Althea Preston

The Titanic Experience

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I’m fortunate enough to live close to and be a member of The Henry Ford, one of the best historical and outdoor museums in the United States. The museum itself is hosting the Titanic Exhibit right now, and two weeks ago, I dragged my somewhat reluctant husband and we went. When we were done, it made an impression on him as much as me and he was very glad he went. This is my experience.

I was given a boarding pass while waiting in line and learned that I was Mrs. Louis Albert Hippach (Ida Sophia Fischer.) Originally from Chicago, I was traveling abroad with my daughter Jean, trying to recover from the loss of two sons in the infamous Chicago Iroquois Theater fire.

The ladies claimed, as did so many, they had not wanted to board Titanic, not trusting a maiden voyage. White Star Line employees told them there was only one first-class cabin (B16) left. The two felt lucky to get their tickets, only to discover that the ship was only partially full.

We started with great hope, climbing the steps to board the ship. All around are big placards with snippets of the starting dream, then design, pictures of the workers at Harland and Wolff, and the time and effort put into building such a grand, floating palace. There was excitement in the air, it was bright and noisy and everyone seemed to be having a great time.

When we entered the ship, several items greeted us. A cleat from the lifeboats, the bell from the crows nest, a phone stand, all the sorts of things one sees as they make their way to their cabin. Music from first class floated, almost imperceptibly, on the air.

There were trunks and satchels and bits and pieces of everyday life for the first class passengers. Bits and pieces of peoples lives which we saw throughout the exhibit. A bowler hat intact and with little damage sat in one of the cases. It was found sitting on the ocean floor as if the owner had dropped it on a table on his way into a room. Lavaliers, rings, earrings, bracelets, all gold and precious gems which can survive the salt water and tremendous pressures of more than two miles beneath the surface of the ocean gleamed as if they’d just been made. Books, journals, eyeglasses, a silk brocade purse found lying in the sand that still looked brand new.

There is a replica of a first class cabin, main room only, which shows the beautiful carpet, brass fixtures and mahogany furniture that would have been expected by the passengers staying in them. After living for so many years with a king bed, the one there, though elegant, seemed so small though it was a double size.

Place settings were displayed as if awaiting a meal complete with china, crystal and flatware. Pieces of the ship that would have graced the first class area were also displayed and everything was accompanied by the first class music surrounding us.

We came upon a replica of the Grand Staircase complete with statue and mahogany clock, made so famous thanks to Cameron’s movie, Titanic. Half as many stairs as the original, it was still an imposing structure.

Then, we moved into the second class section and the quality and opulence changed a bit, but it was still more than most people dreamed of. One of the things that White Star Line did was to make sure every passenger had a grand experience. Even the third class passengers slept on clean sheets and ate from fine dishes off tables that had linen cloths and napkins. Often, a rarity for third class passengers in their daily lives.

Here is where we saw more of the daily things, the contents of a buyer’s bag, the receipt for his purchases still readable. Most everything in leather containers has survived due to the tanning process used at the time and even the bags themselves are still reasonable and about the quality you’d find in a second class shop. It was bittersweet throughout to see so many things that could be identified.

But these artifacts were more reflective of the second class passengers. Businessmen, doctors, women on their way to America to open shops and make new lives for themselves. And along with their belongings were pieces of the second class areas on the ship. Clothes hooks and door hardware and lamp fixtures. The first class music was fading and the lighting had grown a bit darker, but not so much you’d notice at first.

Moving on, we walked down a hallway that would have served any level passenger on the ship, but we came out into the third class area and though they still enjoyed fine appointments, the class distinction was beginning to take a dramatic turn.

Instead of china and silver flatware, they used ironstone and standard utensils. The artifacts were more eclectic as well, showing the kinds of things many would have carried and worn. These were the laborers of society, the men and women who in their normal life, provided the services for the elite. Dressmakers, tanners, farmers, many different countries, many looking for a new life. Those clothing pieces that remained also showed the difference in fabrics. No longer the rich silks and brocades, these were the coarse linens and clunky boots the every day worker owned. And though they don’t tell you at the exhibit, third class cabins were separated by gender with many housing 10-12 people!

We walked past a replica of the servants sleeping quarters on the ship and what a difference from first class! Four bunks in this room, though the blankets were clean and the wash basin had a pitcher and linen towels on it. Gone was any remnant of the first class music. Here, we heard only the engines and their constant revolutions. Loud, rhythmic, and a constant reminder that we were now in the lowest bowels, eight or more levels below the opulence of first class.

But we also saw the workings of the ship. The communications equipment, the big brass controls they used to tell the other areas to move forward or aft and how fast. The ‘phone’ system they used so the bridge could call down to the coal ovens. A bit of the Marconi. A glass orb from one of the big lights. And the personal artifacts also reflected the workers. A shirt and apron, perfectly preserved and found in another leather satchel. This shirt had been repaired several times, but the stitches were neat and uniform. It made me wonder if the worker himself had done the repairs or if he’d left a wife and maybe a family behind. Laying on top of the shirt was the apron, once folded in half, now open for display. The wooden buttons and black thread had run from one side onto the blank side of the apron and created a mirror image.

There was an iceberg that one could touch. At twenty-eight degrees, it was the same temperature as the freezing water that would have surrounded us and I had a hard time leaving my hand there for more than a few seconds before the burning started. Angle iron and tools the Black Gang, so named because they were covered with coal dust at the end of every shift, used to shovel coal were there as well as a basketball sized piece of coal, reminding us all that someone lifted and tossed over and over for 12 hours a shift, in an area heated to 100+ degrees because of the open ovens.

It was dark and oppressive and probably very close in feeling to what they must have experienced on a constant basis.

And at the end of this area were some of the most poignant items of all. Pins, wedding bands, fraternity buttons, a display of perfume bottles. I’d just seen a new special by Cameron the week before we went to the exhibit, and Bill Sauder who is the historian/curator of the RMS Titanic artifacts talked about preserving those things brought to the surface from the wreck site. The room usually smells of rot and decay and death, but someone opened a leather satchel and the breath of heaven filled the room. It was a broken vial from the group displayed. The perfumer was forced to leave his new line behind when he fled. He survived, but his samples were lost to time, only to be found 90 years later and still as fragrant as the day they were bottled. It was a very moving moment for me.

And finally, after our long tour, we reached the end of the exhibit and the casualties board. Here is where I learned whether my boarding pass reflected a survivor or a casualty. So many names, so many losses, such a tragic waste when lifeboats were lowered less than half full. I stood there a long time, reading those names. First, second, third class, stewards and maids, even Captain Smith’s name was listed. A reminder that death is the great equalizer.

If you live close to one of the exhibit’s stops or even if you must travel, do go. It’s an amazing experience. The Henry Ford is hosting the Titanic Exhibit through September 30th. You won’t regret seeing it.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I survived.

2 Responses to “The Titanic Experience”

  1. Jeannine says:

    Love this post! :)
    What a great way for the museum to allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in the experience. It must have been amazing for you…thank you for sharing; I felt like I was walking through the exhibit right along with you! (and btw – I’m glad to know you survived!)

  2. admin says:

    Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I really started reading and watching things on Titanic about a year ago when I watched a special on what really made it sink. One thing led to another and I just got really involved so it was fun to walk through with the added knowledge I’d picked up.

    Close to the end, they had a lamp that shined down on the floor giving an outline on the floor of one of the lifeboats called a cutter. It was 27 feet long and a little over 7 feet wide and standing in that outline was very claustrophobic. And they should have carried 40 people (which they didn’t, they were terribly under loaded) but people would have been on top of each other with 40 in it.

    Just…if you ever have the chance, go.