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Steerage Conditions: United States Immigration Commission Report (1911)

Steerage Passengers (1905)

The report of the Immigration Commission on steerage conditions resulted from investigations by agents of the Commission who, in the guise of immigrants, traveled in the steerage of 12 trans-Atlantic ships. Practically all of the more important lines engaged in the immigrant-carrying traffic were included in the inquiry, and every type of steerage was studied. The report upon this subject was presented to Congress December 13, 1909, and printed as Senate Document No. 26, Sixty-first Congress, second session. It is reprinted here as a part of the Commission’s complete report to the Congress. Miss Anna Herkner, who, as an agent of the Commission, crossed the Atlantic three times as a steerage passenger, prepared the report on steerage conditions.

  1. Introduction
    Prior to the act of 1819, “Regulating passenger ships and vessels,” there was no law of the United States for the protection of passengers at sea. In 1796, Congress, at the instance of States having seaports, passed a law directing revenue officers “to aid in the execution of the quarantine and also in the execution of the health laws of the States.”
  2. The Old and New Steerage Described
    Trans-Atlantic steamers may be classed in three general subdivisions on the basis of their provision for other than cabin passengers. These are: Vessels having the ordinary or old-type steerage, those having the new-type steerage, and those having both. In order to make clear the distinction between these subdivisions, a description of the two types of steerage, old and new, will be given.
    1. The Old Steerage
      The old-type steerage is the one whose horrors have been so often described. It is unfortunately still found in a majority of the vessels bringing immigrants to the United States. It is still the common steerage in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants form their first conceptions of our country and are prepared to receive their first impressions of it.
    2. The New Steerage
      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.
    3. Recommendations
      As the new statute took effect so recently as January 1, and as the “new” steerage, in the opinion of all our investigators, fully complies with all that can be demanded, the Commission’s recommendation is that a statute be immediately enacted providing for the placing of government officials, both men and women, on vessels carrying third-class and steerage passengers, the expense to be borne by the steamship companies. The Bureau of Immigration should continue the system inaugurated by the Commission of sending investigators in the steerage in the guise of immigrants at intervals.
  3. A Typical Old-Style Steerage: An Investigator's Report
    On the day just prior to sailing all the steerage passengers who were not American citizens were vaccinated by the physician from the _____ and one other. The women bared their arms in one room, the men in another. No excuse was sufficient to escape this requirement. However, the skin was not even pierced in any one of the three spots on my arm, and I later found this to be true in the case of many of the other passengers. The eyes were casually examined by the same physicians. Each ‘inspection card’ was stamped by the United States consulate and also marked ‘vaccinated.’
  4. A Typical New Type Steerage: An Investigator's Report
    The partitions were of wood, painted white, and kept thoroughly clean. A current of air was admitted at the base and top of the partitions. The air on these two decks, both in the staterooms and hallways, was remarkably fresh. Berths were arranged in two tiers, and in construction apparently differed in no way from those usually found in the second cabin. Each berth contained a straw-filled mattress and pillow. Both of them were covered with white slips, which, however, were not changed during the ten days.
  5. The Old and New Type Steerage in the Same Ship: An Investigative Report
    Sunday morning we tried to get either some coffee or tea. The canteen keeper was either still or again drunk, and there was nothing to be had of him but liquors, and, moreover, his manner was most objectionable. The officers who again appeared to relieve newly arrived emigrants of their tickets declined to release us to go to the adjoining depot for some breakfast. Their reply was that there was a canteen to supply all an emigrant’s needs.
  6. Treatment of Immigrants on Steamers in the Coastwise and Inland Traffic
    A certain percentage of the immigrants who are distributed from New York City and other points travel toward their ultimate destination on smaller steamship lines in the coastwise trade. There seems to bo no attention whatever paid to the accommodations for or care
    of immigrants on these ships.
  7. Results of the Italian Law Providing For Official Inspection of Steerage
    In view of the recommendation that immigrant inspectors and matrons travel on each ship carrying immigrants, the following extracts from a report on an Italian vessel are pertinent: The investigation was made by a woman.
  8. A Seaman's Statement Regarding Third Class
    An investigator who was formerly a seaman and has crossed in all classes of ships makes the following comments in regard to third class on one of the newer types of ship.
  9. Appendixes
    1. Appendix A: The United States Passenger Act of 1882
      Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall not be lawful for the master of a steamship or other vessel whereon emigrant passengers, or passengers other than cabin passengers, have been taken at any port or place in a foreign country or dominion (ports and places in foreign territory contiguous to the United States excepted) to bring such vessel and passengers to any port or place in the United States unless the compartments, spaces, and accommodations hereinafter mentioned have been provided, allotted, maintained, and used for and by such passengers during the entire voyage.
    2. Appendix B: Section One of Passenger Act, As Amended, 1908
      In section 42 of the immigration act of February 20, 1907, an attempt was made to improve steerage conditions by increasing the air space allowed to each passenger. By its terms this provision was to have taken effect January 1, 1909, but it was superseded by public act No. 1S3 of the Sixtieth Congress, which repealed it This act, which became effective January 1, 1909, amends only section 1 of the passenger act of 1882.

"Steerage Conditions," in Reports of the Immigration Commsion, Volume 37. Steerage Conditions--Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Puroses -- Immigrant Homes and Aid Societies -- Immigrant Banks. (S. Document No. 753, 61st Congress, 3rd Session) Presented by Mr. Dillingham, 5 December 1910, Washington: Government Printing Office (1911) P. 2, 5-51

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