The New Steerage - Immigration Commission Report (1911)
There is nothing striking in what this new-type steerage furnishes. On general lines, it follows the plans of the accommodations for second-cabin passengers. The one difference is that everything is simpler proportionately to the difference in the cost of passage. Unfortunately, the new type of steerage is to be found only on those lines that carry emigrants from the north of Europe. The number of these has become but a small percent of the total influx.
Competition was the most forceful influence that led to the development of this improved type of steerage and established it on the lines where it now exists. A division, by mutual agreement, of the territory from which the several transportation lines or groups of such lines draw their steerage passengers lessens the possibility of competition as a force for the extension of the new type of steerage to all emigrant-carrying lines.
Legislation, however, may complete what competition began. The new-type steerage may again be subdivided into two classes. The best of these follows very closely the plan of the second-cabin arrangements; the other adheres in some respects to the old-type steerage.
These resemblances are chiefly in the construction of berths and the location and equipment of dining rooms. The two classes will not be considered separately, but the differences in them will be noted. The segregation of the sexes in the sleeping quarters is observed in accordance with the law in the new type of steerage much more carefully than in the other.
Women traveling without male escort descend one hatchway to their part of the deck, men another, and families still another. Enclosed berths or staterooms secure further privacy. The berths are sometimes exactly like those in the old-type steerage in construction and bedding. The best, however, are built the same as cabin berths.
The bedding was found sometimes less clean than others, but the blankets were always ample. Staterooms contain from two to eight berths. The floor space between is utilized for hand baggage. On some steamers, special provision is made beyond the end of the berths for baggage.
There are hooks for clothes, a seat, a mirror, and sometimes even a stationary washstand and individual towels are furnished. Openings below and above the partition walls permit circulation of air. Lights near the ceiling in the passageways give light in the staterooms. In some instances there is an electric bell within easy reach of both upper and lower berths which summons a steward or stewardess in case of need.
On some steamers, stewards are responsible for complete order in the staterooms. They make the berths and sweep or scrub floors, as the occasion requires. The most important thing is that the small rooms secure a greater degree of privacy and give seclusion to families. On most steamers some large compartments still remain. Men passengers occupy these when traffic is heavy.
In spite of the less crowded conditions, the air is still bad. Steamers that were models in other respects were found to have air as foul as the worst. The lower the deck the worse was the air. Though bearing no odors of filth, it was heavy and oppressive. It gave the general impression of not being changed nearly often enough.
Those who were able to go up on the open deck, and thus experience the difference between fresh air and that below found it impossible to remain between decks long even to sleep. The use of the open deck generally began very early in the morning.
Where there are not stationary washstands in the staterooms and their presence is still the exception and not the rule, lavatories separate for the two sexes are provided. These are generally of a size sufficient to accommodate comfortably even more persons than there are basins. Roller towels are provided, and sometimes even soap.
The basins are of the size and shape most commonly found everywhere. They may be porcelain and cleaned by a steward, or they may be of a coarse metal and receive little care. It is not found impossible to keep the floors dry during the entire journey.
The water closets are of the usual construction—convenient for use and not difficult to maintain in, a serviceable condition. Floors are at all times clean and dry. Objectionable odors are destroyed by disinfectants. Bathtubs and showers are occasionally provided, though their presence is seldom advertised among the passengers, and a fee is a prerequisite to their use.
Regular dining rooms appropriately equipped are included in the ship’s construction. Between meals, these are used as general recreation rooms. A piano, a clock regulated daily, and a chart showing the ship’s location at sea may be other evidences of consideration for the comfort of the passengers.
On older vessels, the dining room occupies the center space of a deck, enclosed or entirely open, and with the passage between the staterooms opening directly into it; the tables and benches are of rough boards and movable. The tables are covered for meals, and the heavy white porcelain dishes and good cutlery are placed, cleared away, and washed by stewards. They also serve the food.
On the newer vessels the dining rooms are even better. In equipment, they resemble those of the second cabin. The tables and chairs are substantially built and attached to the floor. The entire width of a deck is occupied. This is sometimes divided into two rooms, one for men, the other for women and families.
Between meals men may use their side as a smoking room. The floors are washed daily. The desirability of eating meals properly served at tables and away from the sight and odor of berths scarcely needs discussion. The dining rooms, moreover, increase the comfort of the passengers by providing some sheltered place besides the sleeping quarters in which to pass the waking hours when exposure to the weather on the open deck becomes undesirable.
The food overall is abundant and when properly prepared Wholesome. It seldom requires reinforcement from private stores or by purchase from the canteen. The general complaints against the food are that good material is often spoiled by poor preparation; that there is no variety and that the food lacks taste.
But there were steamers found where not one of these charges applied. Little children received all necessary milk. Beef tea and gruel are sometimes served to those who for the time being cannot partake of the usual food.
Hospitals were found in accordance with the legal requirements. On the steamers examined there was little occasion for their use. The steerage accommodations were conducive to health, and those who were seasick received all necessary attention in their berths.
Along with the striking difference 1n living standards between old and new types of steerage goes a vast difference in discipline, service, and general attitude toward the passengers.
One line is now perhaps in a state of transition from the old to the new type of steerage. It has both on some of its steamers. It is significant that the emigrants carried in its two steerages do not radically differ in any way. It is quite unworthy of a transportation line that maintains such an excellent new-type steerage to be content to still retain on its vessels such an infamous old-type steerage.
The replacement of sails by steam, and the consequent shortening of the ocean voyage, has practically eliminated the problem of a high death rate at sea. Many of the evils of ocean travel still exist, but they are not long enough continued to produce death. At present, a death on a steamer is the exception and not the rule. Contagious disease may and does sometimes break out and bring death to some passengers. There are also other instances of death from natural causes, but these are rare and call for no special study or alarm.
The inspection of the steerage quarters by a customs official at our ports of entry to ascertain all the legal requirements have been observed is and in the very nature of things must be merely perfunctory. The inspector sees the steerage as it is after being prepared for his approval, and not as it was when in actual use.
He does not know enough about the plan of the vessel to make his own inspection, and so he sees only what the steerage steward shows him. The time devoted to the inspection suffices only for a passing glance at the steerage, and the method-employed does not tend to give any real information, much less to disclose any violations.
These, then, are the forms of steerage that exist at the present time. The evils and advantages of such are not far to seek. The remedies for such evils as still exist are known and proven, but it still remains to make them compulsory where they have not been voluntarily adopted.