Mrs. Astor and Twentieth Century Socialites: The Original Kardashians

kimk lina astor

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a very long time. I have not finished with my Lusitania trip, not by a long shot, but I saw an article just now that reminded me what I’ve been wanting to write–and it’s about the Kardashians.

I’ve been reading Maureen E. Montgomery’s book Displaying Women as I prepare to write my favorite era in American history, 1890-1918. And in between reading this very academic book, I unwind with an episode or two of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Let no one say I’m one-note.

Montgomery devotes an entire chapter to the social calendar of the upper-class women in New York society during the early twentieth century. Specifically how “what Mrs. Astor did and when she did it became benchmarks for New York society.” According to Montgomery, Mrs. Carolina Astor’s movements and lifestyle influenced the timing of the majority of high society events in New York and “New Yorkers could set their clocks by her movements (19). So much so that the World wrote of her social calendar:

Her dances are always upon Mondays, her state dinners always upon Thursdays. She has always had the same butler, Thomas Haig, since 1876. She sails for Europe on the first steamer after Ash Wednesday. She keeps the same apartment in Paris. She returns always on the same week in June. Her Newport villa, Beechwood, is always open on the same date. She comes to town in the same week in October. And so each year is rounded out. (19)

I bring up Mrs. Astor’s profound impact on the whole of society (including those in Great Britain but more on that later) because I was keenly reminded of those women who have so much to say about our culture today, including the Kardashians.

In the early twentieth century, well-to-do women proved their status by the amount of leisure time they had and used that leisure time to “display” themselves in the best way possible–expensive clothing, high-end jewelry, etc., and to give the rest of America something to aspire to. As I read Displaying Women, I saw the beginnings of the Kardashians, Hiltons, and the rest. While I hesitate to say the beginnings since high classes have always influenced the rest of society, I see the beginning of the Pinterest-obsessed, reality-TV-binging culture. The early 1900s saw the beginning of the paparazzi who followed the high society women and reported their every move in gossip columns and newspapers. It saw the first department stores (anyone seen Mr. Selfridge’s or The Paradise?) where middle class women could try to copy the high society’s looks with skin care,

hair tutorials,

hairtutorialand even the first selfie.

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American society followed the displaying women and began to imitate each other and I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that it eventually led to Pinterest and even the new Kardashian apps where you can get an even more in-depth look into how the Kardashians live their lives.

Am I the only one intrigued by this connection? I find it so exciting to see parallels in our society and the Edwardian Era. Anyone else see any connections?

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My Ireland Trip: May 7 at sunrise

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When I woke to the sun coming through my gorgeous B&B, I couldn’t stay in bed any longer. I dressed quickly, donned a Gibson Girl hairstyle for the occasion, and stepped into the morning sun. The dew still danced on the grass and the sunrise was golden over the silver water.

Crossing the small road, I walked onto a tall bridge that overlooked the water and there stood Queen Victoria, built by the same company that built the Lusitania, bathed in the light.

Since I was about thirteen years old, I have commemorated both the sinking of the Titanic and the sinking of the Lusitania. My mother even let me stay home from school once or twice on May 7, and it has always been my special day of writing. I spend time thinking about the passengers of the liner and what they may have experienced, writing about the sinking, studying about it, and every now and then, feeling it so deeply my heart shook. I never imagined that I would be in Ireland in 2015. I dreamed of it, sure, but the realist in me didn’t want the romantic in me to raise my hopes too much.

But there I was. Overlooking the same land where the survivors of the disaster touched solid ground again and where a few of the victims were buried in it. I listened to my Lusitania soundtrack–the same soundtrack I’ve listened to for thirteen years and sat on a bench, smelling the salty air and noticing the clear sky–the only clear sky of my nine days in Ireland. Through all my study and all my imagining, the disaster never seemed quite as tangible as it did then. Suddenly the characters in my stories, the real people, became real to me. I felt like Brock Lovett,  when he said, “I never got it. I never let it in.”

That morning, I let it in, and to this day I feel changed. Changed because the disaster has so much to offer, so much to teach, so much for us to remember. Twelve hundred people died; 761 survived and were never the same again. All because of a war. And while who is at fault is not exactly clear–except for the man who shot the torpedo–what is clear is the painful damage that war brings. What good has ever come out of a war? The Lusitania disaster was one of the first modern examples of innocent civilians being murdered for the profit of war. Pearl Harbor was next, then Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, countless others.

Sitting on the shore 100 years later, I was overwhelmed by the tragedy of human nature, and the knowledge that even through all that, human kind continues to trudge forward. And I prayed that one day we could learn from our mistakes.

