Luxury in the Golden Age of Ocean Travel

Flash back to 1900 to the mid 1930’s. It was the Golden Age of ocean travel. Liners crossed the Atlantic, competing for the Blue Riband. The rich and famous traveled between the US and Europe. Lots of the middle class wanted to travel. What was it like sailing across the Atlantic in luxury?

More important, was that a “bygone era?” Has sailing been stripped down to appeal to the mass market? You decide.

Two Considerations Beforehand

Let’s take weather off the table. Ships, although big, were somewhat smaller. The sophisticated technology that stabilizes ships and smooths the journey weren’t around either. However, even 100 years later, if the seas are really rough, it’s not going to be a pleasant experience.

If you want a visual of the luxury, watch the film Titanic, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and a star-studded cast. Released in 1997, it showcases first class luxury very well.

Let’s Talk About Luxury

The ocean liners had two luxury target markets. “Old Money” British and other European aristocrats, titled nobility and very wealthy families. They owned large country houses, belonged to clubs and did business with private banks. The second market was “New Money.” American millionaires who wanted the lifestyle those Europeans enjoyed for generations. Everyone had an art collection.

The ships were designed to resemble grand country houses and lavish big city hotels. The goal was to create such a luxurious environment, passengers forgot they were at sea.

  • Staterooms. The objective was to create that grand hotel experience. central heating. Bathtubs. Fireplaces in some cabins. The Queen Mary’s largest suites included multiple bedrooms, sitting room, dining room and a separate room for storing baggage. When bathing, people had the option or salt or fresh water.

Today: Luxury staterooms are suites. Some have private dining rooms and kitchens! Plenty of private deck space.

  • Public Rooms. It’s been said they were meant to look like men’s clubs or private banks. Lots of wood paneling and statues. There would also be a Winter Garden, a glassed in area with plans and comfortable furniture where people could relax in the sun, even if it was cold on deck. Also a smoking room and writing room. Let’s not forget a grand staircase. If country houses and grand hotels had them, the ship would have one too. People love to make an entrance. Don’t forget the library. Lecture room, barber shop, children’s playroom, sauna and squash court. You would expect a chapel and synagogue.

Today: Most ships have plenty of opulent spaces. Expect a grand staircase. Gone are the smoking rooms, although you might find a cigar bar. Winter Gardens are still around, yet many ships have replaced them with a pool area sheltered under a sliding glass roof.

  • Décor. Today, we would consider them traveling art museums. If Art Deco was the fashion, the ship reflected it. They would have statuary, paintings and elegant tapestries.

Today: Ship designed still “go overboard” on opulent or cutting edge design.

  • Dining. The dining salons were grand. Dinners were multi course. You might expect a mobile cart serving a selection of hors d’oeuvres. Entrees might include pressed duck and flambeed dishes.

Today: Depending on the ship, meals for all classes can be grand. Maybe pressed duck and flaming dishes are gone, but the old favorites remain.

  • Facilities. Gymnasiums were new. Turkish baths were common. Ships added beauty salons, kennels and even garages.

Today: Turkish baths might be out. Spas have replaced them. Hair salons are common, kennels less so. Don’t think there are garages onboard, now that people rent a car at their destination.

  • A ballroom, of course. People would descend the grand staircase and make their entrance.

Today: Have you ever seen a ship without a ballroom or major event space?

  • À la carte Dining. Everyone knows the food was good, but what if you wanted to “rise above the crowd?” Today we call them specialty restaurants. In the Golden Age of the Ocean Liner, they were separate operations managed by celebrity chefs.

Today: This one’s obvious. Did you really think specialty restaurants and alternative dining options were a new development?

  • Communication. Once Marconi developed the wireless and people figured out how to transmit signals long distances, ships could communicate with land. This meant passengers could send a receive messages. Ships could also have an onboard stock brokerage office.

Today: Connectivity means reliable Internet service.

  • Dress aboard ship. The ships were very formal. When crossing the Atlantic, the general rule was: “If there’s no port that day, it’s black tie in the evening.” During the Golden Age, it would likely have been White Tie.

Today: You choose your ship (and its luxury) based on your style preference. Some ships are formal – No jeans in public areas after 6:00 PM. Others promote the “country club casual” lifestyle.

Some might say the luxury of “The Golden Age” is a thing of the past. It’s more accurate to say the best parts of that past experience have been preserved with the addition of technology for a smoother voyage.

Cover photo: Queen Victoria Britannia restaurant table setting, credit Bryce Sanders


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