The Titanic is one of the most famous ships in history: leaving England on April 10th, 1912, it was only on the water for three days before it collided with an iceberg and sank on April 15th, 1912. In this guide, we provide research and information on the ship, it’s passengers, and the fateful night it crashed, as well as a list of discussion questions and additional resources. To see a video lecture of this presentation from our Presidential Primary Sources distance learning series, click here. The Reagan Library also offers Titanic Trunks available for rent to use in your classroom: to read more about that, click here.
Built between 1909 and 1911, the luxury British steamship Titanic was so big, they had to create a new workspace before they could even start to build it. Measuring 882 feet long, the length of two and a half football fields, it was intended to travel almost 3,000 miles from Southampton, England to New York City.
Known for its comfort instead of speed, the Titanic and its sister ships the Olympic and the Britannic were filled with an ornate interior like a large first class dining room, four elevators, a swimming pool and a grand staircase. Even the most modest third-class offerings were still noted for their comfort and beauty. It was built with 15 supposedly watertight compartments that could be closed from the bridge in case water came aboard during a hull breach. All of these exciting features gave the Titanic nicknames like the “Unsinkable Ship” and the “Wonder Ship.”
Over 900 people worked on the Titanic, including crew members, cooks and servers in the dining room, and the Captain himself, Captain Edward John Smith. Adding the number of passengers to the 900 workers, the Titanic was carrying around 2200 people when it left England.
The passengers aboard the Titanic were placed into three classes: first, second and third.
The first class was for the wealthy. Ladies wore laced corsets, expensive gowns, long gloves and satin shoes. Men were dressed in tuxedos or suits, top hats, and nicely polished shoes. People in first class would change several times a day. They would wear different clothes for breakfast, afternoon tea, exercising, or dinner, when they wore their fanciest clothing. One of the most famous first class passengers was “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown (pictured above), an American socialite who survived the Titanic sinking by bravely assisting other survivors into lifeboats and later helping to steer her own, Lifeboat No. 6.
Second class women dressed in nice gowns and accessorized with bracelets and necklaces. Men would wear fine suits and leather shoes. Some of the most famous second-class passengers are the eight musicians who played uplifting music throughout the night to try and calm passengers as the ship sank.
Third class passengers might have been workers, or immigrants who were going from England to America for a new life. They would only have one or two outfits, and might wear some of the same clothes during the whole trip. Women would wear long skirts, high collared blouses and boots. Men would dress in britches, ironed shirts or ties. At two months old, Millvina Dean was the youngest survivor. She, along with her older brother and parents, boarded the ship as third-class passengers planning to emigrate to America from Britain. Millvina Dean died in 2009, and was the last living survivor of the Titanic.
Throughout the voyage, warnings of icebergs had been coming through the wireless radio, but the final messages were not given to the bridge. On April 14, after four days at sea the Titanic collided with a jagged iceberg at 11:40 p.m. Because it was dark that night, and the lookouts in the crow’s nest didn’t have binoculars with them since they were locked up, they didn’t see the iceberg until it was too late. At first, they thought the boat had simply scraped the iceberg, but they soon realized the iceberg had actually slashed a 300-foot gash in the hull, filling the lower compartments with seawater.
The ship had the legally required number of lifeboats, but 20 boats wasn’t enough for all the passengers. One of the reasons for this is that they believed if something happened they could call another ship and move people a few at a time. But the other ships were too far away and didn’t arrive before the ship sank. Women and children were given first priority for the lifeboats, and the boats were being launched under-filled, some with only 20 or so passengers when they could actually3 fit 65. In the end only 706 passengers survived, picked up by the Carpathia. The other 1500 people were lost at sea as the Titanic went underwater at 2:20 a.m.
For Students and educators:
- Why was the Titanic given nicknames such as “The Wonder Ship?”
- How would you have felt if you were on the Titanic?
- Have you and your family ever been on a long trip? Where did you go? What did you wear?
- Which of the three passengers’ stories talked about above stands out to you the most? Why?
- Why didn’t the crew of the Titanic see the iceberg in the distance?
Assignments for Further Research:
- Look more into the distinctions between the three social classes aboard the Titanic. How did first class passengers spend their time on the Titanic versus how third class passengers spent theirs? Were first, second, or third class passengers more likely to survive?
- Many notable and famous people were passengers on the Titanic. Look more into some of them and find out their stories, such as: what class did they belong to? What was their profession? Why were they onboard the ship?
- There were multiple ships on the water at the time of the Titanic sinking – the Carpathia, the Olympic, and the Californian, to name a few. Why were each of them unable to reach the Titanic in time? Was it because of their radio being turned off, the distance, or something else?
- What impact did the Titanic crash have on current ship safety procedures such as lifeboats, drills, etc.?