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The Old Steerage - 1911

The Old and New

Transatlantic steamers may be classed in three general subdivisions on the basis of their provision for other than cabin passengers. These are:

  1. Vessels Having the Ordinary or Old-Type Steerage
  2. Those Having the New-Type Steerage
  3. Ships Containing Both Types

To clarify the distinction between these subdivisions, a description of the two types of steerage, old and new, will be given.

The Old Conditions

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 from their first conceptions of our country and are prepared to receive their first impressions of it.

The universal human needs of space, air, food, sleep, and privacy are recognized to the degree now made compulsory by law. Beyond that, the persons carried are looked upon as so much freight, with mere transportation as their only due. The sleeping quarters are large compartments, accommodating as many as 300 or more persons each.

For assignment to these, passengers are divided into three classes, namely, women without male escorts, men traveling alone, and families.

Each class is housed in a separate compartment, and they are often located in different parts of the vessel. It is generally possible to shut off all communication between them, though this is not always done.

Sleeping Arrangements

The berths are in two tiers, with an interval of 2 feet and 6 inches of space above each. They consist of an iron framework containing a mattress, a pillow, or more often a life preserver as a substitute, and a blanket. The mattress and the pillow, if there is one, are filled with straw or seaweed.

On some lines, this is renewed every trip. Either colored gingham or coarse white canvas slips cover the mattress and pillow. A piece of iron piping placed at a height where it will separate the bedding is the “partition” between berths. The blankets differ in weight, size, and material on different lines.

On one line of steamers, where the blanket becomes the property of the passenger on leaving, it is far from adequate in size and weight, even in the summer. Generally, the passenger must retire almost fully dressed to keep warm.

Through the entire voyage, from seven to seventeen days, the berths receive no attention from the stewards. The berth, 6 feet long and 2 feet wide and with 24 feet of space above it, is all the space to which the steerage passenger can assert a definite right. To this 30 cubic feet of space, he must, in no small measure, confine himself.

No space is designated for hand baggage. As practically every traveler has some bag or bundle, this must be kept in the berth. It may not even remain on the floor beneath. There are no hooks on which to hang clothing.

Everyone, almost, has some better clothes saved for disembarkation, and some wraps for warmth that are not worn all the time, and these must either be hung about the framework of the berth or stuck away somewhere in it.

At least two large transportation lines furnish the steerage passengers eating utensils and require each one to retain these throughout the voyage. As no repository for them is provided, a corner of each berth must serve that purpose.

Towels and other toilet necessities, which each passenger must furnish for himself, claim more space in the already crowded berths. The floors of these large compartments are generally of wood, but others consist of large sheets of iron were also found.

Sweeping is the only form of cleaning done. Sometimes the process is repeated several times a day. This is particularly true when the litter is the residue of food sold to the passengers by the steward for his own profit.

No sick cans are furnished, and not even large receptacles for waste. The vomit of the seasick is often permitted to remain a long time before being removed. The floors, when iron, are continually damp, and when of wood they reek with foul odor because they are not washed.

Open Deck Areas

The open deck available to the steerage is very limited, and regular separable dining rooms are not included in the construction. The sleeping compartments must, therefore, be the fixed abode of a majority of the passengers.

During days of continuous storms, when the unprotected open deck cannot be used at all, the berths and the passageways between them are the only space where the steerage passenger can pass away the time. When to this minimal space and much filth and stench is added inadequate means of ventilation, the result is almost unendurable.

Its harmful effects on health and morals scarcely need be indicated. Two 12-inch ventilator shafts are required for every 50 persons in every room, but the conditions here are abnormal, and these provisions do not suffice.

The air was found to be invariably unhealthy, even in the higher enclosed decks where hatchways afford further means of ventilation. In many instances persons, after recovering from seasickness, continue to lie in their berths in a sort of stupor, due to breathing air whose oxygen has been mostly replaced by foul gases.

Those passengers who make a practice of staying much on the open deck feel the contrast between the air out of doors and that in the compartments, and consequently find it impossible to remain below long at a time. In two steamers, those who could no longer endure the foul air between decks always filled the open deck long before daylight.

Washrooms and Lavatories

Washrooms and lavatories, separate for men and for women, are required by law, which also states they shall be kept in a “clean and serviceable condition throughout the voyage.”

The indifferent obedience to this provision is responsible for further uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions.

The cheapest possible materials and construction of both washbasins and lavatories secure the smallest possible degree of convenience and make the maintenance of cleanliness extremely difficult where it is attempted at all.

The number of washbasins is invariably by far too few, and the rooms in which they are placed so small as to admit only by crowding as many persons as there are basins.

The only provision for counteracting all the dirt of this kind of travel is cold salt water, with sometimes a single faucet of warm water to an entire washroom.

Also, in some cases, this faucet of warm water is at the same time the only provision for washing dishes. Soap and towels are not furnished.

Floors of both washrooms and water closets are damp and often filthy until the last day of the voyage when they are cleaned in preparation for the inspection at the port of entry. The claim that it is impossible to establish and maintain order in these parts of the immigrant quarters is thus shown to be false.

