This week, the SMMPG were treated to a tour of SeaCity Museum’s latest special exhibition, Port Out, Southampton Home by Maria Newbery. In addition to being a SeaCity Curator, Maria is also a PhD student researching Southampton’s trade in the late 1700s – so we were extremely grateful for her time!
Port Out, Southampton Home tells the story of the ‘golden age’ of ocean liners, and their role at the heart of Southampton life from the 1890s to the present day.
In the early twentieth century there were dozens of liner companies based all around the world competing with each other to build the biggest, fastest, and most luxurious ship. In 1912, the Hamburg America Line was nearly ready to launch the Imperator – thought to be the biggest ship ever built – when they found out that Cunard’s Aquitania, also under construction, was going to be even bigger. After some quick thinking, the Hamburg America Line added a giant eagle figurehead onto the bow of Imperator, making it the biggest ship in the world – but by mere inches.
Maria explained that although ocean liner companies advertised each newly launched liner as bigger and more luxurious than the last, before the 1920s companies actually made their profits from the thousands of people migrating to America (and elsewhere) in search of a better life. Each liner would carry several hundred ‘steerage’ passengers, compared to only dozens in first class. With so much competition from other companies, ocean liners had to appeal to the tastes of steerage passengers as much as they did to the tastes of high society. Maria explained that this was actually a reason why such an emphasis was put on the size of the ship: many migrants had never been at sea before, and hoped that the bigger the ship the safer it would be (this being before the Titanic disaster). Liner companies used to trick people into thinking ships were bigger than they actually were by adding extra, fake, funnels!
The exhibition is a fantastic glimpse into the lost heyday of liners – and also a glimpse of the amazing collections that the museum has in storage. Ocean liners – and their furnishings – were cutting-edge design throughout the twentieth century. As you follow the exhibition round through to the present day, you can see for yourself how ‘luxury’ design has changed in the last hundred years – from décor that mimicked the style of grand country houses to the innovative shapes of the 1960s
Port Out, Southampton Home runs at SeaCity Museum until 4th June 2017. We definitely recommend it!