Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. Fire and Ice, Robert Frost
What is it about the two disasters—the Hindenburg and the Titanic—that continue to horrify and fascinate the public? Each vehicle was meant to usher in a new, glamorous way to travel. The Titanic, dubbed the “ship of dreams,” resembled a first class hotel, with a staff of more than 900, French cuisine, luxurious cabins, and even a swimming pool. On her maiden voyage, April 15, 1912, Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, killing more than 1,500 people. The Hindenburg, a large airship that glided through the sky, had logged many successful journeys before bursting into flames on May 6, 1937, in New Jersey, killing 13 of the 36 passengers and 22 of 61 crew members.
James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic, won the Academy Award and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship setting sail is being re-released into theaters in 3D on April 4. This May will mark 75 years since the Hindenburg crash. A new exhibit at the National Postal Museum, titled Fire and Ice, from the Robert Frost poem, brings together facts, photos, letters, memorabilia, and videos from both disasters. Even after all these years, these two tragic events still elicit feelings of sadness and, yes, curiosity.
Fire and Ice is a logical exhibit for the postal museum since both the Hindenburg and the Titanic helped to cover expenses by carrying mail. In fact, the Hindenburg was the largest “flying post office ever,” providing regular mail service between Europe and North America. Similarly, the Titanic was the “largest floating post office” of its time. While some mail survived the Hindenburg fire—360 of 17,609 pieces of mail—the letters and packages carried by the Titanic, despite heroic efforts by the ship’s postal clerks, were left at the bottom of the sea. The clerks perished, too.
The exhibit features a video that tells the story of the two disasters. Included is the dramatic newsreel footage that recorded the moment when the Hindenburg burst into flames. Herbert Morrison, on assignment for radio station WLS in Chicago was reportedly not happy about being asked to cover the airship’s landing. His words as he watched the disaster unfold—”Oh, the humanity!”—captured the poignancy of the moment. Although the newsreel and the radio commentary were not recorded together, they are forever joined in time.
While there is no footage of the Titanic sinking, the museum’s video includes scenes from some of the underwater excursions that have recovered artifacts and recorded what still remains inside the ship. Many of the mail bags, now covered with unidentifiable pink sea creatures, stand out.
Perhaps the two disasters capture our attention because they were selling a dream, the idea of traveling, whether by sea or by air, in a lavish style. Hindenburg’s passengers enjoyed a large lounge, gourmet meals, and excellent German wines. The 1975 film, The Hindenburg, starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft, blamed a Nazi conspiracy for the destruction of the airship. In the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indie (Harrison Ford) and his father (Sean Connery) attempt to leave Nazi Germany by booking passage on the Hindenburg. Both films give a glimpse, albeit fictional, of what riding in an airship was like.
The Titanic was truly a marvel, providing upper class passengers with unbelievable luxuries. While the Hindenburg disaster ended travel by airship, the Titanic catastrophe, as horrible as it was, did not have that effect. Modern cruise ships today are larger, faster, and boast more amenities than even Titanic’s creators could have envisioned. (Although recent events show, even these ships cannot avoid disasters). These vessels are open to the masses, unlike Titanic, where passengers below deck, mostly immigrants, endured an ocean crossing far less elegant.
The exhibit poses an interesting question: “Do you think pop culture helps or hurts the true story of Hindenburg and Titanic?” Speculation continues about what caused the disasters and, obviously, fictional accounts fuel the debate. The museum displays include movie posters, games (both board and video), even a replica of the Titanic necklace worn in the film by Kate Winslet. The re-release of the film will undoubtedly attract longtime fans of the Oscar-winning film, and perhaps make new fans of young people who didn’t see Titanic the first time around.
No matter how much time has gone by—75 years for the Hindenburg and 100 years for Titanic—the public fascination continues. Fire and Ice provides us with another glimpse into these tragedies.
Fire and Ice
National Postal Museum
2 Massachusetts Avenue, NE