or news sense) of today’s press.

At the opposite extreme, it was also the last time the special position of First Class was accepted without question. When the Titanic sailed, the New York Times listed the prominent passengers on the front page. After she sank, New New York American broke the news on April 16 with a lead devoted almost entirely to John Jacob Astor. At the end it mentioned that 1800 others were also lost.

There was a wonderful intimacy about this little world of the Edwardian rich. There was no flicker of surprise when they bumped into each other, whether at the Pyramids (a great favorite), the Cowes Regatta, or the springs at Baden-Baden. They seemed to get the same ideas at the same time, and one of these ideas was to make the maiden voyage of the largest ship in the world.

So the Titanic’s trip was more like a reunion than an ocean passage. All First Class were shoulder to shoulder friends with the Captain, Stewards and others as themselves. But the water was the same for all. The sea broke a man’s resistance. The temperature of the water was 28 degrees-well below freezing. To Second Officer Lightoller it felt like “A thousand knives” driven into his body. In water like this, lifebelts did no good.

How anyone survived is questionable. The Titanic marked the end of a general feeling of confidence. Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life. For 100 years the Western world had been at peace. Technology had steadily improved. The benefits of peace and industry seemed to be filtering satisfactorily through society. The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves. The “unsinkable ship”, went down taking with it the dream of man’s greatest engineering achievement.

How would you do on a sinking ship? What would you do to survive?

Credit to Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, ed. 1955, Henry Holt and Company, New York.

Historic Time Periods

Gilded Age America: 1870s to 1890s 
Progressive Era America: 1890s to 1920s
Belle Epoque Europe: 1880s to 1910s
Victorian Era: 1837-1901
Edwardian Era: 1901-1914
World War One: 1914-1918

Some interior design history coming . . .

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