Dining Areas

Regular dining rooms are not a part of the old type of steerage. Such tables and seats as the law says “shall be provided for the use of passengers at regular meals” are never sufficient to seat all the passengers, and no effort to do this is made by systematically repeating the seating arrangements.

In some instances, the tables are little shelves along the wall of a sleeping compartment. Sometimes plain boards set on wooden stools and rough wooden benches placed in the passageways of sleeping compartments are considered compliance with the law.

Again, when a compartment is only partly full, the empty space is called a dining room and is used by all the passengers in common, regardless of what sex uses the rest of the compartment as sleeping quarters.

When traffic is so light that some compartment is entirely unused, its berths are removed and stacked in one end and replaced by rough tables and benches.

This is the amplest provision of dining accommodations ever made in the old type steerage and only occurs when space is not needed for other more profitable use.

Food and Dining

There are two systems of serving the food. In one instance the passengers, each carrying the crude eating utensils given him to use throughout the journey, pass in single file before the three or four stewards who are serving and each receives his rations.

Then he finds a place wherever he can to eat them, and later washes his dishes and finds a hiding place for them where they may be safe until the next meal.

Naturally, there is a rush to secure a place in line and afterward a scramble for the single warm-water faucet, which has to serve the needs of hundreds. Between the two, tables and seats are forgotten or they are deliberately deserted for the fresh air of the open deck.

Under the new stem of serving, women and children are given the preference at such tables as there are, the most essential eating utensils are placed by the stewards and then washed by them.

When the bell announces a meal, the stewards form in a line extending to the galley and large tin pans, each containing the food for one table, are passed along until every table is supplied. This constitutes the table service.

The men passengers are even less favored. They are divided into groups of six. Each group receives two large tin pans and tin plates, cups, and cutlery enough for the six; also one ticket for the group.

Each man takes his turn in going with the ticket and the two large pans for the food for the group, and in washing and caring for the dishes afterward. They eat where they can, most frequently on the open deck. Stormy weather leaves no choice but the sleeping compartment.

The food may generally be described as fair in quality and sufficient in quantity, and yet it is neither; fairly good materials are usually spoiled by being wretchedly prepared. Bread, potatoes, meat, and when not old leavings from the first and second galleys, form a reasonably substantial diet.

Coffee is invariably bad, and tea doesn’t count as food with most immigrants. Vegetables, fruits, and pickles form an insignificant part of the diet and are generally of very inferior quality.

The preparation, the manner of serving the food, and disregard of the proportions of the several food elements required by the human body make the food unsatisfying, and therefore insufficient.

This defect and the monotony are relieved by purchases at the canteen by those whose capital will permit. Milk is supplied for small children.

Treating Ill Passengers

Hospitals have long been recognized as indispensable, and so are specially provided in the construction of most passenger-carrying vessels. The equipment varies, but there are always berths and facilities for washing and a latrine closet at hand.

A general aversion to using the hospitals freely is very apparent on some lines. Seasickness does not qualify for admittance. Since this is the most prevalent ailment among the passengers, and not one thing is done for either the comfort or convenience of those suffering from it and confined to their berths.

Since the hospitals are included in the space allotted to the use of steerage passengers, this denial of the hospital to the seasick seems an injustice. On some lines, the hospitals are freely used. A passenger ill in his berth receives only such attention as the mercy and sympathy of his fellow-travelers supplies.

Order and Cleanliness

After what has already been said, it is scarcely necessary to consider the observance of the provision or the maintenance of order and cleanliness in the steerage quarters and among the steerage passengers separately.

Of what practical use could rules and regulations by the captain or master be when their enforcement would be either impossible or without tangible result with the existing accommodations?

The open deck has always been decidedly inadequate in size. The amendment to section 1 of the passenger act of 1882, which went into effect January 1, 1909, provides that henceforth this space shall be 5 superficial feet for every steerage passenger carried.

On one steamer, showers of cinders were a deterrent to the use of the open-air deck for several days. On another, a storm made the use of the open air deck impossible during half the journey. The only seats available were the machinery that filled much of the deck.

Crew Excluded from Passenger Compartments Except while Performing Duties

Section 7 of the law of 1882, which excluded the crew from the compartments occupied by the passengers except when ordered there in the performance of their duties, was found posted in more or less conspicuous places.

There was generally one copy in English and one in the language of the crew. It was never found in all the different languages of the passengers carried, yet they are as much concerned by this regulation as is the crew. And if passengers of one nationality should know it, it is equally essential that all should.


This old-type steerage considered as a whole, it is congestion so intense, so detrimental to health and morals that there is nothing on land to equal it. That people live in it only temporarily is no justification o its existence.

The experience of a single crossing is enough to change bad standards of living to worse. It is an abundant opportunity to weaken the body and implant their germs of disease to develop later.

It is more than a physical and moral test; it is a strain. Admittedly, it is not the introduction to American institutions that will tend to make them respected.

The standard plea that better accommodations cannot be maintained because they would be beyond the appreciation of the emigrant and because they would leave too small a margin of profit carry no weight. Since the desired kind of steerage already exists on some of the lines and is not conducted as either philanthropy or a charity.

Page edited for spelling, grammar, and clarity by P. Gjenvick, 2019.

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