Life Was Luxurious Aboard the Titanic — Before It Sank

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:29:40 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia

When the RMS Titanic sank, more than half of the passengers and crew members on the highly esteemed ship died in the north Atlantic Ocean. Although the loss of life can never be minimized or forgotten, the experience of sailing on the Titanic offered an unmatched display of world-class hospitality.

For one of the first times in history, a ship focused on making sure passengers enjoyed their passage, rather than just ensuring they arrived at their destination. This inside peek into the details of the ship show that life was luxurious aboard the Titanic — right up until the moment it sank.

How the "Unsinkable" Ship Went Down

April 12, 1912, was an exciting day for thousands of people. More than 2,200 people had tickets for the maiden voyage of the Titanic, the famous "unsinkable" ship. The first sailing departed from Southampton, England, headed to New York, USA.

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Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress/Wikipedia

The ship was only two days away from its destination when an unthinkable tragedy struck. The ship hit a huge iceberg, and it started to take on water. Despite its size, the Titanic was completely submerged in less than three hours, and the majority of the passengers died at sea. Despite its devastating ending, the Titanic catered to passengers in a luxurious way during the few days it had on the high seas.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Historically, traveling by ship had always been an arduous experience with very few creature comforts. The Titanic was one of the first ships that offered amenities and comforts to passengers. Like many modern airplanes, it offered three different classes of tickets, based on cost and level of luxury. The most expensive tickets on the Titanic cost around $61,000 based on today's values.

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John Jacob Astor IV was one of the richest people in the world in 1912, and he was one of the passengers who enjoyed the perks of a first-class ticket on the Titanic. What was it like to be a VIP passenger on the ship? Much of the information known about life on the Titanic came from survivor and autobiographer John B. Thayer III — Jack to those who knew him well — who wrote a book about surviving the Titanic.

Eating on the Ship

Rather than staying in cramped quarters, first-class passengers stayed in luxurious multi-room suites. Charlotte Drake Cardeza was one of the wealthy passengers who survived the sinking of the ship, and her accommodations included separate bedrooms for herself, her maid and her son.

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First-class passengers also had access to exclusive eateries, and gourmet meals were served in a scenic veranda cafe. Tea is a very important part of English culture, and first-class passengers had their very own tea rooms they could visit for a nice hot cup whenever they wanted.

Cruise Ship Recreation in the 1910s

The Titanic was the top ship in the White Star Line, an early version of a cruise ship company in the 1900s. Today, cruise ships are known for lavish buffets, but buffets were like potluck dinners and not nearly fancy enough for the top-tier passengers on the Titanic.

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Photo Courtesy: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

The wealthiest passengers on the ship enjoyed dining in fancy, full-service restaurants. Each restaurant had its own chef and highly trained serving staff. Instead of gambling their wealth away in casinos, Titanic passengers passed the short time they had on board playing deck shuffleboard.

The Dining Room Had an Orchestra

The dining rooms on the Titanic were as fancy as the food. Thayer's book details passengers stopping the day's activities to get formally dressed for dinner in one of the onboard restaurants.

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The furniture in the dining rooms was very ornate. Each table had its own beautiful tablecloth and decorative place settings. Lamps on each table gave the entire dining room a nice ambience. If the conversation wasn’t appealing, passengers could simply enjoy the music being played by a live orchestra as they ate their gourmet meals.

What Was the Food Like?

The word gourmet is actually a little bit of an understatement when it comes to describing the food served to the first-class passengers on the Titanic. Meals had 13 courses, complete with hor d'oeuvres, desserts and everything in between. Steak, lamb, foie gras, oysters, veal and sturgeon marrow were all served in a single meal.

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Passengers spent up to five hours in the dining room hobnobbing with each other and eating their 13-course dinners, with each course featuring a small morsel of delectable food. The dishes served to first-class Titanic passengers would have rivaled the dishes served to royalty at that time. No wonder the tickets were so expensive!

Staying Fit on the Titanic

With all the lavish 13-course meals, passengers would have needed some exercise to keep them from gaining too much weight during their journey, which is why the Titanic boasted an early version of an onboard gym. Only one facility was available, so both genders worked out in the same area.

