Monday, April 9, 2012

Bottom Feeding: Titanic

During the last few weeks, you might have heard something about the upcoming centennial of the sinking of the Titanic.

Most perfume blog readers are aware that a sample kit of perfume ingredients was found among the artifacts; that the perfume “Night Star,” based on the still-fragrant intact vials, was concocted by Christopher Sheldrake in his pre-Chanel days, and that “Scents of Time,” the company who made and marketed it, is reportedly now defunct. (In the photo I’ve seen, only one of the vials is intact, but, hey, I’m a skeptic.) I will give references at the end of this post for those who want to explore the perfume link further. In the reading I’ve been doing for this piece, so much else has come up that I just have to delve and, yes, opine.

You could say that the “Titanic” disaster (1912) and the World Trade Center disaster (2001) were bookends to the 20th century.

“Titanic” was a symbol of huge wealth and luxury, embarking on its maiden voyage at a time of limitless optimism: cars, elevators, telephones, central heat, disposable income! A first-class cabin on the ship cost around $57,000 of today’s dollars. The industrialists and barons of the time could well afford it. There had never been such a ship, and, furthermore, it was unsinkable. 

Now, cut to the late 20th century; the Twin Towers. They were built as a statement of America’s financial might. Dwarfing everything else on Manhattan island, their scale caused an aesthetic furor; outrage, to no end. (The aesthetics lost.) Filled with trading firms and funds companies — modern robber barons — they stood as monuments to America’s domination of the world’s economies.

When the Titanic sank, the ship broke in half. The few lifeboats available had already departed. The first-class cabins were closer to deck, the steerage ones far below it. While “women and children first” is what we’ve always been told by our myth makers, the fact is that the closer to deck you were, the better the chance of your survival. (For example, Mr. Sealfeld, the perfume merchant, was a first-class passenger. He survived.) 

The ship’s halves descended to the bottom differently. The front went bow down; the stern apparently corkscrewed as it went. No one knows with certainty, but chances are good that those steerage-level passengers, at least some of them, were still trapped inside. Both bow and stern hit the bottom, half a mile apart, with extreme force. The stern was mangled. The bow half hit so hard that the impact marks are still visible on the sea floor.

Now, bits and pieces of the ship, plus whatever personal belongings remained salvageable after 80-plus years, are going up for sale.

An exhibit of these artifacts is on view right here in At-lanta. The company that owned limited rights to them was recently given full title rights to the physical and intellectual property they represent. The only restrictions are that they must be kept together, and auctioned as a single lot. (Figures approaching 200 million dollars have been mentioned, but of course that was pre-2008 dollars.)

I haven’t seen them. I did see this company’s other step-right-up show, “Bodies,” an exhibit of real human cadavers preserved in some sort of silicone material which allows the viewer to see the body without skin — the muscles, nerve tracts, everything intact. Problem is, the exhibitors didn’t ask too many questions as to the bodies’ sources. It was later discovered that they were the remains of Chinese political prisoners, some tortured, then executed. 

A ticket to the current “Titanic” exhibit is a replica of ship’s boarding pass, with a passenger’s name on it. When you get to the end, you can look at a list to see if “you” survived.

But wait; there’s more! The home shopping network QVC has paired with RMS Titanic to market jewelry, home and gift ware, all replicas of similar items found in the wreckage…and, even better, another fragrance! This one will be called “Legacy 1912 - Titanic.” No info on who the perfumer is, but I don’t think it’s Christopher Sheldrake.

Hey, I know we live in a crass time. The years leading up to 9-1-1 were a period of great wealth (for some) and even greater hubris, as were those leading up to 1912. This is why I can’t help but compare the two. 

Perhaps this Titanic centennial, with all its hoopla, will be the last of it. The ship is disintegrating, slowly being eaten by “rusticles,” metal-digesting deep-sea organisms. I hope it will finally become dust, allowed to rest in peace, and that we will have finally learned -- but I doubt it.


