Dreaming between Europe and the U.S.A. A cultural-historical study of a hundred years of luxury transport on board the transatlantic oceanliners (1840-1940)
Between 1840 and 1860 transatlantic liner services were dominated by American and British shipping-companies. After 1860 until deep in the 1880s, however, they were really exclusively dominated by steamship owners in the United Kingdom.
From the second half of the 1850s the first class of the transatlantic passengerships was populated by mainly American travellers, businessmen or tourists. At first, there were 'only' some tens of thousands of them per year, but their number increased to approximately a hundred thousand per year in 1890. Although a paid vacation did not yet exist, between May and September American tourists travelled in remarkable large numbers from the New to the Old World to make a 'Grand Tour', that as far as time was concerned had in most cases been condensed to the length of a summer. The enormous amounts of emigrants, which were initially put away 'tween decks, and in a later stage deep fore and aft in the big ships were the cork that kept the liner service floating. However, the wealthy American travellers, who were in search of their roots, cultural inspiration, on a business trip or wanting to go to Europe for whatever reason, populated the upper decks for the great majority. Numerically they were only frills considering that between 1831-1914 approximately 28 million emigrants were transported to the US by sailing vessel or steamship, but for every management of the shipping-companies on this route the American travellers were the source of inspiration and the standard on which the interiors for the first and second classes on board were tested by.
Early in the nineteenth century travel comfort in the US had developed into a product that, if a passenger had money and the appropriate colour of skin, was for sale to anybody. The furnishing of the transatlantic passengerships initially lagged far behind the comfort and luxury that could be found for example on board the large riverboats, Pullman trains or in the large luxury hotels. Maybe the Swiss had turned the luxury hotel into a model of service, the Americans in particular changed it to perfection in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They even made the luxury hotel into an example to the Europeans, especially concerning the layout of public accommodation, comfort through service and technology and the luxury in the interiors.
At first the steamliners could by no means meet the demand for comfort and luxury. They did not only lack the necessary space on board, but also the economic basis. Development accelerated after the Inman Line had proven that even without (mail)subsidy a steam liner could be exploited profitably. The British shipping-companies began to compete amongst each other with increasingly larger, new and especially fast ships. The interiors of the passenger accommodation on board these ships were left to the shipyard's carpenter. To decorate a saloon he sometimes called on the help of an artist. With the presentation of the 'Oceanic' in 1871,the White Star Line introduced a layout on board with the first class accommodation in the centre on the upper deck which would be copied almost universally.
In a rapidly developing travel network of trains, hotels and ships where the exchange of ideas happened increasingly faster, it soon became clear in Europe as well that comfort and luxury, as well as hygiene and service did not exclusively have to be the privilege of a limited elite, such as the aristocracy, and furthermore that the American travellers were happy to pay for these services.
From the mid-eighties the transatlantic liner service was increasingly dominated by British-German competition. The growth in the number of decks was also followed by an increase in the number of saloons for the first class. The interiors of this accommodation evolved into luxurious décors, because the luxury hotel was used as a starting point. Besides the speed of the ship, the service offered and the price of the ticket, these interiors also became crowd pullers. The shipping-companies decided to call in designer-architects. However, the role of this designer remained restricted to the furnishing, the general arrangement of the accommodation was left to the shipbuilder. Which company first decided to engage an architect is not (yet) quite clear, but the N.D.L. with the architect J.G.Poppe and the HAPAG with G.Thielen made the employment of an architect on board a structural shipowner's policy.
From 1895 the transatlantic liners had roughly become equal to the hotels on the mainland and they were indicative concerning comfort, luxury and speed to the ships on ocean lanes to other continents. In 1890 the biggest liner was approximately 180 meters long with a capacity of 10,000 gross tons; in 1914 there were ships of approximately 280 meters and a capacity five times as big. With these ships four thousand passengers could be transported in four different classes. There was not only a constant large supply of emigrants - no less than 13 million crossed the ocean between 1890 and 1914 - but there were also more and more migrant workers who worked part of the year in the US and then returned to Europe. At the insistence of A. Ballin, managing director of the HAPAG, the first steps were taken on the road to cartelization by making price agreements with the other shipowners. Cruises became an important source of income for the liners and the two German shipping-companies, the N.D.L. and the HAPAG became the biggest in the world.