Trip to Ireland: Cobh Heritage Center

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Cobh Harbor and Cunard’s Queen Victoria on May 7, 2015.

If you’re looking for a place to explore maritime history, go no further than Cobh (pronounced “cove”), Ireland. This place is right on the water and has seen ocean liners from the very beginning of immigration during the potato famine to sending prisoners in horrific circumstances to Australia to the Titanic‘s last stop before setting off on its ill-fated voyage to rescuing the Lusitania survivors to the morning of May 7, 2015, when Queen Victoria came into the harbor.

Cobh Heritage Centre

After a very traumatic experience of my three-year-old hiding from us in the museum gift shop for fifteen minutes leading to my frantic search all over the harbor (and as a testament to Irish hospitality, every one around us helped in the search), we finally found him silently crouching behind some sweatshirts. I experienced the Cobh Heritage Center alone. I wish now that I had insisted on everyone joining me because it was the best museum in Cobh. Looking from the outside, I did not expect it, but the small museum is filled with history, artifacts, and very informative  and exciting exhibits.

Cobh (III): Cobh Heritage Centre

My favorite part (besides the Lusitania artifacts) about the Cobh Heritage Center is that it takes place in the original station with signs pointing the way for first class, second class, and third class passengers. The small museum’s location is historical in itself. If you haven’t noticed by now, at every historical place I visit, I spend time taking it all in, imagining what it would have looked like, smelled like, and felt like throughout time.

At Cobh’s Heritage Center, I imagined what it would have been like for victims of the Lusitania disaster to stumble into this station, dazed with the day’s tragedy–many unable to comprehend that their lives would never be the same.

Visit the Heritage Center’s website for some great pictures of their exhibits. I will just highlight a few of my favorite pieces from the museum here:

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  • Artifacts from previous voyages on the Lusitania, including stationary, images, and passenger accounts.
  • The room portraying survivors of the Lusitania in the Queen’s Hotel comforting one another. So powerful–it was like stepping back in history.
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Message in a bottle sent from the Titanic.
  • The message in a bottle. When the Titanic began to sink, a passenger took it upon himself to write a message and send it in a bottle to his family. It eventually made it to shore and the Heritage Center has it on display.
  • A very well compiled video of actual footage of the Lusitania. I wish I knew where to locate this online. I am almost positive that I saw it on YouTube before we left, but I could be wrong. If anyone knows how to locate it, let me know.
  • The replica of a ship’s deck, making me feel like I was walking back in time.

I would go back to Cobh in a heartbeat, and there’s so much more to share about it. I visited one more museum on Wednesday, and then spent Thursday night experiencing the centenary events. I will share all of that soon. For now, let me know if you have any questions or would like more tourist information, like where to eat and stay. We stayed at the perfect bed and breakfast in Cobh with a delightful owner. It was right on the water and only a few minutes walk to city center.

My Trip to Ireland: The Nomadic

SS Nomadic
SS Nomadic

On our way to the Titanic Belfast, we passed this small boat that looked like a miniature Titanic. I had read a bit about it before we left, but afraid of the added expense, never assumed we would go. Then, as we (I, rather reluctantly) left the Titanic Belfast museum, we walked right toward it. I was very curious about what it was and its significance with the Titanic and our guide from the Discovery Tour informed me that it was the tender ship, the original boat that once took famous passengers–John Jacob Astor included–from Cherbourg, France to the Titanic since the Titanic was much too large to go to the pier to pick them up. John Jacob Astor, his wife Madeleine, and many other first and second class passengers of the Titanic had actually set foot on this small tender ship.

The SS Nomadic was built by White Star Line; therefore, it had much of the same materials and craftsmanship that the Titanic did, which is why they looked so similar. The Nomadic had been found just a few years before and was about to be scrapped, but Belfast Titanic museum saved it and restored her to her former glory, using some of the same materials as the White Star Line did 100 years earlier. You can see the restoration process on their Flickr page. One of my favorite stories was this:

The Nomadic had been looted at some point in her history. Thieves snuck aboard and took apart the most expensive pieces of her, including the clock over the bar, and sold them for money. Then, years later, after Belfast Titanic put out requests to find a clock like the original to replace above the bar, an auction house replied and sent a clock to them that looked like the picture. The clock fit like a glove. Historians for the Titanic Belfast compared the serial number of the new clock with the serial number of the original clock–it was the very same clock that hung over John Jacob Astor when the Nomadic sailed for the Titanic.

