This detailed photo–another chromolithograph–shows the posh first-class gentlemen’s smoking room aboard the pioneering German ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. There is a lot of history on display here. Not only can you see the evidence of the marketing strategy of luxury that ocean liner companies, in this case North German Lloyd, employed beginning in the 1890s to capture lucrative transatlantic traffic, but there’s some political history in this room too. Germany in the 1890s was ruled by the tempestuous Kaiser Wilhelm II, a brash and arrogant man who sought to increase the world stature of the new unified nation of Germany which was then only 20 years old. The Kaiser loved ships, and in addition to challenging Great Britain on the supremacy of its military navy he also decided Germany should be Britain’s equal in merchant ships, notably passenger liners. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was built in 1897 to fulfill that purpose.
Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was briefly both the largest and fastest liner on the North Atlantic. She won the Blue Ribband for speed in 1898 and was hailed as the new standard in first-class luxury and comfort. That formerly had been the exclusive purview of British ships, like those of the White Star Line that would eventually launch the Titanic. With lavishly decorated spaces like this room, the Germans were announcing that they were every bit the advanced, refined and civilized European nation that Great Britain and France were. The not-so-subtle subtext was “Let us take you to America in style.”
The irony, which I’ve pointed out before, is that first-class was a money loser for the big liner companies. The real money was in steerage class: the hordes of poor immigrants who were streaming out of European countries, Germany included, to resettle in America, the classic “Ellis Island immigrant” story. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse carried them too, but not in luxurious spaces such as this.
Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was one of the many liners who did not survive World War I. Converted to an armed merchant cruiser, her captain deliberately sank her after she was badly damaged in a battle with a British warship in August 1914. The wreck was recently discovered off the coast of Africa.