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Photo Courtesy: Robert John Welch/Wikipedia

Athleisure was not a thing back then, so passengers wore their normal clothes when they exercised. A rowing machine looked like an actual boat and had oars for the user to push. Biking and horseback riding were popular leisure activities, so the room included a stationary bike and a mechanical saddle that allowed passengers to make the same motions as a horse rider.

Relaxation in the Reading Room

In the early part of the 20th century, literacy rates were beginning to rise, but the lower classes rarely read for the fun of it. Wealthy people, on the other hand, were the driving force that helped the book and newspaper industries thrive and grow. To appeal to this hobby, the Titanic had a reading room.

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Like the dining room, the reading room had ornate furniture. There were tray ceilings, decorative light fixtures and intricately molded walls. This room even had a large window to allow passengers to enjoy a little sunlight as they read. Of course, the room was outfitted with comfortable upholstered chairs and couches.

Famous Ticket Holders Who Escaped Death

The entire world was watching and waiting for the Titanic to make its first journey across the Atlantic. International newspapers covered every aspect of the event in great detail, even before the ship’s tragic demise. It’s not surprising that some of the first-class passengers on the ship included celebrities and famous businessmen.

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Milton Hershey, the namesake and founder of The Hershey Company; J.P. Morgan, a prominent financier and banker; and Alfred Vanderbilt, a famous American businessman, had all purchased tickets to sail on the Titanic. For various reasons, they all changed their plans at the last minute. Ironically, Alfred Vanderbilt died in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania three years later.

A Game Passengers Loved

Today, deck shuffleboard certainly couldn’t be considered a popular pastime. It's mainly played in retirement homes and elementary school gym classes. In 1912, it was an extremely en vogue game played by people of all ages. A dedicated shuffleboard deck was one of the many amenities that first-class guests got to enjoy on the Titanic.

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Photo Courtesy: WineCountry Media/Flickr

On this deck, passengers enjoyed a fresh breeze of crisp ocean air as well as a little bit of recreation. The sticks and discs were kept in order by the ship's crew. The deck was also equipped with shuffleboard powder and chalk to design new boards and keep score.

What Were the Rooms Like?

The shuffleboard deck wasn't the only place guests could enjoy the ocean. Many of the first-class cabins were strategically placed to allow VIPs to enjoy scenic window views of the ocean in at least one of the bedrooms. Each cabin had multiple bedrooms, and personal maids and butlers were often given rooms of their own.

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Photo Courtesy: Robert John Welch/Wikipedia

Like some hotel rooms today, each room was styled after a certain time period. Famous kings and queens inspired the styles for some of the rooms, and the ornate furniture was certainly lavish enough for royalty. In addition to multiple bedrooms and views, most first-class cabins included large living areas where passengers could entertain guests.

Enter the VIP Lounge

In addition to all the lavish accommodations, one of the best parts about being in first class was the exclusivity of it all. First-class passengers had their own premium lounge. Out of more than 2,000 people who were traveling on the Titanic, only a small number were allowed inside.

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This lounge had a live orchestra to take unlimited requests throughout the day. The world's richest men would have made use of the ship on future voyages, so you can just imagine the kinds of conversations and business deals that would have taken place in this exclusive lounge.

First-Class Guests Had to Pay for This Amenity

Back in the early 1900s, spas in their modern form didn’t exist yet, but rich people still found ways to relax. Of course, the Titanic pulled out all the stops when it came to offering relaxation. This ship included Turkish baths for first-class passengers to enjoy — at an additional cost, of course.

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One session in the Turkish baths cost about $25, according to today's valuations. Think of the baths as being very similar to saunas. On the Titanic, all the baths were in one large room, allowing guests to blow off a little steam together. Apparently, even luxury sometimes came with limited privacy.

Even Second-Class Passage Required Wealth

There were three different ticket classes on the Titanic. Of course, first-class guests enjoyed the most luxurious amenities, but that doesn’t mean second-class and third-class passengers had it rough. They had plenty of amenities to be excited about as well.

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Photo Courtesy: Robert John Welch/Wikipedia

Today, a second-class ticket on the Titanic would cost about $1,400. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's also not the small fortune of a $61,000 first-class ticket. Second-class cabins were like modern hotel rooms. They consisted of one room with two small beds, a sink and a table. Outside their rooms, second-class passengers had access to many of the same activities as those in first class.