About the artifacts auction

The April 2012 issue of National Geographic has excellent new photos and commentary about the shipwreck in the article "The Titanic, Illuminated" by Hampton Sides, Vol. 221, No. 4, p. 78.

photo from Google Images, credited RMSTitanic.


Louise said...

That $57,000 figure is an eye-opener. As much as wealth today is concentrated in the hands of a few, I assume it was even more skewed before the advent of income tax.

If you're ever in Denver, try to schedule a visit to Molly "Unsinkable" Brown's house. She was quite a philanthropist, using her fortune to assist the steerage passengers she met in the lifeboat. I seem to remember that she had a crap-ton of furs with her on the Titanic, which she shared out in the lifeboat so all would be warm.

Olfacta said...

I loved Kathy Bates' performance as her in the movie. Of course one has to suspend much disbelief, but that's because it was a movie. I didn't know about her real-life philanthropy, though -- makes sense.

Dionne said...

It was frustrating to learn about Scents of Time only to hear it was going under, as I'd have been very interested to try the line. Now I wonder if it's worth it to track down the scents, when there's so much I haven't tried that's still readily available.

Mimi G said...

Oh My Good Gosh , I saw that exhibit 'Bodies' - it was pretty awful and I shudder now knowing where those poor bodies came from. I am sorry I went to see it at all . ( Not my idea ! )

Olfacta said...

Hi Dionne -- Well, that's always the problem with perfume! I wouldn't be surprised to see some of these turn up on our favorite auction site. There is information about them on Fragrantica and on BaseNotes. Good luck!

Olfacta said...

Hi Mimi -- I saw it too, before I knew. Had I known, I wouldn't have gone (and paid the outrageous ticket price, either!) I do a lot of figure drawing and was interesting in seeing the musclature but wondered why the bodies were all Asian -- now we know, of course.

Rappleyea said...

Excellent writing, Pat. This was an extremely moving piece. I've tried to avoid the Titanic centennial hooplah as it makes me sick on a visceral level.

monster said...

Very poignant, thank you.

Cleopatra's Boudoir said...

I have been fascinated with all things Titanic related since it was found in 1985. I enjoy all of the documentaries on the subject. I think that the Titanic should be remembered and memorialized as a historical piece of our past that should not be forgotten. The sobering fact that the lifeboats were ineffectively used, people have learned from this fact and it may help to ensure that this wont happen again in the future. The loss of life is very tragic as in any disaster, but I believe that the Titanic holds some sort of enthrallment even 100 years later. I am glad that people aren't forgetting the Titanic and what happened to her and her passengers. Why should she be swept under the proverbial rug...? We must not forget. If someone is making jewelry that replicates what was worn on Titanic, then I would be honored to own something like that. I love antiques and history, even if I can't own something that was actually worn by a passenger, I think that a replica piece is a beautiful reminder of the past, even if it had unfortunate circumstances.

Olfacta said...

Hi Donna -- Thanks! You may have guessed that I am a little tired of it too.

Olfacta said...

Hi Monster - Thanks also!

Olfacta said...

Hi CB -- As always, differing opinions welcome. Thanks for commenting!

Vanessa said...

Oh my, that is "sinking low"... I reviewed some of those Scents of Time scents in a post on Bonkers called "Aromancing the stone", and wasn't too impressed, so I am not surprised to learn that the company has gone bump!

The cashing in on the Titanic to coincide with the anniversary does not surprise me, however.

I am from Belfast and my babysitter (now aged 107 if she is still alive - I didn't have a card from her this Christmas!) watched the ship being launched, which I still can hardly believe, not least because it makes me feel rather old.

Olfacta said...

But wait there's more: According to an article I read yesterday in the New York Times (I think) there is an effort afoot to view the shipwreck as a gravesite, the definition of which would prohibit any further pillaging. There is a lot of argument as to whether bodies were still present in the ship's far interior. (How could there not be, imho?) This will be interesting.