A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from June 03, 2009
“Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” (a futile or pointless activity in a losing situation)

"Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” is a metaphor for making cosmetic changes in an ultimately failing endeavor. The phrase is used often in business, politics and sports. The reference is to the RMS Titanic, a ship that hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage to New York City in 1912.

The origin of the phrase is unknown, but a form of it was used by Elizabeth Carpenter, the retiring press secretary and staff director of Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, and reported in the national press on January 17, 1969.


Wikipedia: RMS Titanic
The RMS Titanic was an Olympic-class passenger liner owned by British shipping company White Star Line and built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, United Kingdom. For her time, she was the largest passenger steamship in the world.

On the night of 14 April 1912, during the ship’s maiden voyage, Titanic hit an iceberg and sank two hours and forty minutes later, early on 15 April 1912. The sinking resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people, making it one of the most deadly peacetime maritime disasters in history. The high casualty rate was due in part to the fact that, although complying with the regulations of the time, the ship did not carry enough lifeboats for everyone aboard. The ship had a total lifeboat capacity of 1,178 people, although her capacity was 3,547. A disproportionate number of men died due to the women-and-children-first protocol that was followed.

The Titanic used some of the most advanced technology available at the time and was, after the sinking, popularly believed to have been described as “unsinkable”. It was a great shock to many that, despite the extensive safety features and experienced crew, the Titanic sank. The frenzy on the part of the media about Titanic‘s famous victims, the legends about the sinking, the resulting changes to maritime law, and the discovery of the wreck have contributed to the continuing interest in, and notoriety of, the Titanic.

Google Answers
Subject: Re: Origin of Phrase “Deckchairs on the Titanic”
Answered By: justaskscott-ga on 22 Jun 2003 22:10 PDT

Hello bmensch,

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (5th Ed. 1999), page 533, lists a quotation from the Washington Post, 16 May 1976, by Rogers Morton, American public relations officer: “I’m not going to rearrange the furniture on the deck of the Titanic.” The context, according to the dictionary, was that Morton had lost five of the last six primaries as President Ford’s campaign manager.

The editor of the forthcoming Yale Dictionary of Quotations (YDQ), Fred Shapiro, noted that the YDQ files listed Morton as the originator of the expression.  However, a member of the YDQ staff determined that there was an earlier occurrence of the phrase:

‘“Administrators [at Lincoln Center] are running around straightening out deck chairs while the Titanic goes down.” N.Y. Times, 15 May 1972, p. 34’

Urban Dictionary
1.  Rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic
This is a situation when someone tries to futilly reform the way things are done in a failing system.
The consolidation of domestic agency intelligence under the banner of “Homeland Security” is nothing more than Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic.
by D. Arse Dec 13, 2004

2.  Rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic
A joke Stephen Colbert made on the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Some people say changing the cabinet around is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. That’s not true; this administration isn’t sinking. In fact, this administration is soaring; if anything, it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.
by presleyg Jul 27, 2006

17 January 1969, New York (NY) Times, “White House Memories Recalled By Mrs. Johnson’s Press Aide” by Nan Robertson, pg. 18:
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16—Elizabeth Carpenter, the retiring press secretary and staff director of Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, summoned up memories of five years in the WHite House today in a farewell speech that was by turns witty, sentimental and barbed.
(...)
Of the incoming White House staff, the always political Mrs. Carpenter said: “All the new people want an office close to the President’s. You should see them scramble. It’s like fighting for a deck chair on the Titanic.”

29 December 1969, Charleston (WV) Gazette, “Future Role of Church Weighed” by James A Haught, pg. 11, col 1:
One clergyman has been quoted as saying the numerous reforms taking place today are only “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”

5 April 1970, Fresno (CA) Bee, pg. 5C, col. 8:
Unless this gap is narrowed, all of the liberal reforms of recent years could be, as one Protestant official put it recently, “like switching deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Google Books
The Test
By Walter Adams
New York, NY: Macmillan
1971
Pg. 113:
Obsessed with minutiae, my colleagues seemed to me like stewards rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

3 March 1972, Charleston (WV) Daily Mail, pg. 2A, col. 1:
Fr. Bonnike, quoting one theologian, said the turmoil through which church members are passing was “like worrying about the arrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic.”

Google News Archive
8 June 1972, Village Voice (New York, NY), pg. 34, cols. 3-5:
As long as we are bombing the Vietnamese, as long as General Motors not only pollutes the air but also makes a profit on the devices it sells to clean up its own poisons, teaching kindergarten is simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
(...)
So perhaps it is me shuffling those deck chairs, for this President—a symbol gone made—makes me think it might be.

Google Books
10 June 1974, New York magazine, pg. 40, col. 2:
“In Washington, they remind me of the captain reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityBanking/Finance/Insurance • (0) Comments • Wednesday, June 03, 2009 • Permalink