Floating Palaces: Ocean Liners as Icons of Modern Splendour: Bernhard Rieger Considers How Luxury Liners Became Icons of Modernity and National Pride in the Early Decades of the Twentieth Century

By Rieger, Bernhard | History Today, February 2005 | Go to article overview

Floating Palaces: Ocean Liners as Icons of Modern Splendour: Bernhard Rieger Considers How Luxury Liners Became Icons of Modernity and National Pride in the Early Decades of the Twentieth Century


Rieger, Bernhard, History Today


A civilisation is known by its realised dreams. If another age than ours should ask, 'What did you do with your time?' here, in the more than Roman magnificence of our engineering, is one answer we Call give.'

IT WAS THE NEW LINER Queen Mary, awaiting its launch in front of 250,000 spectators in Glasgow on September 26th, 1934, that prompted this celebration in the Manchester Guardian. Profoundly impressed, the journalist proclaimed the unfinished new vessel to be a re> elation because it turned an intangible 'dream' into a material 'reality', and a formidable one at that--a structure over 1,000 feet long and weighing more than 35,000 tons. Since, as another newspaper wrote, the initiation of a ship had 'never before given the popular imagination so lively a thrill in anticipation,' it was only fair that the vessel enjoyed the unprecedented privilege of receiving a launch by royalty. Even pouring rain, which forced many onlookers to spend hours in 'flooding cornfields, [mud] slowly oozing over their ankles,' could not mar the universal mood of joyful anticipation. After Queen Mary, watched by her husband George V, had christened the ship in her own name with the obligatory bottle of champagne, 'one long sigh [travelled] all down the mile-long line' of drenched spectators as the hull took to the water.

Although she struck contemporaries as altogether exceptional, Queen Mary belonged to a breed of ships that, by the mid-1930s, possessed an exclusive pedigree dating from the turn of the century when transatlantic liners became household names. Since then, an almost mythical fascination has taken hold on both sides of the Atlantic, and historic vessels remain enshrined in an aura of opulence and glamour. Ships that crossed the ocean from the 1890s to the 1950s evoke a yearning for a glamorous lifestyle that appears irrevocably lost. Nothing symbolizes this more poignantly than the Titanic's rotting hull at the bottom of the Atlantic. Yet it is by no means clear why the huge 'giants of steel and steam' that sailed between Europe and New York before the advent of jet travel should trigger these sentiments. The roots of the fascination lies in the late nineteenth century when transatlantic vessels became icons of modern splendour amid events that provide an object lesson in how capitalist societies commodity desire to lasting effect.

It would have struck Victorians as bizarre to think of ships in nostalgic terms. Relief was the dominant feeling at the end of a voyage rather than longing to get back on board. While the 'conquest of nature' made steady progress on land after the railway boom of the 1840s, the sea proved a recalcitrant adversary. Even engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel found it beyond his powers to design a reliable iron steamship for long-distance travel. Only in 1889 did shipping lines trust steam technology enough to inaugurate the first transatlantic liner that fully dispensed with sails. Powerful multiple compound steam engines and, after the turn of the century, steam turbines driving tip to four screws, provided the technical foundation to propel ever larger ships at speeds of tip to 25 knots. As steam partly emancipated seafaring from the forces of nature, new materials helped transform maritime architecture. The proliferation of steel in shipbuilding proved the most important innovation because this material reduced a bull's weight, enhanced a vessel's stability and allowed the construction of spacious decks in which extravagant passenger amenities could be fitted.

Such technological breakthroughs required unprecedented state subsidies. At the turn of the century, operators could count on the public purse because international rivalries had turned transatlantic liners into symbols of national power. Buttressed by its expanding industrial base, the German Reich set out to challenge Britain's global supremacy through an aggressive colonial policy and a battlefleet construction programme in the 1890s.

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Floating Palaces: Ocean Liners as Icons of Modern Splendour: Bernhard Rieger Considers How Luxury Liners Became Icons of Modernity and National Pride in the Early Decades of the Twentieth Century
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