On all transatlantic liners a formalized social etiquette based on the life style that could initially be found with the English and also in a later stage with the American 'Society', was accepted. In the course of the nineteenth century the middle class socially became an important economic factor in the United Kingdom and the US. As its financial power increased and its political influence developed, the middle class preferred to assimilate itself culturally and socially into the aristocracy rather than having a completely different way of living as a starting point. This was already customary in the 1830s in the United Kingdom, but from the 1870s the English 'Society' was looked at and its lifestyle copied by the financial elite in the republican US. As a reflection of this cultural-social ambition the aristocracy-associated Period-styles were adopted at home and for travelling. These styles did not only confirm the (new) status of the new well-to-do but they were also firmly embedded in European traditions; as it were they gave the 'bourgeois-gentilhomme' a historic legitimation. The Americans were not alone in this. Also in Europe many luxury hotels arose which leaned on the French and Italian palaces from the Baroque with respect to the furnishing of the outside and the interior. But the hotels in the US often were not only much bigger, they also offered the customers a luxury and comfort and technical service mostly unknown in Europe and which could not even be realized on the passengerships yet.
The significance of the Period-styles was perhaps even greater on board of the passengerships than on the mainland. On board of the ship a passenger could for a certain amount of money become a member of an exclusive society and find himself in an expensively decorated interior, that, as shipbuilding evolved, the ships became bigger, the lay-out more complex and the number of passengers increased, could be found in more and more different types of lounges. The passengership was the reflection of the ideal society both in her interiors and in the distribution of space. The fact is that there was a hierarchically structured society in classes based on wealth. On the upper deck were the well-to-do. They found themselves in an environment that was decorated in styles that had always been associated with the aristocracy, but between them there were no differences based on birthright. Furthermore, the class distinction between the less well-off in the other classes was strictly kept in hand and this did not just show in the price of the ticket but also in the comfort and luxury of the interiors. Although on passengerships the division in classes as used in Europe was applied, social life on board was essentially a reflection of American society because there was a class division based on wealth more common..
The management of the shipping-companies did not have to defend this view on the interior, because the Period-styles were not only supported by the aristocracy or middle class, but were bought by the working class both in Europe and in the US in cheaper versions too.
As a result of the special requirements and peculiarities the ship called for regarding construction space and movement, the Period-styles had to be adjusted. Initially there was no thoughtless imitation in the interiors. The choices for certain Period-styles were often based upon the fashion of the day and these styles were mostly incorporated eclectically, on which occasion the hyperbole was not always avoided. Each lounge was given its own style. Nineteenth-century views were also introduced in the applied Period-styles. Seating comfort and informal arrangement appeared in the various furnishing programs in houses and hotels and on board. The fantasy décors of Historicism prevailed on board of the shipping-companies' liners until 1914 and the C.G.T.'s 'France' (II) in 1912 was the absolute peak. This passengership was fast, medium-sized and she had royal interiors in the first class saloons.
In Europe the loyalty to Historicism as an attractive compendium of styles developed paradoxically: whereas until 1914 the national and territorial consciousness became increasingly stronger, the management of the shipping-companies remained loyal to internationally accepted Historicism. So the wish for mutual distinction through the interiors had not yet developed strongly despite all political and economic rivalry. The interiors were chosen for their secure success with the Americans and Historicism would prove to be a safe choice for a long time.
Occasionally, on the initiative of a member of the management of the shipping-company, a deviating, contemporary design would be allowed on board. In Germany, around the turn of the century, the design on board became part of the debate on nationalism. Opposition arose against this internationally orientated Historicism and that is how allowing contemporary design was in a certain way initiated by the demand for a more national style. The 'Kronprinzessin Cecilie'of the N.D.L. in 1907 was the first ship to have luxurious cabins designed by architects/artists who worked in a contemporary style idiom. At about the same time C.A. Lion Cachet in the Netherlands was offered to design the public rooms on board the 'Grotius', but this was a ship sailing on the Dutch Indies and she therefore hardly attracted any international attention. The 'George Washington'of the N.D.L. built in 1909, which, at the request of managing director H.Wiegand, had been decorated by B.Paul and R.A. Schröder, was in a way the prototype of a passengership that was to operate as a national cultural ambassador and would in that way surpass the interest of the shipping-company. She was a ship that would promote the technological and cultural qualities of the German nation. However, the N.D.L. did not continue this policy along these lines. After Wiegand's death a more traditional designer like P.L. Troost who would work for this shipping-company until the thirties, was chosen. The HAPAG allowed contemporary design in some luxury cabins of her prestigious ship, the 'Imperator' and on some less important ships sailing on Latin America. On the already above-mentioned 'France' the French C.G.T. began, with John dal Piaz in charge, to furnish some cabins in a contemporary design, a development that was to become company policy after World War I.
