Beyond the glamour: propaganda and ocean liners

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style reveals the exquisite design detail of the golden age of luxury travel, from the furniture and fittings to the designer dress worn by the lucky few travelling in the first-class suites. Zorian Clayton explores a darker side of these floating palaces.

V&A Dundee's current exhibition showcases a range of posters exemplifying how these hulking symbols of modernity were marketed to the public, but what is absent from the wide array of material advertising the great steamships is the fact that most of the passengers were working class emigrants in cramped third-class quarters, also known as steerage, at the bottom of the ship.

This simplified pictorial poster is one of the few to even acknowledge the onboard presence of steerage passengers. It depicts the Aquitania, one of the longest running passenger ships between Britain and America. While the orderly third-class dining saloon is certainly depicted as no frills, it is clearly a highly idealized image.

At maximum capacity, this ship could carry almost 1200 third-class passengers, sharing just three bathrooms between them. Her maiden voyage was in 1914 shortly before the outbreak of war so the Aquitania was quickly commandeered by the Admiralty where it became a troop ship then a hospital ship, returning to civilian use in 1920 when it ran an austerity service for people to travel at low prices from Southampton to New York.

The unusually understated poster above depicts a view of approaching a smoky Manhattan by sea at night. Charles Pears specialised in nautical and coastal scenes, winning numerous commissions to design posters for the railway companies and the Empire Marketing Board. The EMB existed from 1926 and 1933, largely to generate an enormous, expensive mass of soft propaganda in the form of around 800 posters encouraging British people to use their purchasing power to buy produce from Britain and its colonies. The British Empire in the 1920s was at its largest size, covering around a quarter of the global landmass.

The EMB posters are symptomatic of Britain’s colonial arrogance in believing itself to be more deserving of the bountiful produce and resources of the world than other nations. Under the guidance of Frank Pick, managing director of the London Underground, some of the best graphic artists of the time were commissioned to shape the image of Britain both at home, and as apparently benevolent leaders abroad. The crushing reality of slavery, famine, and the widespread extraction of assets and wealth from overseas nations is still largely misunderstood by the British public today, almost half of whom (according to recent government polling) still believe that the Empire was an entirely good thing.

Some of the poster designers opted for a similar technique as with the ocean liner posters, to depict the majesty of large scale production yet completely devoid of people.

Other posters were much more explicit, leaving no doubt about the history of endemic racism in Europe by demonstrating how colonial powers simply picked up where slavery left off. Adrian Allinson, who designed the poster below, was a pacifist associated with numerous progressive art groups. Despite these liberal leanings, his depiction of African workers toiling away behind a white overseer with the title ‘Colonial Progress Brings Home Prosperity’ paints a very different picture of societal norms at the time. His original design even included a large whip in the hand of the white man which he was asked to remove by the East Africa Trade Commissioner, replacing it with a pipe.

For all the wealth and might keenly advertised by the EMB and others before them, poverty and famine at home drove many British and Irish people to emigrate to the USA, Canada, and Australia predominantly, seeking greater freedom and prosperity away from Britain’s oppressive class system.

The increasingly large waves of immigration to the Americas was the main source of income for the shipping companies, with around 55 million European people making the journey to North America between the 1840s and the 1940s. Steerage improved considerably over the decades but early reports from the 1860s noted straw mattresses, perhaps two toilets shared between hundreds, and rotten food. The third-class quarters carried people westwards but until almost the turn of the century, the same spaces were used to transport livestock back east.

The above print imagines the maddeningly bare interior of a wooden packet ship travelling between Liverpool and New York. The crossing time in the 1860s was roughly nine days.

The 1924 Immigration Act in America restricted the relatively open border policy they had previously encouraged to bolster the population, specifically with white European settlers. However, Slavic, Greek, and Italian people among others were now subject to a capped quota which did not apply to Northern Europeans. This Act followed earlier racist policies limiting specific nationalities from settling in the USA, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. With almost 250,000 Chinese people emigrating both by choice and by force, frequently to work on the expansion of the US railways, the 1924 Act extended its exclusion to all Asians apart from people from the Philippines who at that time were under American colonial rule.

Argentina and Brazil were the other key destinations for Europeans seeking better opportunities, with many entering coffee harvesting and other agricultural endeavours. Brazil too created exclusionary legislation to prohibit people of colour from emigrating there but as the number of Southern Europeans arriving dwindled in the early 20th century, Brazil brokered a deal with Japan in 1907 to bring in more workers by sea to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of agribusiness in South America.

The most common trope in the advertising of liners was to neatly sidestep the issue of people and immigration almost completely, opting to depict the feat of engineering that the new iron steamships represented as a whole. Perhaps the most well-known poster in the genre is A.M. Cassandre’s vision of the S.S. Normandie in 1935.

By this time, the crossing had been significantly reduced, but the days of the ocean liners were numbered. Following the tightening of immigration laws internationally and the collapse of Europe’s empires, the steerage which the liners had once so depended upon for income was largely replaced by an upgraded ‘tourist class’, aimed at the new wealth of middle-class Americans who coveted European holidays.

With the rise of aeroplanes post-WWII, the liner option for long haul travel was over, yet these extraordinary floating microcosms still have the power to captivate. To look beyond their iron-clad, polished veneer is to discover a broad history of global migration and a deeper understanding of the formation of the modern world.

Zorian Clayton is a Curator of Prints at V&A South Kensington, specialising in 19th and 20th century posters, lithography, and paper ephemera.