15 Things You Might Not Have Known About the RMS Titanic

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

When the Titanic crashed into an iceberg and sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the disaster inspired countless books, Titanic museum exhibits, several Hollywood films (including one that earned a Best Picture Oscar), and a cottage industry of theories and memorials. The Titanic sinking became the most infamous shipwreck in history—but what really happened on that unusually calm night in the North Atlantic? Read on for some surprising Titanic facts.

1. The Titanic was built for luxury, not speed.

In the early 20th century, new technology and an increasing population of European immigrants allowed Britain's largest passenger steamship lines to build the biggest and most opulent ocean liners then known. Liverpool-based Cunard launched the two fastest and sleekest liners, the Mauretania in 1906 and the Lusitania in 1907, capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in record time. The White Star Line, hoping to compete with its main rival, countered by ordering three massive ocean liners—the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic. Built by the Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Ireland (now Northern Ireland), the ships were designed to be the most luxurious liners afloat.

On board the RMS Titanic (the "RMS" stood for "royal mail ship"), passengers could enjoy the swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, a gymnasium, sunrooms, fine dining rooms, and a Turkish bath. The ship had "one hundred more first-class cabins than the Olympic, and a Parisian boulevard on B Deck [was added] to create the illusion of a sidewalk café. Ultimately, the Titanic outweighed her sister by more than 1000 tons," Paul R. Ryan wrote in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution magazine Oceanus.

2. Everything on the Titanic was huge—except the number of lifeboats.

George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Copyright Restrictions

The Titanic was the largest passenger ship of its time. Its steel construction was held in place by 3 million rivets weighing 1200 tons, while each link in the ship's anchor chains weighed 175 pounds. Twenty-nine boilers produced enough energy to achieve 50,000 horsepower and an average speed of 21 knots (just over 24 mph). The distance between the keel (the underside of the ship) and the top of the four gigantic funnels was 175 feet. The ship measured 882.5 feet from bow to stern and 92.5 feet at its widest point. "She was, in short, 11 stories high and four city blocks long," wrote Walter Lord in his definitive history of the Titanic sinking, A Night to Remember.

According to the British government's official inquiry, the ship carried about 1316 passengers and 885 crew on its maiden voyage (other sources have slightly different numbers), but only 20 boats, each of which could safely hold between 40 and 60 people for a total capacity of 1178. At the time, Board of Trade regulations for passenger liners required only 14 life boats on board. The Titanic had 14 life boats plus two cutters and four collapsible boats.

3. The plot of an 1889 novel bore eerie similarities to the events that would befall the Titanic.

The Wreck of the Titan, or, Futility, by little-known novelist Morgan Robertson, may not have predicted the Titanic's sinking, but it includes some uncanny coincidences. In the book, the most fabulous ocean liner ever built—the Titan (!)—is crossing the Atlantic on its maiden voyage when it collides with an iceberg and sinks. The Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic was 882.5 feet. Both ships could reach speeds of 25 knots. Both sailed in April. Both could carry 3000 people, and both had far too few life boats.

4. Before the Titanic sinking, ocean liners encountered more icebergs than usual in the North Atlantic.

Icebergs were a common sight between Ireland and Newfoundland, but a 2014 study published by the Royal Meteorological Society suggested that weather conditions produced more of them than average in April 1912. Freezing air from northeast Canada met the southward flow of the Labrador Current off the coast of Newfoundland, leading to a stream of icebergs that were swept farther south than was typical for most of the 20th century. "In 1912, the peak number of icebergs for the year was recorded in April, whereas normally this occurs in May, and there were nearly two and a half times as many icebergs as in an average year," the authors wrote.

On April 14, 1912, the Titanic received several wireless messages from other ships warning of ice along their routes, but they never reached the Titanic's captain.

5. The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable.

The White Star Line claimed, unofficially, that the Titanic was unsinkable. The ship had 16 watertight bulkheads, from bow to stern below the waterline, that would keep the ship afloat even if the first four of the compartments were breached. Unfortunately, at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the lookout saw a towering iceberg directly in the Titanic's path. The alarm was relayed to the bridge, where First Officer William Murdoch ordered the ship put "hard-a-starboard" and the engines reversed; he also pulled the lever that closed the watertight compartment doors. But it was too late. Thirty-seven seconds after the lookout's warning, the Titanic grazed the iceberg on the starboard side, opening a series of cuts that stretched across six consecutive watertight compartments 10 feet above the keel. Within 10 minutes, 7 feet of water filled the first compartment.

Based on glacier calving data from Greenland, the Royal Meteorological Society study suggested that the iceberg had originated on Greenland's west coast and measured about 125 meters (410 feet) long and 15 to 17 meters (49 to 55 feet) tall above the ocean's surface, giving it a mass of 2.2 million tons. The dimensions are consistent with those in a photo of an iceberg bearing a streak of red paint, photographed by the captain of the Minia, a rescue ship later sent to pick up Titanic survivors.

