Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

A Typical New Type Steerage: An Investigator's Report

Report by the same investigator as to another vessel. Clearly, the experience was dramatically improved over the previous voyage. The text was edited for spelling, grammar, and clarity to improve readability.

The steerage, or third-class passage, as experienced on the steamer _______of the ______ Line, differed but slightly from the usual cabin passage, except in plainness and simplicity of appointment.

 The steerage passenger was treated with every consideration from the very beginning of his relations with the line. It was not necessary that he be at the port of embarkation any significant length of time before the departure of the steamer.

I, for instance, arrived in London the day previous to the vessel’s sailing, presented myself at the company’s offices, requested passage, received my ticket immediately, and was told there was no necessity of leaving London until midnight.

This train brought many other emigrants and me to ____ in the morning of the day of sailing. Another train carried us from the same station to the docks. From here, a bus belonging to the _____ Line conveyed passengers and hand baggage to the steamer without charge. It was about 10 am when we went on board.

We were all placed in one of the large dining rooms, and from there passed the doctor in single file. He examined the eyes of each one, and we proceeded to a portion of the open deck.

Then we marched again in single file to another portion of the deck, giving up the two parts of the steamer ticket as we went and receiving a doctor’s card—those who were still without it.

The last official approached in this procession assigned staterooms and berths. This was done both judiciously and with an evident desire to give satisfaction.

Friends and acquaintances were placed together. The various nationalities were quartered near together as much as possible. The few Jewish passengers were assigned staterooms distantly removed from all the others.

All these proceedings followed a careful plan and were kindly conducted so that no excessive crowding and rough handling resulted. The same consideration that was shown here continued throughout the ten days’ journey.

The steerage passengers on board, examined, and assigned to their quarters, the steamer pulled out of the dock and proceeded to the landing where cabin passengers were taken on.

The steerage on the ______ presented practically no novelty and interest due to unique and inhuman accommodations. The same human needs were recognized as in the case of cabin passengers, and every revision was made for these. The appointments, however, were plain and simple and entirely devoid of all nonessentials.

Relative to the main deck, the first wholly enclosed deck extended the entire length and breadth of the vessel, the sleeping quarters were located on the first and second decks below the main deck.

These two decks were divided into sections designated by letters of the alphabet. These could be, and in some cases were, shut off from one another by iron bulkheads.

A separate entrance or stairway led to each section. In no case did a hatchway open directly from the upper or spar deck into a sleeping compartment, admitting water and wind.

Each section or compartment with but two exceptions was subdivided into staterooms. These contained two and four berths each.

The partitions were of wood, painted white, and kept thoroughly clean. A current of air was admitted at the base and top of the barriers. The air we breathed 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.

For covering, a pair of heavy gray blankets were provided. These were of ample size and weight to be practically sufficient even on the coldest nights of the journey.

At the head of the berths was a drop-shelf that served either as a seat or table, as the occasion demanded. Each room was furnished with a mirror, and hooks to hold clothes were quite abundantly supplied.

A lever for turning on the electric light in the room and a bell for summoning steward or matron were within easy reach of both berths. There was plenty of space for hand baggage under the lower berths and also beyond the foot of the berths.

The floors everywhere were of plain white boards, and these were kept scrupulously clean. They were scrubbed every day by the stewards on their hands and knees, and were well dried, to avoid all unnecessary dampness.

At 9 o’clock each morning, all the passengers except those who were ill or indisposed were requested to vacate their rooms. The stewards then went through them all, giving each such attention as it needed-making beds and sweeping or scrubbing floors. At intervals in the hallways were placed cans to receive waste.

These were not frequent and convenient enough to be used by all in cases of seasickness, but they did afford a place for other waste. If a criticism might be offered on the staterooms, it could only be on the lack of cans to use in case of seasickness.

The stewards were untiring in cleaning up the results of the innumerable cases of illness resulting from the rough sea during the first few days. Many of them provided such cans as were available for this disposition.

Each section was in the distinct charge of a steward, who was held strictly responsible for all order in his section. A steward was always on duty in the hallways, both day and night, and lights burned all night in the passageways.

Men, women, and families were assigned each to separate sections. The capacity of steerage passengers is 2,200. Staterooms are provided for 1,600. The two sleeping sections or compartments previously excepted from the arrangement just described contained about 300 berths each.

When the steerage is full, these two rooms are used as sleeping quarters for men. The berths are constructed and supplied precisely like those in the staterooms.

