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Seaport Museum explores class divide on turn-of-the-century ocean liners

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On the early 1900s ocean liners docking in New York, first- and third-class passengers had a radically different experience

SS France, Grand Salon Louis XIV, circa 1912.
Courtesy of the South Street Seaport Museum

Between 1900 and 1914, over 13 million passengers sailed between New York City and Europe carried on ocean liners like Olympic, Lusitania, Mauretania, Aquitania, and Imperator. (Titanic, too, but we all know what happened there.) First class passengers on these liners traveled to ingratiate themselves to wealthy European elites and hobnob among the American well-to-do. Third class passengers huddled below deck, setting off from Europe to start a new life in America, without persecution and where jobs paid more.

These passengers not only had wildly different reasons for setting sail, their experience aboard these ocean liners varied down to the plates off which they ate. This dichotomy of experience is explored in length in Millions: Migrants and Millionaires aboard the Great Liners, 1900–1914, opening at the South Street Seaport Museum on June 23.

The exhibition pulls in artifacts and reproductions like ocean liner memorabilia, ceramics, and luggage trunks of both first- and third-class passengers to illustrate the difference in experience. A first class ticket, which today would go for $100,000, afforded passengers the utmost luxury in everything from accommodations to the food they were served. Passengers traveling in third class, at a cost of about $1,200 today, had a markedly different experience.

SS La Provence, First Class Cafe, circa 1905-1915.

On some of the older ships, Millions curator and South Street Seaport Museum historian William Roka says, third class accommodations included dorm-style rooms with bunks sometimes stacked six-high. In first class, rooms could be so large that they included their own living and dining rooms as well as maid’s quarters. At the turn-of-the-century leading up to World War I, some 1.4 million travelers sailed first class. Third class passengers coming to America numbered around 13 million.

NeverBreak steamer trunk belonging toa First Class passenger.

These ships often would dock at Chelsea Piers, where after first- and second-class travelers deboarded, Third class passengers coming to America were whisked onto ferries and towards Ellis Island to be documented and undergo a health inspection. At the height of ocean liner travel in 1907, well over 1 million immigrants came to the United States with the bulk of them entering this way.

The first class experience, with its intricately decorated serve ware and palatial rooms, was well-documented. The third class experience, not so much. Roka says this was the great challenge of curating the exhibition. But the most illustrative article of the class divide are two travel trunks: one belonging to a first class passenger, and the other to a third class passenger.

The first class passenger’s trunk, Roka notes, is frivolous with hangers and multiple compartments. The third class passenger’s is a simple wood box. “This person that was coming over to the United States, they had to put their entire life in this box,” Roka says. That there’s only this trunk to depict the dichotomy of experience is “kind of tragedy, in a way.”

South Street Seaport Museum

12 Fulton Street, Manhattan, NY 10038 (212) 748-8600 Visit Website

Chelsea Piers

62 Chelsea Piers, New York, NY 10011 Visit Website