Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Dining on the Titanic - Part I

We talk a lot about the Titanic at Staatsburgh. Staatsburgh’s owners, Ruth and Ogden Mills, planned to sail on the ship’s second voyage, one the doomed liner was never to make. The Millses connection to the Titanic led us to create “Tales of the Titanic,” a themed tour that we offer each spring. The Titanic has also been a theme for some of the talks at our Tea and Talk series. In this blog and ones to follow, we’ll reproduce one of the Tea Talks: “Dining on the Titanic.”

The primary source for the talk was the delightful book, Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner, by Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley. Featuring sound scholarship, good writing, and beautiful illustrations, the book is a great read.

Now let’s travel back in time to the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Pack your bags and bring your appetite!

It is Sunday evening, April 14, 1912. The HMS Titanic is sailing across the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage, bound for New York. The weather in the North Atlantic is clear and cold. No breeze blows…the sea is like glass…and the stars shine brilliantly in the moonless sky.

A uniformed crewman comes out on deck, carrying a bugle in one hand and a pocket watch in the other. He studies the watch, and precisely at 8 o’clock, he puts the bugle to his lips and plays “The Roast Beef of Olde England,” the traditional call to dinner. Answering the call, wealthy and eminent Edwardians descend the famous staircase pictured below.

Staatsburgh’s owners, Ruth and Ogden Mills, expect to descend that staircase next week; they already have their tickets for the Titanic’s second voyage.

The men are elegant in tails and white tie; the women, laden with jewels, display the latest designer gowns. The ship they are on is the largest ship in the world; indeed, it is called “The largest thing ever built by the hand of man.” It is not only the largest ship, but the Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic, are by far the most luxurious liners ever to sail, with features never before seen aboard ship: a Parisian café, a swimming pool, Turkish baths and a gym.

The first-class passengers have three choices for their dinner destinations. They can go to the Café Parisian, an exact replica of a sidewalk café in Paris, complete with French waiters;

The Titanic's Café Parisian

or they can go to the à la carte restaurant, where they will pay an extra charge for very special meals created by the restaurant’s own chef and own kitchen; or they can go to the first-class dining room. Beautifully decorated in the style of an English manor hall, it is said to be “the largest room afloat.” Running the entire width of the ship, the dining room can serve 554 passengers seated at 115 tables.

But the first-class class passengers are not the only people on board, nor the only people eagerly anticipating a good meal. Of the 1300 hundred passengers aboard, only a little more than 300 are first-class passengers. There are 1000 other hungry passenger on the Titanic in second- and third-class. All of the hungry passengers…not just the first-class passengers…will enjoy a revolutionary commitment to a new standard of shipboard dining. Everyone will eat well.

What are they eating? Let’s start with third-class and work our way up the social and gastronomical ladder to second- and first-class. 

In third-class, the food isn’t fancy, but it’s wholesome and substantial. Poor European peasants who saved all their lives to immigrate on the Titanic may be eating better than they ever ate at home.

This was a vast change from standard dining conditions for passengers of modest means in the days before the Titanic. In earlier ships, they were not called “third-class” passengers, but were “steerage passengers,” housed in the steerage deck, named for the area where the steering ropes ran from the rudder to the helm. Upon boarding, steerage passengers were issued a fork, spoon and tin lunch pail. These they had to wash themselves and hide away for safe-keeping. If they wished to use soap and a towel to clean their dishware, they had to provide their own. They were advised to dry their lunch pail with their hand towel or handkerchief, as the tin quickly rusted in the salty sea water used for washing up.

The dining room was simply any large available space, which might be the middle of the dormitory-like room used for sleeping quarters. Tables were simply placed between the bunks.

With the typically inadequate ventilation below decks, one can imagine the smell. Many passengers simply took their food out on deck and ate outside in all weathers.

Stewards called the passengers to dinner and brought the food in large galvanized tin cans.

Everyone ate at once, although there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit. Savvy passengers quickly learned to be aggressive; if they weren’t quick enough or pushy enough, they might find that all the food was gone before they got to it.

After dinner, it was time to wash the dishes. Passengers lined up with their utensils for a shot at the hot water in a tub. Here again, savvy passengers learned to push to the head of the line. No one wanted to be near the end, after the water had become cold and hundreds of people had already washed their dishes in the tub. 

The Titanic sets a new standard for those with the most inexpensive tickets. “Steerage” is transformed into “third-class.” No longer are tables placed in the middle of the dormitory. There is no dormitory. Even third-class passengers have closed cabins. The cabins have up to six beds, so cabins might be shared among complete strangers; but even so, the six have a door that they can close, and a room to call their own. 

Drawing of a third-class stateroom showing bunks and a sink

The Titanic provides a dining room for third-class, with waiters and linen tablecloths. There are three scheduled sittings for dinner…no more scrambling and pushing like barnyard animals at feeding time.

Third-class menu

Unlike first- and second-class, meals for the whole day appear on one menu. For passengers from poorer backgrounds, the choices on the menu represent almost unimaginable sumptuousness. Notably, meat is served every day on the ship, a luxury seldom enjoyed by people of humble means in the early 20th century.

Second-class on the Titanic is like first-class in previous ships. Second-class is where the middle class is found. And the middle class is eating well, with a multi-course meal that includes fish, chicken, lamb, roast turkey, vegetables and American ice cream.

Second-class menu

But what are Ruth and Ogden Mills’ friends eating in first-class? What are the wealthiest of the wealthy, traveling on the world’s most luxurious ocean liner, having for dinner?

They are having a 10-course epicurean feast influenced by the style of the internationally famous French chef, Auguste Escoffier. And to learn more about dinner in first-class, please tune in to our next blog, which will be published later this month!


  1. Thanks for sharing during this time of sheltering covid.

  2. i loved reading this and the pictures even more - thank you!