At the end of the Great War a completely different situation had developed politically and economically for Europe. The aristocracy had severely lost face and many dynasties had fallen. Led by this aristocracy Europe had worn itself out in a meaningless and bloody war and economically the US had become the most powerful nation in the world. In the twenties a period of prosperity for some seemed to be over and the mass culture in the US became a shining example for many a European civilian and an abomination for many a European intellectual.
The most important developments that would characterize transatlantic shipping until the thirties, can be summarized as follows: the rise of new (transatlantic) shipping nations such as the US, Sweden and Italy; the confiscation of the fleets of the N.D.L. and the HAPAG by the allied forces and from 1921 onwards there was a very stringent restriction on immigration in the US because of which very few emigrants could be transported and there was a structural surplus of tonnage. The rebuilding of the German transatlantic merchant navy, taken on with great energy from 1917, made the surplus even bigger.
American tourism on the other hand grew substantially in the twenties. Some 90,000 tourists came to Europe in 1919, a number that would rise gradually till approximately 359,000 in 1930. Yet their number was too small to compensate for the loss of the transport of emigrants. From 1925 the shipping-companies tried to lure travellers of limited means by up-grading the third class and improving comfort. Finally, as a result of the growth of this tourism, the lower classified tourist-third-class would even cause the second class to disappear in the beginning of the thirties. Helped by the effects of the Prohibition in the US, cruises were now starting to boom but were still too much in their infancy to offer an alternative for the loss of most of the emigration transport. The development of the cruise was not just the beginning of the improvement of comfort in the lower classes,but led to the increase of space per passenger on the regular service, as a result of which less and less passengers were left to carry the operating costs. Because a cruise is a luxurious pastime, the number of passengers on board during 'cruises' was restricted and parts of the different classes were joint together. The shipping-companies kept to the mutual price agreements made in the consultative body of the cartel, the Atlantic Conference, as a result of which a 'price war' could be prevented. Nevertheless, the returns of the shipping-companies recovered amongs other things by rationalizing and streamlining the organisations.
In the beginning of the twenties no large, fast, luxury passengerships were ordered by the European shipping-companies, despite the losses in the Great War. Like the H.A.L and the Cunard Line, the HAPAG and the N.D.L. also decided on smaller freight- and passengerships. For the time being the lifestyle of the Americans and the general arrangement of the passengerships of the new American shipping-companies served as an argument to follow the road of Historicism with regard to the decoration of the public rooms. In the US large luxury hotels, all without exception decorated in Period-styles, were still built as regularly as clockwork. For example, the previously-mentioned passengership 'George Washington' of the N.D.L., that was seized by the Americans during the Great War, was even quickly (re)Historicised in all her interiors after the war. As a matter of fact, this view on taste was still shared by most managements and passengers and was as such no object of discussion yet. The Italian passengerships of the Lloyd Sabaudo in particular had public rooms decorated by the La Casa Artistica studio of the Coppedè brothers in which the use of the hyperbole was in no way avoided when Period-styles were used. The very large pre-war passengerships of the Cunard Line, the I.M.M./White Star Line and the U.S.L.,namely the'Majestic'(II) (ex 'Bismarck'), the 'Leviathan'(ex 'Vaterland'), the 'Berengaria' (ex 'Imperator'), the 'Aquitania', the 'Olympic' and the 'Mauretania' remained the big attractions for the public.