Special Treats on the Menu

Second-class diners on the Titanic possibly ate the most expensive meals of their lives on board the ship. Although it may not have taken a second-class passenger more than five hours to eat multiple scaled-down courses, the menu still included plenty of delicacies.

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Photo Courtesy: Buyenlarge/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Consomme tapioca, curry chicken, mint jelly and American ice cream were all on the second-class menu on one night. All the foods weren't necessarily gourmet, but considering the limited resources of the time, the average person probably could not have made these dishes at home. American ice cream, in particular, was a special treat for the passengers, who were mostly from England or other European cities.

Differences Between First and Second Class

Beyond the similarities, what were the differences between first-class and second-class tickets? First-class passengers paid considerably more than their second-class counterparts, so they theoretically had options to help them get their money's worth. For example, second-class passengers had exclusive rights to certain reading rooms and lounges, while first-class passengers had rights to all the best lounges on the ship.

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Basically, first-class passengers could go anywhere, but second-class passengers had some limitations. Second-class passengers probably didn't have live orchestras in their lounges either. Think of it as scaled down first class.

Third Class Wasn't Too Shabby

A third-class ticket on the Titanic would have cost about one month's worth of wages for the average person. Even though it was the lowest class on the ship, these ticket holders were not banished to the underbelly of the ship and fed table scraps, as some Hollywood depictions would make it seem.

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Third-class passengers definitely did not have as many amenities as the other passengers, but they were still given some luxury treatment. The cheapest tickets on the Titanic were still tickets on a luxury ocean liner, after all. The amenities and services available — however briefly — on the Titanic truly set the standard for the modern hospitality industry.

What Did Third-Class Passengers Eat?

The third-class dining room was the least fancy. Instead of ornate tables and lots of space, this room was set up like a really big restaurant. Tables were positioned close together, with enough room for four to eight people at each table.

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The menus that survived intact revealed that third-class passengers ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and plum pudding on at least one night. At a time when many people, especially among the poor, didn’t eat meat on a regular basis, this would have been a very fine meal. Additionally, eating outside the home was always a luxury, so it would have been quite a treat.

Lifestyles of Third-Class Passengers

The menu is partially impressive simply because it exists at all. It was normal in the early 1900s for third-class passengers to pack their own food for voyages. Although they were able to enjoy certain amenities, the third-class passengers on the Titanic did live below deck, and their personal accommodations were very bare bones. There were two third-class bathrooms for hundreds of passengers to share.

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Photo Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images

Although the Titanic was extremely fancy, it was still quite unusual at the time for people to take trips for fun. That was especially true for third-class passengers. The majority of them were European immigrants hoping to start better lives in America.

Third-Class Amenities

Understandably, third-class passengers had the smallest rooms on the ship, and their rooms did not include any kind of view. However, there was something very different about the Titanic. Third-class passengers were not treated as if they didn’t belong. During the day, they were allowed on the higher decks.

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Third-class passengers weren’t able to hang out in the private lounges, but they had access to the playground, the gym and all the other activities available on the large public decks. Like all the other passengers, they also got to enjoy breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean from the main deck.

The Titanic Had a Rival Ship

Although various artifacts and first-person accounts from survivors help fill in the details, understanding daily life on the Titanic is difficult because the ship sank. Answers can also be found by examining similar ships that existed at the time. The White Star Line, builder of the Titanic, wasn't the only company trying to break into the cruise industry.

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Cunard, a rival company, built a ship very similar to the Titanic called the RMS Mauretania. Increases in imports, immigration and international business were making Trans-Atlantic travel a necessity for thousands of people each year. In response, both Cunard and White Star Line wanted to design ships that were bigger, faster and more fun to travel on.

Smoking Lounges Were Social Centers

Smoking rooms were another perk that first-class and second-class passengers got to enjoy. Of course, smoking continues to decline in popularity every day, but it was something that most men did in the early 1900s.

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The smoking lounges were clearly designed as men's lounges and resembled a very nice bar or pool hall. In these lounges, men passed the time by talking and playing card games together. Photos from the RMS Mauretania, which was similar to the Titanic, reveal that guests would dress up in suits before going to the smoking lounge. It was the onboard equivalent to a men’s poker night or a night out on the town.

