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Recreating an Ocean Liner Cabin

(Updated December 18, 2020)

Introduction: Re-creating the Experience of Peak Immigration Years

One of the highlights of our new Pier 21 exhibition which opened in May 2015 is a re-creation of an ocean liner cabin and dining room where visitors can walk right in. We hope this cabin will give visitors a bit of time travel --- a chance to step into the shoes of an immigrant crossing to Pier 21 in the 1950s. Capturing the physical space of a cabin gives us a snapshot of an immigration experience. For most of Canada’s history, an ocean voyage was a key part of coming to Canada. This varied in time from the deadly overcrowded “coffin ships” in the 1840s to the biggest and most luxurious ocean liners in the world in the 1960s. Our cabin aims to capture the experience of an immigrant family in the early 1950s, the peak years of arrivals at Pier 21.

Ships of all sizes came to Pier 21 but the most common were medium-sized liners. Typical was the Cunard Line’s RMS Ascania. We used deck plans and cabin interiors from RMS Ascania as a starting point for our reconstruction.

A coloured postcard with printed image of an old immigration ship.

A postcard from 1954 of RMS Ascania, the most common immigration ship at Pier 21 with over 220 voyages on record.

[Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, R2012.62.1a]

Tourist Class Cabins as the Most Common and Economical Choice

Ship cabins in the 1940s and 1950s were a far cry from the luxury cruise ship cabins found afloat today, but they had also changed from the austere steerage quarters from the RMS Titanic era in the early 1900s. In that era, hundreds of immigrants shared giant, open steerage decks or tiny steel cabins dominated by stacks of bunks and bare bulkheads.

Bunk beds with a small basin in middle, showing a third class cabin for immigrants and a cabin with a bunk bed, chair and basin showing a tourist class cabin.

(Above) One of RMS Ascania’s Third Class cabins offered to immigrants when she was built in 1924.
(Below) Tourist Class cabins, converted from Third Class.

Courtesy Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Cunard brochure M2007.50.104

Ocean liner companies had started to upgrade their third class cabins in the 1920s as Canada and the United States began to restrict immigration numbers. Third class travel fell even further during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Faced with many empty third class cabins, shipping companies cut the number of beds and added nicer furniture, lively fabrics and modest decoration to entice budget travellers. They called these new cabins tourist class.

While some families had the money to immigrate to Canada in first or second class, most immigrants sought the most economical way across. When immigration took off after the Second World War, tourist cabins were the most common form of accommodation on the Atlantic Ocean. They were still cramped and most often lacked portholes (let alone the balconies of today’s cruise ships.) There were no private bathrooms, so each cabin featured a sink for washing up.

An old yellow paper with a plan of ship’s tourist class section.

Plan of tourist class cabins aboard RMS Ascania showing men’s cabins and shared washroom.

Courtesy Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Ascania deck plans, M90.39.2, PVP18.11.2

A colored cross section of a diagram of a ship, showing cabins and washrooms.

A cross section of RMS Ascania showing Tourist Class Cabins and shared washrooms.

Courtesy Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

Sometimes a whole family occupied a cabin with several bunk beds but many ships separated male and female cabins. Mother and daughters would have one cabin with father and sons quartered on another deck. Still, curtains and attractive furniture added a bit of style and comfort, an improvement on the austere crossings of earlier immigrants.

A small tourist class cabin showing bunk beds with suitcases underneath, a basin and a small mirror.

A Tourist Class cabin aboard SS Ryndam of the Holland America Line, another common caller at Pier 21.

Museum of the City of New York, Byron Collection

Immigrants in tourist cabins were the lucky ones. Some people in the late 1940s crossed in converted wartime troopships pressed into service to handle the large numbers of postwar immigrants. These ships, often named after American army generals, featured open dormitory decks with row on row of bunks, a throwback to the old steerage quarters of the early 20th century.

Enriching the Cabin with Period Artifacts and Oral History Snippets

Our reconstructed cabin will recreate this unique space in tourist class that provided a home between homes for many immigrants. We will furnish it with period luggage and some discrete artifact cases, presenting household items that passengers took with them into the cabins for the voyage. An ambient sound track with clips from related oral histories, along with sounds like the regular thump of steam engines and ocean noises, will add to the illusion.

The museum’s oral history collection is an important part of the exhibits in the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The hundreds of first person narratives that the museum has collected provide details to build a cabin reconstruction and a three dimensional replica in turn allows us to present oral history in three dimensional form.

Conclusion: Period-Appropriate Safety Features for the Bunk Beds

A baby in a cot is smiling towards the camera while his mother smiles at him.

A baby aboard the Holland America Line ship SS Groote Beer with a “bed net” in the background.

Courtesy Hugo Schouten, “Hugo's Groote Beer page

An example of a cabin feature inspired by a first person narrative is the upper bunk. Most immigrants had cabins with bunk beds, sometimes two or three of them. However we want to make sure that no adventuresome visitors are injured by falling from our top bunks. A memory shared with the museum provided a solution. Jeanette (de Vries) Miller contacted us about her family’s crossing aboard the SS Groote Beer. She remembered the “bed nets”, meshwork barriers which Holland America attached to upper bunks to keep children from rolling out in heavy seas. We aim to do the same in our cabin. Our bed nets will do double duty. They will provide an authentic period detail for that time-travel experience---and keep visitors from climbing into trouble!

The re-created ocean liner cabin reflects an immigrant family’s experience of arriving in Canada through Pier 21 during its peak years of immigration during the early 1950s, complete with artifacts, related oral histories, and even period-appropriate safety features.