Steering the Nomadic
Steering the Nomadic

The best part about the Nomadic was that nearly everything was open for exploration. You can turn the wheel, climb the ladders, sit on original furniture, play chess, kids could play with toys downstairs, and you can even play dress up. My three-year-old had an absolute ball and did not want to leave. He loved the projection of the captain who told about the ship.

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And, not wanting to be a tourist, I was just going to let the bow of the ship go without reenacting my favorite scene from the film Titanic, but at my father-in-law’s suggestion, I decided I was a tourist and I might as well act like one. Jeff and I stood at the bow of the Nomadic and he sang “Come, Josephine, in my Flying Machine” with our arms outstretched.

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“Come, Josephine, in my flying machine”

Needless to say, the Nomadic was one of the highlights of the entire trip.

My Trip to Ireland: A Review of the Belfast Titanic Museum

Titanic Belfast.
Titanic Belfast.

Our second day in Ireland, I woke late in the Hilton-Belfast exhausted from staying up all night with a jet-lagged three-year-old who only wanted to play from midnight to 5:00 a.m., but as soon as I pulled back the curtains to view the industrial city with silver clouds and streaks of golden sunlight over the brown buildings, I remembered my itinerary.

The Belfast Titanic museum, the same museum that had once housed my picture, but thanks to the end of James Cameron’s exhibit, I’d missed it. One day!

Titanic Quarter
Titanic Quarter

I dressed quickly, scarfed down our free breakfast of sausage and eggs, and we all began the jaunt to Titanic quarter. Before the trip, I’d studied this walk on Google Maps and had expected the walk to to be much longer than it actually was. As we walked, I imagined what it might have been like 100 years ago; men lining up to go to work preparing for another grueling day with little pay and backbreaking, dangerous labor surrounded by the smell of melting steel and burning coal.

We walked along the water and I wondered if the water molecules had any memory of holding the Titanic, gently rocking her in the bay.

Belfast Titanic museum in the background. (And a photobomber)
Belfast Titanic museum in the background. (And a photobomber)

Then I turned the corner and there, over the water, stood the spectacular new museum. Designed to mimic not only the Titanic’s bow, but the iceberg that sealed her fate, and the steel that built her, and looking from above, a star from the White Star Line’s flag. The amount of careful thought that went into the symbolism of the museum astounds me still.

The museum itself was impressive. It was more focused on Belfast’s contribution to the Titanic than on the actual voyage and sinking, with a ride around the recreated slipways so that you could really see what it was like for those men who built her. The sinking portion, though, was the part that took my breath away. It took place in a dark room, black. With only a video of the ship sinking and the telegrams sent and received by the Titanic as she sunk. This room reminded me of something I had forgotten. The Titanic sank in the middle of the pitch black ocean. Nothing was around them. I had never before imagined what it would have felt like to be on the ship surrounded by nothing, how lonely and final and terrifying it must have been to even be placed on a lifeboat and sent into the darkness with no idea if help was coming, if getting on a lifeboat was just prolonging the inevitable. The ship would have seemed so much safer than a small lifeboat in the middle of a dark abyss.

CQD was the signal Titanic used to ask for help, sending the code over the water to anyone that would hear. Titanic was also the first to use the now common SOS, but CQD was what its operators, Harold Bride and Jack Phillips, used the most.

The dark room in the Belfast Titanic museum was filled with telegrams sent back and forth from the Marconi officers to other ships. And then at the end of the room on the wall was the final telegram from the Titanic:

CQ….

He, whichever operator it was, never finished the “D.” What happened? Was Harold Bride shouting at Jack Phillips, telling him to get out? Did the room fill with water? So many questions and no answers.

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Owen standing in one of the points of the museum overlooking the slipway where Titanic was built.

The Discovery Tour was worth every penny and my favorite part of the whole visit. Our guide was terrific. She took her time and I felt her passion with every word. We explored the shipbuilding offices and peered out an original window from over 100 years ago, and I imagined what it would have been like to see the steel giant on the slipway looking out the same window Thomas Andrews must have used hundreds of times.

The original window in the drawing office where Titanic was put on paper before being built.
The original window in the drawing office where Titanic was put on paper before being built.

Walking up and down the slipway where the museum had recreated the boat deck, down to the placement of the benches, and near the bow was a memorial created for Thomas Andrews by his nephew. My respect and love for Thomas Andrews increased, which I didn’t even think was possible owing to how much respect and love I already carried for him.

The slipways.
The slipways.

Walking the “deck” was powerful for me. The visit was very profound and spiritual for me. The whole trip to Ireland was like my very own Mecca. Ireland connected me with history, my teenage self, and my current self in a way no other trip could have. But more of that later.