You Could Train for the Olympics

Although the Titanic and the Mauretania were designed to compete with each other, the Titanic had a serious leg up in the pool department. One of its many decks was dedicated to an indoor, Olympic-sized swimming pool. Instead of just watching the waves in the ocean, passengers could make waves of their own in the pool.

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It’s unclear whether the pool was one of the free-for-all amenities or one that was exclusive to certain ticket classes. If anyone was excluded from using the pool, it probably only would have been the third-class passengers. It's also possible the pool was reserved for each class at certain times.

Plenty of Drinks to Lift Your Spirits

Today, meals at fine dining establishments are often paired with a glass of wine or a cocktail. Passengers on the Titanic were able to drink alcohol in the ship's bar. Decades later, pieces of Moët and Heidsieck & Co champagne bottles have been found in the wreckage of the Titanic. The French companies still sell top of the line champagnes today.

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Some of the most popular mixed drinks on the ship were the Tom Collins and the Robert Burns. A Robert Burns includes absinthe, vermouth, whiskey and bitters. A Tom Collins is made of gin, lemon juice, sugar and sparkling water garnished with fruit.

What About the Kids?

Of course, there were children on the Titanic as well. (It's a sobering fact that only about 47% of the children that boarded the ship survived the sinking.) Children may not have been impressed with Turkish baths or private lounges, but they certainly enjoyed the ship's playgrounds for those few days.

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Photo Courtesy: Underwood/Wikipedia

Additionally, the ship was large enough that an inquisitive child could turn almost any area into a play area. With plenty of spacious decks at their disposal, kids enjoyed a lot of running around with newfound friends. The main playground on the ship was one of the few amenities that wasn’t so stringently divided by ticket class.

Dogs Also Sailed

Although the ship sank more than a century ago, people then were not very different than people now when it comes to traveling with pets. Today, planes and ships allow passengers to travel with pets. On the Titanic, some passengers brought their beloved dogs along for the ride.

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Dogs belonging to first-class passengers spent most of the short journey in the ship's kennel, where staff members took care of all the least appealing aspects of caring for an animal on a ship. Sadly, of the 12 dogs that traveled on the Titanic, only three of them survived the sinking.

Famous Faces

It only makes sense that some very famous people would have been on the Titanic. It was the most luxurious way to travel during its time, and it was following a route (England to America) that was very common for businessmen. Most famous people back in 1912 were not entertainers. Rather, they were well known because of how much money they had or because of the companies they operated.

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John Jacob Astor IV, a member of the family who once owned the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, was one of the passengers who died on the Titanic. Dorothy Gibson, an actress from the silent film era, also boarded the Titanic and was one of the surviving passengers who made it onto a lifeboat.

Why Did the Ship Sink?

The Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable. The hull of the ship was made of several compartments that were supposed to be watertight. The idea was that if there was a problem, the water would stay in one compartment and not spread to the rest of the ship.

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Unfortunately, a coal fire weakened all those compartments. The Titanic had received iceberg warnings, but for reasons that are still unknown, the ship's captain chose to continue traveling at normal speed rather than slow down. When the weakened hull struck the giant iceberg, it split open, and the ship began to take on water at an alarming rate.

No Way Around It

The Titanic was an incredibly large ship that hit an incredibly large iceberg. The iceberg could be seen above the surface of the water, but it was dark when the ship encountered it. By the time the mass of ice was identified, the ship was less than 2,000 feet away from it.

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As soon as the iceberg was spotted, the crew obeyed orders and quickly tried to turn the ship, but their efforts came far too late. There was not enough time for the boat to turn enough to avoid a head-on collision with the iceberg.

What If?

When the ship struck the iceberg, it ripped open a huge hole, and water began to rise in the lower levels of the ship. Passengers were forced to choose drowning on the ship or trying to survive in the frigid water — assuming they survived the jump. For 1,500 people, survival proved to be an impossible feat.

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Excavations of the sunken Titanic at the bottom of the sea — impossible until the development of new technology in recent years — are a huge part of the reason we know so much more about the ship today. Although the Titanic came to a tragic end, passengers enjoyed a few days of bliss and luxury before the ship’s swan song. If the Titanic hadn’t sunk that night, would it still be such an important part of history and pop culture? It’s impossible to say.