Sociability and "Separate Spheres" on the North Atlantic: The Interior Architecture of British Atlantic Liners, 1840-1930

By Hart, Douglas | Journal of Social History, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Sociability and "Separate Spheres" on the North Atlantic: The Interior Architecture of British Atlantic Liners, 1840-1930


Hart, Douglas, Journal of Social History


Introduction

  In the lounge of the White Star liner Adriatic in yesterday from
  Southampton, smoke rolled from women's lips, and dainty fingers
  flicked the ashes from cigarettes heedless of Alderman Timothy P.
  Sullivan and all his new ordinance stands for. (1)

So begins a column in the Sunday New York Times for January 26, 1908 run under the headline "Many Women Smoked on Incoming Liners". Others have documented the history of women and tobacco, including Alderman Sullivan's ill-fated attempt to ban women from smoking in public in New York City. (2) Here we present a history of the room in which such an event could occur - the ship's Lounge.

This article explores changes in the configuration of public rooms in the premier passenger class (successively saloon, first, and cabin) on British express liners between 1840 and 1930. (3) In common with other public spaces occupied by travelers - hotels, trains, steamboats - the interior architecture of the liners reflected first the waxing, then, at the turn of the century, the waning of the Victorian doctrine of "separate spheres" for men and women. On the liners, however, the attainment of separate spheres in the organization of public rooms was delayed and compromised. Shipboard social life up to 1870 was centered on the common ground of the saloon. Between 1870 and 1880, the smoking room emerged as a male retreat for social activities, while the saloon continued as a common, if now more genteel, social gathering place. Only in the early 1880s did the shipboard equivalent of the Victorian parlor appear in the form of the music room. The saloon, once the day-long social center of the ship, was demoted to a single purpose dining room. Daytime shipboard life was now dominated by the separate gendered spaces of smoking room and drawing room. At night the latter served as a genteel common social center juxtaposed to the male enclave of the smoking room. Even at this stage, however, such regulation was compromised as passengers sought out common meeting grounds in undesignated spaces.

Separate spheres was fully realized in shipboard interior architecture just as it began to unravel on land, at least in the leading hotels. In 1905, Cunard introduced the Lounge, a new common social room already found in many large hotels. Gendered social spaces thereafter rapidly lost ground in the interior architecture of first class passenger spaces, culminating in a proliferation of new common spaces and the opening of the smoking room to women.

The distinct path followed by shipboard architecture can be explained in terms of two inter-related features of the shipboard social environment. The first is that the public rooms in saloon class were socially sheltered spaces. While hotels were open to the street and steamboats and trains served diverse clienteles, the shipboard saloon was restricted to comparatively narrow social strata with both the means and the motive to undertake a transatlantic crossing. The second is a norm of sociability authorizing an exceptional level of informal contact between men and women. This was bred in the highly uncomfortable and not infrequently dangerous circumstances of the long early crossings but surviving even as conditions improved.

Numerous studies have documented the impact of the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres on the architecture of public spaces. This is particularly the case for travel venues, where gatherings of strangers posed new problems of social regulation. In all these venues, women travelers found themselves a small minority among men usually travelling alone. The result was invariably a trend in design favoring compartmentalized, gendered spaces over communal spaces. In many sites, however, gender segregation served, at the same time, as means of regulating contact among social classes. Separate spheres was an ideology of middle class or genteel "ladyhood". (4) The Victorian domestic parlor, transformed into a public room, often became a retreat not only for middle class women but also their male escorts, away from the "vulgar" classes. …

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