“High class freight”: The Titanic and its cargo

“Steamer Titanic”. Postcard Collection, PR 054

With the centennial of its sinking having arrived, the Titanic is a big ticket these days. Fittingly, most commemorations  recognize the terrible loss of life associated with its sinking but there are certainly less somber aspects of this catastrophe too. Aside from its great quantity of passengers, the Titanic also sailed with a modest cargo, and sadly for librarians and book lovers everywhere, that cargo included many shipments of books.

Note from Walford Bros. Booksellers to Robert H. Lyman, circa May 29, 1912. Ships Collection, MS 563

This note and receipt  from the London second-hand booksellers, Walford Brothers, in the N-YHS collections, testify to that unfortunate fact. The note, based on the accompanying copy of the receipt, was written over a month after the tragedy in May 1912. It informs Robert Hunt Lyman, a New York World editor, that the two books he ordered seem to have had the misfortune of being shipped aboard the Titanic.

Frustratingly, the ocean liner’s manifest records many cases of books but does not explicitly name Lyman as a consignee. This isn’t too surprising since he only ordered two books, and, assuming it was indeed on the Titanic, the books were likely handled by a third party firm such as American Express Co. (In case you weren’t aware, now a financial services company, it began in the express mail business.) American Express actually had a number of ill-fated shipments, some of which contained books.

That aside, the manifest is interesting in and of itself. According to a New York Times article from a week after the sinking (which includes a list of the consignees), the cargo was “conservatively” worth $420,000. Using inflation conversions, that is roughly $9.5 million in today’s money. However, its value belies its size. The article explains that the cargo was not all that substantial but its value lay instead in the quality of the goods. As it described it, in the parlance of the day, it was “all high class freight.”

The list of goods is an eclectic one, encompassing everything from feathers and melons to silver and linoleum. But what stands out even more are the consignees. In the ship’s hold was freight destined for the department store B. Altman & Co., sporting goods company A.G. Spalding & Bro., Baring Brothers & Co., Brown Bros. & Co., and Tiffany & Co. and many comparable businesses and firms. And yet all those posh goods simply vanished on April 14, 1912, to live out their existence on the far less luxurious environs of the ocean floor.

Copy of receipt for Robert H. Lyman, Walford Bros. Booksellers, May 29, 1912. Ships Collection, MS 563

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