There were numerous toilet rooms, usually containing five basins each, with a faucet of running water and five toilets. The basins were of the conventional shape and size and were supplied each with a stopper that could be applied to retain water in the basin or removed to allow its escape.

There was always an abundance of soap, and large roller towels were supplied frequently enough to ensure the presence of clean ones at all times.

The floors in these rooms were of tile. These were practically always in a fit condition for use. Only when an accident occurred, occasioned by a leak in some pipe, was the floor wet, and this was remedied as soon as discovered.

The toilet rooms were all located on the main deck and as much as possible immediately at the head of stairs leading up from the sleeping quarters.

In no instance was it necessary to cross the open deck to reach a toilet room, and in many cases, it was not even necessary to cross a passageway other than the one on which the stateroom opened.

Since there were less than 250 passengers in the steerage, not nearly all the steerage quarters were in use. However, enough toilet rooms were open to avoid all crowding.

The toilet and staterooms of the men were so completely separated from those of the women that there was no possibility of mistaking them or using them in common. The supervision in this respect was particularly strict; men were positively kept out of the women’s quarters.

There were four large dining rooms for the third class, two on the main deck and two on the deck below. Only the two on the main deck were needed on this trip, and even these were only about half full each.

The one was used by the men passengers, the other by the women and families. The two were side by side and were served from one pantry, located between the two.

Long tables were seating from ten to fourteen persons. At meals, these were covered with white cloths, and each place was set with a thoroughly good knife, fork, and spoon. Bread, salt, pepper, and mustard were arranged all along the center of the table. Soup and meat were served from the pantry.

Vegetables preserves, pickles, and sugar were placed at either end of the table in large dishes, and each passenger could serve himself. Each table was in charge of one steward, who laid the cover, served, and attended to the wants of those there seated.

The service and attention were real and all that could be asked. The food was of very fair quality and abundant. Absolutely everything served was such as might be eaten without hesitation b anyone.

The preserves served with each breakfast and the fresh fruits, apples, and oranges, given out several times at dinner were of exceptional quality and would have made endurable, meals of much poorer quality.

Coffee, tea, and hot water could be had by women and children at almost all hours of the day from the pantry.

A bar opening on the passageway near the entrance to the men’s dining room afforded stout, ginger ale, soda water, and smokers’ necessities. This received some patronage but was not particularly popular.

Although the set of notices everywhere posted forbade the sale of all provisions by any of the crew, there were some such indirect dealings. Some passengers appeared on deck continually with apples and oranges when these had not been given out at the table.

Others, who were ill, complained they could eat nothing but fruit and that that was not available. It proved that those who could speak English or give tips to the right persons were abundantly supplied with fruit.

Nothing, however, was openly offered for sale except at the bar. The total seating capacity in the dining rooms of the steerage on the ______ is about 1,100. However, even when the steerage is full, all passengers are served at the table, so I was told. In that case, there are two sittings for each meal.

The Hebrew steerage passengers were looked after by a Hebrew who is employed by the company as a cook and is at the same time appointed by Rabbi ______ as guardian of such passengers. This particular man told me that he is a pioneer in this work.

He was the first to receive such an appointment. He must see that all Jewish passengers are assigned sleeping quarters that are as comfortable and good as any; to see that kosher food is provided and to prepare it. He has done duty on most of the ships of the ______ Line.

On each, he has instituted this system of caring for the Hebrews and then has left it to be looked after by some successor. An interpreter who spoke English, Swedish, Norwegian, and some German was on board to serve when needed.

He was, however, not at all conscientious in the performance of any duties and evidently not very capable. His price for granting privileges, performing favors, and overlooking abuses was a mug of stout.

I know him to have openly asked one passenger for such a treat and, judging from the number of gifts he received and the reputation given him by others of the crew, he did not hesitate to solicit free drinks from everyone. He was generally present in the dining room during meals, though he did nothing.

To young women passengers, his manner could be most friendly and gracious. To others, he was positively rude. He made most disparaging remarks about a German who merely refused to buy favor with drinks. A matron or stewardess performed necessary services for the sick. She brought food to those who were unable to go to the dining room.

At the table, she gave out milk to the children and served bouillon to women and children during the forenoon. She went the rounds of the sick at least three times a day to inquire after their needs and was patient enough in waiting on them. She could be even more obliging when her palm was crossed with a coin.

Only one serious complaint about her was heard during the journey. A group of Jewish women who occupied staterooms at an extreme end of the second deck below the main deck were ill and unable to attend meals.

