Today is the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (the inspiration for my book On a Cold Dark Sea). Why does a ship that sank more than a century ago still capture our imagination today?
Because it was the first “modern” disaster.
The early 20th century, much like now, was a time of enormous social and technological change. Steamships made travel more convenient and safer, which led to a rise in both international tourism (for the rich) and immigration (for the poor). Wireless communication between ships—a relatively recent phenomenon—allowed news of the sinking to spread around the world before the Titanic’s survivors had even set foot on land. The world felt like it was getting smaller, things seemed to be moving faster—which made some people believe they were living in a glorious new age. Others fretted that traditional values were being left behind.
For most of human history, ships sank with no particular outcry; it was simply a Bad Thing That Happened, like crop failures or high child mortality. But the Titanic went down at the height of the Progressive Era, when reformers were intent on rooting out corruption. In that type of political atmosphere, the loss of a modern engineering marvel like the Titanic couldn’t be put down to simply an act of God: someone must be held responsible. Hearings were held in both Washington, D.C. and London, with extensive media coverage. One of the most shocking findings was that the ship didn’t have nearly enough lifeboats for all its passengers. Was it the owners’ fault for not installing more? Were British and U.S. regulators to blame, because they hadn’t updated lifeboat standards for modern super-ships? You can easily imagine the same kind of blame game happening today.
Nearly 900 passengers sailed third-class on the Titanic, most of them immigrants from Ireland, Sweden and other European countries. Only a quarter of those passengers survived the sinking, compared to two-thirds in first class. In the pre-modern era, it wouldn’t have been surprising that the wealthy had an advantage when it came to survival. By 1912, however, the fact that poor children died while rich men lived was considered shameful, no matter where those poor children had come from. Then as now, immigration was a controversial issue (and in fact, the U.S. implemented harsh restrictions in 1924). But the Titanic sinking showed that Americans could also sympathize with and welcome new immigrants; large collections were taken up for those who’d lost everything in the sinking, which allowed them to start their new lives.
There were plenty of inspirational female figures who emerged in the post-sinking newspaper coverage, from “Unsinkable” Molly Brown taking charge in a lifeboat to the wife of Macy’s owner Isador Straus, who gave up the chance to be rescued so she could die alongside her husband of 40 years. But the Titanic was also appropriated by those who didn’t want women to vote (a contentious topic on both sides of the Atlantic). The traditional law of the sea—“Women and Children First”—was upheld as a model for society at large: why give women equal rights, when they were so much better off with this “special” status that protected them? A group of wealthy women who raised funds for a memorial statue dedicated it to “The brave men who perished in the Titanic,” from “The Women of America.”
Any disaster gets an extra oomph of publicity when famous people are involved. In 1912, families like the Guggenheims and Astors exemplified the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” with their lavish spending. When members of those same families went down with the Titanic, newspapers fought to run first-hand accounts of their stoic bravery. During a period of extreme income inequality, the deaths of such millionaires was also framed as a form of rough justice: on that early morning in the north Atlantic, rich and poor died side-by-size in the same freezing water.