Historic Photo: First class dining room of the ocean liner “Grosser Kurfürst,” 1905.

ss grosser kurfurst

I’ve done a lot of these chromolithographs–hand-colored high-resolution photos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries–but most of them are exterior views, so I was interested in this one which is a rare interior. This is the first-class dining room of an Atlantic passenger liner called the S.S. Grosser Kurfürst, in a postcard published by the Detroit Photographic Company in 1905. You can see this is intended as a very luxurious space. The chairs are upholstered in velvet, the walls paneled and paintings, evidently of figures from German history, line the walls. On a ship like this the whole first class cabin would probably have eaten together at the same time–i.e., this isn’t a restaurant where you walk in and order what you want.

Luxurious as this was, a photo of this kind shows what the North Atlantic passenger trade was like in the early 1900s. Notice all the chairs are bolted to the deck. This is so they wouldn’t slide around during heavy seas. This is obviously “cafeteria style,” although among the best the North German Lloyd shipping line could offer. Later ships that came out right before World War I, like the France and the Titanic, started breaking these traditions, which is why they were thought of as the last word in luxury. Still, nice as these digs are, the real money in the passenger trade was in steerage. Hauling penniless immigrants across the Atlantic was big business, and shipping lines packed them in like sardines. Third class passengers would eat in their own dining room like this one, except it would look much more like a Salvation Army soup kitchen than a floating hotel.

The Grosser Kurfürst appeared on the North Atlantic in December 1899 and continued in service for the next 15 years. After a profitable career, she was laid up in New York in August 1914 when the European powers entered World War I. When the U.S. entered that conflict in April 1917Grosser Kurfürst was seized and turned into a Navy troopship, the USS Aeolous. She survived the war but remained under the U.S. flag, sailing the Pacific as the City of Los Angeles until she was sold to a scrapyard in Japan in 1937. After that, only photos like these remained to attest to her former glory.

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