There were no men in their immediate party to bring them food, and some fellow travelers who would have performed this kindness were not admitted to the women’s quarters.

The stewardess very evidently had no sympathy for suffering Hebrews and, moreover, the distance to carry the food was somewhat long and no tips seemed forthcoming. The repeated complaints of a Russian friend did secure some attention for the sick Hebrew women from the stewardess.

This same Russian who constituted himself a friend of the slighted Jewish women and had entered several complaints on their behalf insisted that there was a strong anti-Semitic spirit among the crew. However, the number of Jews present was extraordinarily slight, and there was little occasion to witness such a feeling.

For the passing of the many hours of leisure time that are left on the hands of practically every passenger, a large portion of the spar deck in the stern of the vessel was set apart for the steerage.

This was entirely free of machinery and provided ample open space for games, walking, dancing, and other exercises. A part of this deck was partially enclosed and covered, and thus afforded a shelter even during stormy weather.

Comfortable benches were placed at frequent intervals about the deck. These were almost used continuously and gave both pleasure and comfort. The deck was thoroughly scrubbed and hosed off each day and swept as often as waste accumulated on it.

At night, it was well lighted and might be used until 9 o’clock, when the interpreter announced that it was time to go below. On pleasant evenings, when the entertainment was lively, this time was somewhat extended.

There were some musical instruments among the passengers, and there was much singing and dancing after the first few rough days were over.

For those with whom, for various reasons, the open deck did not find favor there was access to the dining rooms. The tables when not prepared for meals were covered with red cloths and could be used for games, writing, or any other purpose.

A piano in the women’s dining room found an untiring performer in a German student. Notices of the distance traveled each day were also posted in each of the dining rooms.

A clock, regulated each day, was also placed there. The men might smoke in their own dining room but not in the other.

Three sets of notices were framed and hung at the entrance to every section of the steerage. One of these was a set of regulations for the conduct of third-class passengers, the other was section 7 of passenger act regulating the carriage of passengers at sea.

The third notice informed passengers that valuables might be deposited with the purser. Each announcement was given in several languages. Those used were English, German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Russian.

Such rules and regulations as were posted were well enforced. The two daily inspections that were scheduled—one at 10.30 am, the other at 9 pm—actually did take place, and seemed intended to discover any abuses or neglect that might exist. Where smoking was forbidden, it was positively not allowed.

The quarters of the crew were in an entirely different part of the steamer. The duties of the stewards and others of the crew finished, they were not to be found taking their leisure among the passengers.

Except for a steward who occasionally ran up on the open deck for a few breaths of fresh air, the crew did not mingle in the least with the passengers.

A day in the steerage began with the ringing of the rising bell at 6.30 a. m. At 7 am the bell announced breakfast. When the meal was finished, the passengers who could take their wraps and proceed to the open deck or to the wide passageways on the main deck. Meanwhile, the stewards cleaned the staterooms and scrubbed the floor of the dining room.

The morning inspection took place, and about 10 am we were again allowed everywhere below. At 11 o’clock, the women received bouillon; at noon, we had dinner.

The afternoon was again spent for the most part on the open or spar deck and in the dining rooms. Supper at 5 marked another interval. Yet there was a general withdrawal to the upper deck, where during the evening there was much singing, dancing, walking, and merrymaking generally. A crowd of Scandinavians frequently played children s ring games for pastime.

In New York, an officer of the customs service came on board, also a physician. The customs official passed through the steerage quarters, making some observations.

The physician reviewed the passengers. The inspections and a short stay at Ellis Island presented practically nothing new. When the inspector learned from the "manifest sheet" that I had been in the country before, he put no further questions than those as to address and amount of money in my possession.

The telegraph agent in the room below was not soliciting telegrams as actively as on my previous landing. The commissary clerks were likewise far less insistent in offering for sale the provision boxes.

My ticket to Baltimore was this time on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. We were transported to Jersey City by the usual small ferryboats. The Baltimore and Ohio waiting room for immigrants was less dingy than that of the Pennsylvania line, and the officials in charge seemed more humane.

At first, we were told that the immigrant train would leave at 8 pm, but report later changed this to 1.30 am. Knowing that there were several regular trains to Baltimore before this time, I requested to be allowed to pay the difference and go by regular train. My immigrant ticket had cost $4.60. By spending 25 cents more, I was allowed to ride in the smoker of a regular train.

Return to Top of Page

Steerage Definition, Conditions, and the Immigrant Journey
GG Archives

Copyright © 2000- Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives. All rights reserved. See Terms of Use.