6. After the collision, few Titanic passengers were worried.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For his 1955 book, Walter Lord spoke with more than 60 Titanic survivors, who revealed an initial lack of concern after the collision with the iceberg. Many in first and second class hardly felt the impact and either went back to what they were doing or asked crew members why the ship's engines had stopped. But soon, the truth began to dawn on them, according to Lord's account:

"Far above on A Deck, second class passenger Lawrence Beesley noticed a curious thing. As he started below to check his cabin, he felt certain the stairs 'weren't quite right.' They seemed level, and yet his feet didn’t fall where they should. Somehow they strayed forward off-balance … as though the steps were tilted down toward the bow."

Titanic passengers and crew hadn't received clear instructions for boarding life boats. Once it became clear that the ship was listing, the process of filling the boats was chaotic. Women and children boarded first, with deference given to first- and second-class passengers; their male companions were told (or opted) to stay with the ship. Boats were lowered with only half of their seats filled. Male and female third-class passengers were largely left to fend for themselves.

7. Hundreds of Titanic survivors were rescued—but more than a thousand perished.

The nearest ship, a merchant vessel called the Californian, was fewer than 10 miles away from the Titanic when it began sinking, but it failed to act on the liner's distress signals—its Marconi wireless operator had gone to bed minutes before the Titanic's collision with the iceberg. That left the Cunard passenger steamship Carpathia, 58 miles away, to come to the Titanic's aid. It took almost two hours to reach the first Titanic survivors.

Of the 2201 passengers and crew on board, just 711 survived the Titanic sinking, a death toll of 1490 according to the British government's figures. (Other inquiries found 1503, 1517, and as high as 1635 deaths). First-class passengers suffered the fewest casualties—203 out of 325, or 62 percent, survived. In second class, 118 of 285 passengers, or 41 percent, survived. And in third class, just 178 of 706 passengers, or 25 percent, made it out alive.

Of the crew, 673 out of 885, or 76 percent, went down with the ship, including Captain Edward Smith, First Mate William Murdoch, the Marconi wireless operator Jack Phillips, who sent the CQD and SOS distress signals, and all eight members of the Titanic's band.

8. A department store telegraph manager may have broken the news of the Titanic sinking.

After the Titanic's final wireless message, listeners sought updates from ships sent to its aid. Only fragments of messages reached New York, where the Titanic had been headed. David Sarnoff, a Marconi manager at the Wanamaker's department store in New York, picked up a message at 4:35 p.m. on April 15 from the Olympic relaying definitively that the Titanic had sunk. Sarnoff and his two wireless operators told the press and continued to intercept messages relayed from the Cape Race station in Newfoundland.

Later, Sarnoff exaggerated the details and his role in the Titanic sinking, claiming that he alone received a distress signal from the Titanic itself and then remained in the Wanamaker's wireless station for 72 hours straight to receive the names of the survivors.

9. The Titanic sinking left tragic "what if?" questions.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Walter Lord summed up the chain of tragic—and avoidable—missteps that led to the disaster:

"If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday … if ice conditions had been normal … if the night had been rough or moonlit … if she had seen the berg 15 seconds sooner—or 15 seconds later … if she had hit the ice in any other way … if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher … if she had carried enough boats … if the Californian had only come. Had any one of these 'ifs' turned out right, every life might have been saved."

10. Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton testified at the Titanic sinking inquiry.

Shackleton, already a widely hailed veteran of two expeditions to Antarctica, knew a lot about icebergs, which explains why he was called as an expert witness in the British government's inquiry into the Titanic sinking. He believed it was likely that the lookouts missed the gigantic iceberg in the ship's path until it was too late. "With a dead calm sea there is no sign at all to give you any indication that there is anything there. If you first see the breaking sea at all, then you look for the rest and you generally see it," Shackleton said. "From a height it is not so easily seen; it blends with the ocean if you are looking down at an angle like that."

Shackleton wasn't the only celebrity to offer testimony: Guglielmo Marconi, a Nobel laureate and inventor of the wireless system used on nearly every ocean liner by that point, explained the regulations for sending distress signals.

11. No one knew the exact location of the Titanic wreckage for 73 years.

Several expeditions had tried and failed to discover the final resting place of the Titanic in the North Atlantic. In 1985, Robert D. Ballard, then a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a French team led by Jean-Louis Michel of the research institute IFREMER finally succeeded. The U.S. Navy had secretly commissioned Ballard to locate two Cold War-era nuclear submarines that had sunk in the North Atlantic decades before—and Ballard agreed to help as long as he could use its technology to search for the Titanic in the same area.

