For the second installation on the Titanic tragedy, we talked to Daniel Allen Butler about the class distinction on board of the ship.
The distinction between the three classes on the Titanic has always been a main fascination for people. Can you briefly illustrate what it was like sailing aboard the Titanic as a first class, second class, and third class passenger? What sort of activities might each group partake in each day?
One of the most enduring impressions of the Titanic story is how the three passenger classes–First, Second, and Third (or “steerage”) were a microcosm of the world in which the Titanic was built. And in point of fact, it is a reasonable if inexact analogy: class defined the Edwardian world. The boundaries were always quite clearly defined, falling into three categories–the working, or lower class; the middle class; and the upper class. Mobility, especially from the middle to the upper class, was usually discouraged, although the line between the lower and middle classes blurred occasionally. The first decade of the 20th Century was nothing like today’s egalitarian, socially mobile society. A rigid, millennium-old class structure still exerted an near-overpowering influence on the every aspect of life: vocabulary, diet, education, clothing, housing, profession, even the choice of friends were all to greater or lesser degrees prescribed or proscribed by a person’s position in society.
For the upper class–the British aristocracy and the American plutocracy–it was a time marked by privilege and ostentation. In both nations, just over one percent of the population of Great Britain controlled 67 percent of their country’s wealth. Admission to the upper class on either side of the Atlantic was usually accomplished by inheritance of either title or wealth, on occasion by marriage.
The world of the middle class, in turn, was one of bank clerks, accountants, brokers, bookkeepers, merchants, and shopkeepers, and their families. They were men and women who fiercely guarded their social station, obsessed with respectability, unfailingly prim and proper, embracing patriotism, education, hard work, and piety, always watchful to never to say or do something that even hinted at a lack of good manners or proper breeding.
At the bottom of this pyramid was the working class, the men and women who, as the name implied, performed the manual labor in factory, foundry, or farm that made the lives of the middle and upper classes possible. Solid and stolid, they lived their lives essentially waiting to be told where to go, what to do, and when to do it, by their “betters.” In Europe, those with sufficient ambition and imagination to want to improve their lot in life would realize that their only opportunity to do so would be to leave their situation behind and emigrate to the United States.