Yet, albeit falteringly and haphazardly, a new development started to become visible on some of the new ships of the HAPAG and the C.G.T. These shipping-companies wanted a greater mutual distinction and allowing on board a contemporary design with a national character seemed to be an effective means. The apparent uncompromising opinions about the application of the Period-styles on board were subject to erosion due to at least three factors:
First there were fundamental changes in the amount of passengers. Not only the amount of emigrants had decreased, the social hierarchy was reflected less univocally in the classification on board the ship. This was because the individual active wealthy traveller of the East Coast had been replaced by a more passive tourist flow that travelled in all classes and was as a group hardly interested in European culture. The Americans travelled to Europe under the umbrella of a travel agency to have fun thanks to the purchasing power of the dollar. This development had indeed already started before World War I, but came on strong just now. This way, the univocal image the managements had about the type of American traveller vanished in principle as well. To this moment the wealthy American of the East Coast had been criterium and example.
Secondly, after World War I, every nation wanted to develop its own network of shipping lines and no longer depend on other carriers. Governements even used subsidies to reach that goal. Shipping grew more and more to be part of an enhanced national conscience as a result of which more modern, less generally accepted views on design and art -but with a national character- could have a chance on board as well.
Thirdly, in impoverished Europe the US dollar was a highly valued hard currency, which is why trapping the wealthy American tourist became worthwhile for nations like France and Germany and in a later stage also Italy. Furthermore the application of Period-styles was expensive and the applied styles always had to be adjusted to the pecularities on board of a ship, a fact many advocators of the use of Period-styles had always thought to be a less attractive aspect too. This was how, besides other tourist-promoting measures, national contemporary design, with Historicism as a starting point, could gradually develop into a part of national propaganda.
Initially, the managements of the shipping-companies tried to find the solution however, in a development from the Period-styles. In the thirties these developments to a design on a national basis would gain even more momentum under pressure of decreasing amounts of passengers, lower returns under pressure of the Depression and the increasing influence of the State on the shipowners.
From the second half of the twenties until into the thirties the developement on board of the transatlantic passengerships was as follows: Historicism was frequently used on German, English, Dutch, Italian and American liners but the use of the Period-styles became more free, less historically correct. Contemporary elements were added and there was more emphasis on the national character than before. The Period-styles were simplified and partly stripped of excessive ornamentation and aspects of a new design were added. In Sweden for example, the S.A.L. started in the twenties in Historicism with an adaptation of the Period-styles from Gripsholm Castle on the ship of the same name, but after the success of the contemporary Scandinavian design in Paris 1925 a modern translation of the Empire was applied on board which was generally considered to be a highly accepted contemporary translation of Historicism.
Thus, particularly in Italy, in the US and in Great Britain a somewhat hybrid style that gave more attention to the significance of leaving-out as an attractive alternative could develop around the beginning of the thirties. The wallsurface gained more respect, the pilaster as an articulation of the wall lost its importance, and the ornament was only applied scarcely. Furthermore, modern synthetics, veneer and metals were used more and more in the furniture and the panelling.
In France, the C.G.T., on the other hand, followed a course more of its own since the introduction of the 'Paris' in 1921. Under the direction of managing director John dal Piaz this shipping-company allowed a contemporary French design on its passengerships. Dal Piaz preferred a rich, decorative style. Here the Period-styles were no longer a starting point but they were used as a reference in the field of monumentality and luxury. Old and new materials were combined freely and the use of contemporary symbolism often could be seen. An allusion to Historicism had mostly been preserved.
For the 1927 'Ile de France' Dal Piaz called on a large number of architects/designers who had very succesfully participated in the international exhibition in Paris of 1925. They were designers who supported a moderated modernism in architecture and decorating and who did not really loose sight of the national traditions in style and design; most of the time they had an accurate feeling of how to apply expensive materials and more important: they did not subject the interior of a high-class liner to a designing passion for a uniform, clinical, machine-like character. This way, decoration and much room for figurative art in an expensive-looking interior were given preference. This development continued in the thirties. The parameters of luxury and comfort remained clear in this view as well: in this modern variant the interiors kept their luxurious, monumental character and also showed it in the details in expensive materials, in the colours applied and often in the classical-looking articulation of walls and ceilings.
