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Steerage Class - The Immigrant Journey : The Fellowship of the Steerage (1905)

A Narrative of the conditions of steerage accommodations aboard steamships circa 1905

"The steerage ought to be and could be abolished by law. It is true that the Italian and Polish peasant may not be accustomed to better things at home and might not be happier in better surroundings nor know how to use them; but it is a bad introduction to our life to treat him like an animal when he is coming to us. "

BACK of Warsaw, Vienna, Naples and Palermo, with no place on the world's map to mark their existence, are small market towns to which the peasants come from their hidden villages.

They come not as is their wont on feast and fast days, with song and music, but solemnly; the women bent beneath their burdens, carried on head or back, and the men who walk beside them, less conscious than usual of their superiority.

The women have lost the splendour which usually marks their attire. Their embroidered, stiffly starched petticoats, flowered aprons and gay kerchiefs have disappeared, and instead they have put on more sombre garb, some cast off clothing of our civilization. The men, too, have left their gayer coats behind them, to wear the shoddy ones which neither warm nor become them.

Beneath the black cross which marks the boundary of the Polish town, they usually rest themselves. The cross was erected when the peasants were liberated from serfdom, and beneath it every wanderer rests and prays : every wanderer but the Jew, for whom the cross symbolizes neither liberty nor rest.

These towns which used to be buried in a cloud of dust in the summer and a sea of mud in the winter time; to which the peasant came but rarely, and then only to do his petty trading or his quarrelling before the law, are the first catch basins of the little percolating streams of emigration, and have felt their influence in increased prosperity.

They are the supply stations where much of the money is spent on the way out, and into which the money flows from the mining camps and industrial centres in America.

One little house leans hospitably against the other, a two-story house marks the dwelling of nobility, and the power of the law is personified in the gendarmes, who, weaponed to the teeth, patrol the peaceful town.

Passengers of Steerage circa 1905

From Stereograph copyright-1905, by Underwood & Underwood, N. Y.


Close of kin to us are the Scandinavians, not only in race, but in thought and in ideals. More than any other element do they blend quickly and thoroughly with our national life.

In Russia, before one may emigrate, many painful and costly formalities must be observed, a passport obtained through the governor and speeded on its way by sundry tips.

It is in itself an expensive document without which no Russian subject may leave his community, much less his country. Many persons, therefore, forego the pleasure of securing official permission to leave the Czar's domain, and go, trusting to good luck or to a few rubles with which they may close the ever open eyes of the gendarmes of the Russian boundary. Austrian and Italian authorities also require passports for their subjects. but they are less costly and are granted to all who have satisfied the demands of the law.

These formalities over, the travellers move on to the market square, a dusty place, where women squat, selling fruits and vegetables; the plaster cast and gaily decorated saints, stoically receiving the adoration of our pilgrims, who come for the last time with a petition which now is for a prosperous journey.

There also, the agent of the steamship company receives with just as much feeling their hard earned money in exchange for the long coveted " Ticket," which is to bear them to their land of hope.

From hundreds of such towns and squares, thousands of simple-minded people turn westward each day, disappearing in the clouds of dust which mark their progress to the railroad station and on towards the dreaded sea.

Source: Steiner, Edward Alfred, On the Trail of the Immigrant, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1906

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