Unlike their poor cousins today, the cruise ship, early 20th century ocean liners were grand in scale, luxury and architecture. In the days before air travel, these liners escorted thousands of passengers around the world. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
The most popular route was between North America and Europe, a trip which in the 1910s took less than two weeks. This is a major feat considering a century earlier the same trip took several months.
In addition to passengers, many of who were emigrants, these liners also carried cargo and mail. In fact, the “M” in the British ship designation “RMS” stands for mail.
A ship the size of the RMS Titanic cost $7 million to build, $200 billion in today’s currency.
Tickets for first class cost $4,350 ($83,200 today) for a parlour suite and $150 ($2,975) for a berth. Second-class tickets were $60 ($1,200) while third-class tickets costs as much as $40 ($793).
Today the RMS Queen Mary 2 is the last ocean liner, but 100 years ago the market was dominated by two large lines: the White Star line and Cunard. These companies were in competition to provide the most luxurious as well as the fastest trip across the Atlantic.
White Star Line
Founded in the 1840s, White Star Line is perhaps best remembered for its ill fated ship the “unsinkable” Titanic. Despite having financial problems early in its history, White Star launched the world’s first superliner, Oceanic I, in 1870.
White Star Line vessels were known for excellent customer service and for innovation. Every cabin on Oceanic, for example, had running water, something most wealthy in 1870 didn’t even have in their homes.
The line lost the speed record to Cunard and competed with their rival by emphasizing comfort. Later liners contained such amenities as Turkish baths, barber shops, darkrooms for photographers, libraries, swimming pools and gyms.
In the latter 30 years of 19th century, Harland and Wolff built its ships, and the majority of ships’ names ended in “ic.”
Famous White Star Line ships include:
The company remained in operation until the Great Depression when it merged with rival Cunard.
Founded in the late 1830s by a Canadian entrepreneur as a mail service line, Cunard is still in existence. It is now owned by parent company Carnival. The line won the speed record for crossing the Atlantic several times, but, like White Star, it also focused on luxury and the customer’s travel experience.
In 1881, the Servia was the first liner to be lit by electricity and also the first to be built from steel instead of iron.
The majority of Cunard’s vessels’ names ended in “ia”.
Famous Cunard ships include:
- Umbria and Etruria, the line’s last sail ships
World War I
All the ships listed above with an asterisk were recommissioned during World War I as hospital ships, troop carriers or armed cruisers.
Those marked with a double asterisk were sunk during the war, regardless of military service.
Those marked with a ^ were torpedoed but did not sink.
Updated: 19 October 2020