On its new, relatively small passengerships of the beginning of the twenties, the HAPAG had promoted national contemporary design based on the examples of the Period-styles, but this shipping-company did no longer build large passengerships. It was the N.D.L. from Bremen that showed the new evolved views the most clearly at the end of the twenties. The two new, fast, large passengerships, the 'Bremen' (IV) and the 'Europa' (II), which together with the older 'Columbus' (II) were brought into service around 1930, showed how contemporary ideas and adjustments of Historicism functioned, how new contemporary design was integrated and moreover, how monotony on board could be prevented. The 'Columbus', which originated from the years just after World War I, still had interiors in Period-styles, but on the 'Europa' of 1930 the designer who was also responsible for the 'Columbus', the architect P.L. Troost, had applied a modernized German Period style apparatus. It was a synthesis in which a personal interpretation of the Period-styles, contemporary ornaments and Art-Déco-influences could be traced. Furthermore a lot of space was devoted for easy to digest visual art. The architect Breuhaus de Groot, the designer with the most extended commission on the 'Bremen'was on the other hand a synthesist who worked from an entirely different tradition. From a more rational approach of the ship's space he could make a certain soberness of the decoration socially acceptable by making a combination between somewhat superficial, but modernist characteristics like a minimum of ornamentation, respect for the wall surface and simplicity in colour and a more traditional German design without reverting to Historicism. Apparently this led to an acceptable level of representativity. By putting the design of Breuhaus de Groot in the context of that of archtitects with a more exuberant opinion such as P. Hofmann (in the restaurant) and R.A. Schröder (in the smoking room), the management prevented too much soberness and monotony.
In the area of transatlantic passenger transport, the thirties were the years of (near) bankruptcies, mergers, virulent nationalism and especially of the 'Folie de Grandeur'.
In Italy, France and Great Britain, the decisions to build super passengerships which were to be both big and extremely fast were taken under the pressure of the success of the N.D.L.'s ships. Cruises had a lot of influence on the layout of these liners and the (deck)space each passenger was allotted was incomparable to that on previous ships. The 1931 'Empress of Britain"(II) of the C.P.R. in particular could carry an amount of passengers that, related to her volume, was extremely small. This was also the period when hardly any new luxury hotels were built and the gigantic passengerships would vie with the existing hotels regarding luxury in interior decorating and in some cases even surpassed them.
The building and completion of these superships took place under difficult economic circumstances and was in most cases only possible with the help of public funds. In Italy, France and Great Britain these ships were nationally understood to be symbols of collective technological and artistic brilliance, employment, new political zeal and prestige, whereas it was by no means certain that these ships could be exploited economically. The three Italian transatlantic shipping-companies were concentrated into one company, the Italia Line. The 1932 prestigious passengerships of this company, the 'Rex' and the 'Conte di Savoia', which were to direct American tourism to Italy, showed ideas in their interiors as on the N.D.L.'s ships. On the 'Rex' the interiors were designed by verious designers in a safe, somewhat modernized Historicism. But on the 'Conte di Savoia'strategy had changed. It was G.Pulitzer Finali who, from his knowledge not only of Historicism but also of the Wiener Werkstätten products and French Art-Déco and German and more traditional Italian design, could transform a modern, sober style into a high-quality modern Italian stylistic language carried out in expensive materials with a high quality in craftsmanship. With him this led to a hybrid style with sufficient representativity and monumentality. By giving each saloon a nature and character of its own, the architect had avoided uniformity and monotony. Furthermore, his work was 'linked' to interiors of the Coppedè brothers, who, as a concession to the glorious Italian past, had provided some important lounges with Period-styles complemented with paintings and sculptures from the golden ages of Roman/Italian culture.
On the 1934 'Normandie'of the C.G.T., a shipping-company that had become state property in this period, modern design had for the first time developed into a décor, in which no longer the traveller stood central but the architects and artists and their passion for luxureus design. Because of this excess of architecture and visual art the 'Normandie'was the answer to the search for a new type of monumentalism and symbolism. On board of this prestigious project an idealized image of the resilience of French design and democratic society was to be propagated. This propaganda was formed by the presentation of an overpowering architectural design and by the application of a figurative imagery in rich-looking materials inspired by Mannerism and the Baroque. This way design came again closer in its meaning and function, to the autocratic views, in which Art and central controlled State reinforced each other. But the influence of the tendency to soberness in tast had in the meantime become a fact. Status, luxury and distinction from other classes were pursued less openly in the thirties, but were expressed by applying expensive materials, fitting-in works of art and a surplus of space. Status and prosperity were to be underlined in a more appropriate, modest way and exaggeration was no longer part of it. In that sense, the 'Normandie' was now actually 'hors-concours'; the 'Normandie'could only be admired as an impressive piece of firework that because of its ephemeral character has little to do with every-day-life.
