Triumph of the Passenger Ship: Highlights from the Norman H. Morse Ocean Liner Collection, 1870-2010

May 15, 2012 to August 23, 2012

The Triumph of the Passenger Ship presents the experience of life aboard these grand vessels through a selection of the Morse Collection of ocean liner ephemera. Norman H. Morse assembled his collection of almost 3,000 pieces over eight decades, and gave it to the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education in 2009.

From the late 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries, the oceangoing passenger ship was the only practical way for immigrants, businessmen, students, vacationers or anyone else to cross the ocean. Ocean liners were nowhere busier than on the “Atlantic Ferry” routes between North America and Northern Europe. While many ships were renowned for their lavish service or speed, the difference between the most exalted and the humblest ships was a matter of degree rather than of kind. The fastest and grandest ships garnered public attention, but designers, engineers, and naval architects followed the same trends. Ships shed auxiliary sailing rigs by the 1880s; coal-fired reciprocating steam engines gave way to oil-burning steam turbines and diesel engines; ships were wired for electricity and ship-to-shore radio; and safety became an integral part of builders’ calculations.

Technological improvements were all well and good, but advances in engineering were a rising tide that lifted all boats. What sold society’s tastemakers was a ship’s ambience. The sea was a forbidding place. As illustrated in Parts 3-6, shipping companies drew the curtain on the sur-rounding ocean. “The main consideration is to convey the idea that one is not at sea, but on ter-ra firma,” observed one author a century ago. Or, as a critic wrote in 1914, “Everything on the Vaterland has been designed to look as much like a sumptuous hotel and as little like a ship as human imagination can do it.”

Ships were awash in a hodge-podge of styles, gently mocked as “White Star Roman,” “Berengaria Baroque,” or the like. The Mauretania’s appointments borrowed from fifteenth-century Italy, sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and sixteenth-century England—all in an effort to convey the atmosphere of “a stately British country home.” This eclectic antiquarianism changed abruptly with the Ile de France, which in 1927 launched art deco, or “ocean liner style,” on the high seas. This reached its apotheosis in 1935 with the Normandie [esp. 117], in Morse’s words “the most outrageous example ever created by mankind for ship interiors. It was beautiful. I’m not saying it wasn’t beautiful—it was beautiful. But it was also ridiculous.”

The lavishly produced promotional literature of the 1920s and 1930s [Part 10] reflected art deco sensibilities and are marvelous examples of the graphic arts of the time. Especially notable is Walter H. Jones’s patented “printed folder,” which made it possible to illustrate a bird’s-eye view of a ship’s interior arrangements with reference to a profile of the ship.

In this centennial year, it would be impossible to ignore the Titanic, which should have been one of the great success stories of the age. The story of the tragedy is well known, but we focus on what might have been by pairing her story with that of her illustrious sister-ship, Olympic.

Finally, Part 13 is devoted to cruising, a distinct enterprise from the Atlantic Ferry. As Morse put it, “Cruise ships are not what I call transoceanic travel. It’s quite a different thing. It’s a floating hotel that is moved under its own power from port to port. It’s not for transportation as railroads or busses or that sort of thing are.” But to all intents and purposes, these are the only vestige of the great but too brief age of the ocean liner.

Bon Voyage.