III: Life in Steerage - 1888
Drinking Water in Steerage
No drinking water had been furnished with our meal, and shortly after dinner I went below to look up some. A cooler with ice water stood in the main room. I approached it with my mug.
"What-r-ye 'bout there? None of yer tricks," called the light-haired steward.
I looked up puzzled. Was the ice water for the stewards' use only ?
"When will some water be served out to us in our cans ?"
"There won't be no water served out."
"But I want a drink."
"Well, drink if you want to. There's a cup." There was a teacup turned bottom up on top of the cooler.
"But I would rather drink out of my own cup."
"If I let you get water in yer own things, you women would be carrin't off all the time t'wash yerselves with. That water's ter drink. T'aint ter lug off. And that cup's ter drink it out of."
I wondered if it would be very uncomfortable to go without water till I reached New York. I offered the steward a tip. He refused it, saying that he was not allowed to take money from people. Then I searched my baggage For the smallest drinking utensil I could find. It was the cover of my water can. It held less than a gill.
"You see that I cannot carry off water to wash myself with in this. May I drink out of it ?"
"You won't be so squeamish in a day or two."
This I took for virtual permission, but the water cooler was the great bone of contention during the voyage. The under stewards who kept it supplied had no mind to bring more water than a minimum and, though ice was so lavishly used for all purposes that broken pieces were often left lying about the deck, not a day passed that rough words were not spoken in the , sometimes to men or women in quest of a drink, sometimes to people plainly carrying off water for purposes illegitimate.
We were threatened once or twice with the entire stoppage of our water supply if we did not drink out of the cup common to us all and refrain from drawing water in private mugs. I brought out my can cover as seldom as possible, fearing to bring down wrath on my head, never visiting the cooler except at meal times ; though as my acquaintance with the stewards progressed I saw too many instances of genuine kindness on their part to -the people in their charge to be as much terrified as I had been in the first place by occasional harshness.
The Initial Inspection and Completion of the Passenger Manifest
The monotony of the afternoon was broken by the ceremony of "passing the doctor." All and intermediate passengers, who in most things were subject to the same rules, were mustered on the port deck, where we stood huddled together for three-quarters of an hour waiting for the embarkation officer, who should certify us fit for the voyage, and the ship's officials, who should pass us as likely to be permitted to land in New York. At length we were marshaled forward past somebody in uniform to whom we handed, without slackening our pace, strips torn from our tickets. I stepped briskly forward, looking for the doctor beyond, but no doctor appeared. He must have been in the group about the ticket-taker.
I was not clear in my mind as to whether I had been inspected or not ; or, if pronounced well, sane, in possession of the proper number of senses and able to take care of myself, at what point. It was "a mere form."
On Monday, after we had left Queenstown, we were mustered again, this time by the purser, for a list of the ship's passengers. We were sent below and climbed the companionway one by one, to be confronted at the top by a series of interrogatories after this fashion :
"How old are you?"
"What's your country?"
"Where are you going?"
"What do you work at ?"
The question as to nationality troubled me. gave my own name, simply dropping the middle name, as at the emigration office and again at Castle Garden, having a prejudice against traveling under an alias. It was easy to call myself a housekeeper. But the country. If I voyaged as an American, with rights of citizenship, should I not get off too easily at Castle Garden ? It cost me a pang, but I said I was English and it was so written down.
At two bells a seaman laid his hand on my shoulder.
"Down below. No women allowed on deck after 9 o'clock."
Sleeping in Steerage
There was little sleep in the . Many had brought liquor on board and others bought beer of the stewards. I had been told that I could not buy food on board, but the sale of drink for a specified time every evening was a recognized industry. Nevertheless, there was little drunkenness. A woman made a beast of herself and was sick all night in consequence, but no such scene was enacted as must have taken place in the of the Servia on my voyage from New York to Liverpool when a victim of delirium tremens, who had drunk himself blind because a pretty girl whom he had courted since leaving port refused him, howled in the hospital where he was bound hand and foot till it seemed as if the Evil One and his imps had captured the ship. On board the Aurania, unless the men drank privately in their berths, they were noticeably more temperate than the women. I do not remember seeing one of them overcome.
I found my bed just short of positively uncomfortable. In presence of my twenty-three bed-fellows I did not venture to remove my clothes, but lay down, in Western phrase, in my boots, wrapping myself in my blanket and trying without success to force myself to sleep. The Aurania had got under way, but the water was without a ripple and the motion imperceptible. Two or three accordions and a violin were brought out, and Irish ballad airs sounded through the .
My neighbors discussed their strange situation, one woman comforting two or three timid sisters with the assurance that nothing evil could befall us, for she had arranged to have the prayers of the church all the way over. My bunk was next the partition, and by lifting myself slightly I could look over the top of it into the open room, where lights were kept burning all night. At midnight or thereabouts there was a shuffling of bare feet. A group of girls, tall, red-cheeked, powerfully built, strong as men, were engaged in a high-kicking contest, in the freedom of scant attire, the prize to go to her whose toes touched the top letters of a notice about complaints to the captain tacked against the wall. On subsequent nights there was a watch set in the main room, but this night he was asleep or out of the range of my vision.
The Women's Lavatory in Steerage
The women's lavatory was in the fo'ksle overhead, and to reach it in the morning we passed through the ranks of sailors and stokers. Its door opened full on the carpenter's workshop, and every time it was opened or closed a full view of its interior was afforded. One of the stokers invaded its precincts once or twice until the Irish girls threatened to put their muscular development to proof on him.
The situation of the lavatory was an inconvenience in pleasant weather, when it was usually approached by the fo'ksle entrance froth the deck. In rough weather, when no access was possible except by the forward companion and through the fo'ksle itself, it was almost intolerable, not one woman in a dozen being able to walk to it without asking help from the sailors. This help was usually given kindly and with as much consideration as the circumstances allowed.
The wash basins in the lavatory were supplied with water made from the sea water, very possibly condensed from the exhaust steam of the engine. It had a peculiar odor, distinctly disagreeable, and apparently provocative of seasickness. This odor remained on the skin after washing in it. The closets in the lavatory were kept fairly clean, as clean, probably, as they could well have been, but the smell of the place was so foul that I have seen five women enter well, to be violently seasick before they could open the door to. get out. The place was crowded to suffocation in the morning and it was usual enough to wait outside half an hour for a chance to wash one's hands. Daily I felt grateful to the sailors whose rough courtesy made the situation much more bearable than it could otherwise have been.
Breakfast in Steerage
We had excellent bread for breakfast and tolerable coffee, with sugar and a faint hint of milk. This was the meal promised by the bill of fare. To it was added Irish stew abounding in potatoes and in which a piece of meat turned up perhaps every other day. This stew was given us every morning and was an extra over and above the bond. Complaint of the food was perpetual among the passengers, but the meals were certainly better than the ticket promised and probably quite as good as the passage money allowed.