The general shift of emphasis of an internationally accepted Historicism to a contemporary design with a national character had become successful in a short time. The almost obsessive tenacity with the traditional English or French Period-styles with their aristocratic connotations had given way to a much more free range of possibilities in design per ship which were acceptable for the most important target group, the American travellers, as long as the found solutions did not produce bare saloons. However, the ship's interiors stayed in line with a more common opinion about design and interior decorating in the Western world. On the mainland too there was no radical goodbye to tradition or the ornament, but a view on style that reflected a sense of décor, stability, dignity and reliability and provided a feeling of safety, continued to be approved of. So the consensus about the application of Historicism might have been broken, it did by no means implicate that the style apparatus was no longer applied on board or on the mainland. In the democracies and dictatorships of the Western world representative architecture already very often tried to seek contact with the national historical tradition or neo-classicist examples anyway, although there was room to experiment more freely with stylistic language.
The 'Queen Mary' of the merged shipping-company Cunard/White Star Line of 1936 was built with the support of enormous loans and the company was forced to take over the transatlantic interests of the bankrupt White Star Line. The Cunard/White Star Line under the direction of manager Sir Percy Bates had -incidentally- taken a brave step. It had had its interiors designed by an American architect, who had dismantled Historicism and, as a manner of speaking, the walls absorbe the ornament. Also, all lounges were finished in a uniform style conception. Still there was some knee-bending for a recognizable type of monumentalism that was very tributary to the Period-styles. On its two other new passengerships, the "Mauretania" (II) of 1939 and the "Queen Elizabeth" of 1946, the company had commissioned English architects, who designed interiors related to the 'Queen Mary', but kept closer to Historicism. The experiment with a more modern design on board of a passengership was reserved for a company on another route. With the intention to give contemporary design a chance, the very young manager C. Anderson commissioned the interiors of the new ships of the Orient Line in 1935 and 1937 to B. O'Rorke.
The 1938 'Nieuw Amsterdam'(II) of the H.A.L. was the proud property of a shipping-company that had almost been bankrupt, but she could be built thanks to a State loan. Although as a passengership she was much smaller than the superships discussed previously, she was by Dutch standards a mighty ship and for the management of the H.A.L.in particular understood it to be a technological and cultural 'ambassador' of the Netherlands. She was to be a 'running-mate' for the 1929 'Statendam' (III) whose interior had still been designed in various Period-styles and that had been a succesful, profitable passengership.
In the design of the ship's model the 'Nieuw Amsterdam' seemed to be inspired by the 'Rex', in the division of the chimneys by the German passengerships and by the 'Normandie' regarding the layout and attracting of many architects and artists. In the planning of public rooms and cabins cruises had been integrated as well as possible. In the decoration of passenger accommodation in all classes, they showed the amalgamation of those movements that had determined the image of modern architecture and design in the Netherlands in the previous decades. Managing director W.H. de Monchy, a great art lover and instigator of contemporary design had finally given preference to diversity in favour of uniformity of the interiors; the decoration of the interiors of all classes and luxury cabins had been commissioned to different architects. In the cabin class H.Th. Wijdeveld was the main designer. He was an architect who preferred a rich design, whose expressionist style was connected with a monumental, baroque, classicist view in visual art. Eschauzier on the other hand was a designer who operated still close to Historicism. Semey had a rich, not easy to determine conception of interior decoration with a lot of room for artists. Also, although mainly for the tourist class, architects such as Oud and Van Ravesteyn, who advocated a completely different interiorarchitecture, had been invited. The management had not chosen the extremist 'die-hards' of Nieuwe Bouwen but utilized the services of designers who were willing to conform to the requirements of a specific commercial commission. Moreover, departing from the notion of the passengership as an ambassador for the nation, a view not very much cherished by the State but all the more by the shipping-company, ample room had been given to the work of more than 50 artists. By chance and business zest the 'Nieuw Amsterdam'had become exemplary for this decade and in her she held all complex and sometimes paradoxicall developments of the thirties.
Vertaling Marianne Blümer