The team was aboard Woods Hole's research vessel Knorr, using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to survey the deep sea. Instead of trying to locate the ship itself in a huge search area, the team concentrated on finding the Titanic's large debris field. As the engineers piloted the ROV, its camera transmitted pictures to the research vessel. On September 1, 1985, an image of the Titanic's boilers slowly came into view—the first time in 73 years that people had seen the ship.

Photos of the Titanic wreckage—its ghostly hull and a trail of unbroken wine bottles, silver platters, a leaded glass window, bedsprings, and other artifacts resting 2.4 miles below the surface—were published and broadcast around the world.

12. Deep-sea robots mapped the ship's debris field.

In 2012, researchers from Woods Hole, the Waitt Institute, and RMS Titanic, Inc.—the wreck's legal custodian—announced that they had created a map of the 15-square-mile debris field using underwater robots. Sonar data and about 10,000 photos were synthesized to create the high-resolution map, which revealed the widely scattered artifacts extending outward from where the two large bow and stern sections of the ship came to rest on the seafloor about a half-mile apart.

The data also provided new clues as to how the Titanic sank. After 1 a.m. on April 15, 1912, as the flooded bow dipped first, the ship's stern rose out of the water at a steep angle. As the ship slid under the surface, the stern broke away and spiraled downward in a corkscrew pattern to the seabed, rather than falling in a straight line.

13. There might still be some cheese down there.

By the time the Titanic wreckage was found, most of the food that had sunk with the ship was long gone. But according to Holger W. Jannasch, senior scientist in Woods Hole's biology department in 1985, there might have been some brie lingering in the pantry. "Some foodstuffs, such as cheese, are protected from decay by the very microbial activity that starts the degradation process. If kept in boxes, it may have changed little over the extended time period," Jannasch wrote in Oceanus. "The microbes that turn milk or whey into cheese produce either highly acidic or highly alkaline conditions, both of which protect these highly proteinaceous foodstuffs from further spoiling." Similarly, wines seen on the seafloor "may still be drinkable and possibly of excellent quality, the normal aging process being slowed down during the [then 73] years of deep-sea storage at about 36°F," he wrote.

14. Artifacts recovered from the wreckage are included in several Titanic museum exhibits.

Kat Long

In Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum's Titanic collection includes important pieces of the ship's story. A life belt saved by a Titanic survivor and a nameplate removed from one of the Titanic's life boats aboard the Carpathia are on display. There is an actual telegram, sent from the Carpathia's captain Arthur Rostron to Cunard headquarters, telling the company about the disaster. Artifacts retrieved from the wreckage itself include porcelain dishes, a pair of pince-nez glasses, and gold hat pins. The museum also owns the sole surviving first class ticket for the Titanic's only voyage: The clergyman who bought it opted to stay home and tend to his wife who had fallen ill the night before departure.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History also owns a number of Titanic artifacts, including Carpathia passenger Bernice Palmer Ellis's Kodak "Brownie" camera and photos she took of the rescued Titanic survivors.

While the ship itself remains on the seabed, RMS Titanic Inc. has successfully recovered more than 5000 artifacts, including a 12-foot-by-26-foot piece of the starboard hull. That chunk went on display in a Titanic museum exhibit at the Luxor in Las Vegas in 2011.

15. You may see the Titanic sail again.

OK, not the original ocean liner. Australian businessman Clive Palmer established the Blue Star Line shipping company in 2012 to build a nearly exact replica of the Titaniccalled Titanic II—with the hope of completing the transatlantic crossing that its predecessor never did. The Titanic II will be slightly larger than the original, with space for 2400 passengers and 900 crew, while faithfully recreating its Edwardian opulence (even the Turkish bath). Fortunately for passengers on the Titanic II's maiden voyage, tentatively scheduled for 2022, the ship will have plenty of life boats and comprehensive evacuation plans in case of icebergs.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

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5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Oral History: In 1985, Mr. Snuffleupagus Shocked Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

On November 8, 1971, during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus was introduced to the world and proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.

No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.

Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.

So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?

The solution? Get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, Mental Floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.

I. The elephant in the room

Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.

Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.

Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-2017): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.

Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-2016): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.

Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.

Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.

Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.

Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.

II. Identity crisis

2004 Sesame Workshop

“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the first 10 years, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.

Martin P. Robinson (via Still Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.

Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.

Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."

Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.

The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.

Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.

Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.

Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.

The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.

Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.

Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.

Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.

Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"

Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.

For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.

Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."

Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.

III. The reveal

The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.

Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"

Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."

Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"

In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.

Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.

Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.

After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.

Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.

Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.

Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.

Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.

Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"

Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”

Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."

Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.

IV. Aftermath

Sesame Workshop

In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.

Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.

Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.

Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.

Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.

Delgado: He got a little sister later on.

Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.

Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.

Delgado: Kids freaked out.

Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."

Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.

Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.

Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.

Davis: Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.

Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.

Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.

Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."

This story has been updated for 2020.