Aboard the Titanic

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.

First class passengers J.J. Astor and his wife Madeleine

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.

Third Class Boarding Pass

Consequently, the vast majority of the passengers in Third Class aboard the Titanic were working class, coming from the farms of Ireland, the factories of the Midlands, or the slums of the cities.  True, there were more than a few craftsman and even some professionals in Third Class; for all of them, though, the ship was a means of crossing the Atlantic, no more.  They had no use for Grand Staircases, electric elevators, swimming baths, gymnasiums, or Turkish baths that were the prerogatives of Second and First Class.  Their interests lay in clean quarters and decent food.  In this respect the Titanic served them admirably–their cabins were reasonably spacious, the food, while perhaps unspectacular, was plentiful and good, and there were no demands placed on their time.  They could gather in the Third Class Smoking Room, which served as a common room, stay in their cabins, roam the sections of the open decks reserved for them, or read in the Third Class library, however the whim of the moment took them

Second class passengers aboard the Titanic

The men and women in Second Class aboard the Titanic were almost uniformly middle class.  While many of them had the financial means to be able to afford a First Class passage, they would have found themselves uncomfortable in the company of most of the First Class passengers, who moved in a world very different from that of middle-class respectability.  Second Class accommodations on the Titanic were considered equal to First Class on most other ships of the day, so the Second Class passengers hadn’t given up anything.  First and Second Class shared a common galley, so the meals enjoyed by the Second Class passengers were quite literally the equal of those served in First.

First Class on the Titanic, especially in her public rooms, offered exactly the sort of comfortable, elegant amenities with which Third Class passengers had no truck, but which wealthy or titled or sometimes simply famous men and women accepted as their due.  For all three classes of society, the Titanic provided a suitable setting on-board.  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that, once aboard, passengers were expected to adopt the roles that defined their respective classes ashore.  What no one could imagined was that circumstances would ultimately compel many of them to not only live by those roles, but to die by them as well.

Read Daniel Allen Butler’s responses to our next round of questions on the sinking of the Titanic here.

Recommended Titles on the Lives of Titanic Passengers
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