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Conditions in Steerage - Then and Now

Racks of Beds in the Men's Section of Steerage

Racks of Beds in the Mens Section of Steerage

It is doubtful if anywhere else in the entire civilized world can such vile and disgraceful treatment of human beings in masses be found as on the majority of the steamships which carry our immigrants to us.

The conditions which these people meet beggar description, and the official picture that has been painted of it is so startling that it could scarcely be accepted did it not find corroboration in every unofficial photo of the steerage that our best word-artists have painted.

One stands amazed that greed for gold could lead men to subject their fellow-beings to such conditions as the steerage passenger endures, according to the revelations of the Immigration Commission.

The picture it draws is a careful one. The data were obtained by special agents traveling as steerage passengers on twelve transatlantic liners and from cabin observations of the steerage on two others.

This was done in 1908 when the immigration reached a very low ebb. The Commission is careful to tell us that the information was obtained at a time when travel was at its lightest and the steerage at its best.

Excluded Immigrants About To Be Deported From Ellis Island

Excluded Immigrants About To Be Deported From Ellis Island

Three kinds of steerage are now recognized —the old, the new, and the combination of the two. The old brings the bulk of our immigration from southern and eastern Europe. It is unspeakably bad.

The new brings the bulk of the immigrants from northwestern Europe, and it is all that can be desired. Between the two classes of ships are those which are being transformed from the old to the new.

On these, a difference of $7.50 per ticket is the difference between decency and indecency, between a chamber of horrors like the Black Hole of Calcutta and comfortable quarters.

Early Steerage Dining Room with Tables and Benches

Early Steerage Dining Room with Tables and Benches

Heretofore the steamship companies have apologized for the filthy conditions of the old steerage by saying the immigrants were a piggish lot of people who would render the first cabin as disgusting as the steerage if they were permitted; they also asserted that it was impossible to better conditions as long as " such cattle " peopled the steerage.

But now we find, in the ship that has part new and part old steerage accommodations, that the immigrant in the steerage is not different from the remainder of humanity—he will be reasonably clean if he has a reasonable chance.

The Commission concludes that "there is no reason why the disgusting and demoralizing conditions that have generally prevailed in the steerage of immigrant ships should continue."

The Old Style Steerage Conditions

Let us glance at the Commission's typical picture of the old steerage. The investigator who painted it was a woman, who made the twelve-day voyage in the steerage traveling as a single Bohemian peasant woman. Before sailing all steerage passengers were supposed to be vaccinated.

Scene in the Hold of the "James Foster, Jr."

Horrors of the Emigrant Ship - Scene in the Hold of the "James Foster, Jr." - Harper's Weekly 27 March 1869

The women and men were vaccinated in separate rooms and an inspection card stamped by the U. S. Consulate, certifying that they had been vaccinated, was given them. In her case, not one of the three scratches had punctured the skin. She found that others had fared the same way.

The compartment in the steerage for single women she describes as better than those for other steerage passengers. The bunks were arranged in tiers, each having a straw mattress covered with a slip sheet.

A small blanket was the only covering provided. There was no pillow; a life-preserver under the head of the mattress was the substitute. It was practically impossible to undress appropriately for retiring, because of lack of privacy and insufficient covering.

Immigrants Driven from Steerage While the Between Deck Cleaning Takes Place

Immigrants Driven from Steerage While the Between Deck Cleaning Takes Place

When the steerage is full, each passenger's private space is limited to his bunk alone. It must serve him at once as sleeping quarters, clothes closet, baggage-room, kitchen, pantry, and what not.

There is not a hook upon which to hang clothes, not a receptacle for refuse, not a cuspidor, and no convenience for use in times of seasickness.

There were two washrooms, used indi scriminately by men and women. One of them was 7 by 9 feet, with ten faucets of cold water along two of the walls. The wash-basins resembled in size and shape the ordinary stationary laundry tub.

Mother in Steerage Attempts to Keep Her Children Clean

Mother in Steerage Attempts to Keep Her Children Clean

They had to serve as wash-basins, dishpans, laundry-tubs. In the other room, the equipment was identical, except that there was a hot-water spigot that did not work, and a four-foot trough for dish-washing, with sea water, seldom hot, from one spigot.

Many of the passengers made heroic efforts to keep clean. It was forbidden to bring water into the sleeping compartments for washing purposes, but even when the women rose early and carried in a little water in the soup-pails, as soon as they were discovered, they were brutally driven out by the stewards.

The law requires that each immigrant shall be furnished with all the eating utensils necessary. They are each furnished with a workingman's dinner-pail, a spoon, and a fork.

Each immigrant must care for his own pail, and as a rule, has nothing but cold salt water with which to wash it throughout the entire trip. The pails are so cheap that usually the salt water rusts them and makes them unfit to use before a port is reached.

Again the law requires that tables shall be furnished for the passengers to eat upon, but these are only long single board affairs usually in a part of a steerage sleeping compartment not used on that voyage for bunks.

All of the foul smells from the sleeping compartments come unobstructed into these improvised dining-rooms and drive the passengers to the open deck.

Steerage Passengers on the Deck of a Steamship in 1905 as seen by First Cabin Passengers

Steerage Passengers on the Deck of a Steamship in 1905 as seen by First Cabin Passengers - Underwood & Underwood NY

The investigator says that one morning she wished to see if it were possible for a woman to rise and dress without the presence of men onlookers.

She waited her chance, and although the breakfast bell rang at 6.55 and she was ready for a meal at 7.15, the steward warned her not to come so late again and gave her only a piece of bread.

The meals that were served were bad in quality and preparation, and more than half of the food waste thrown into the sea. The daily inspection of the immigrants was a farce.

They were assembled and had their inspection tickets punched six times, covering six days. From the time the women went on board until they landed, they did not have one moment's privacy.

Immigrants Eating a Meal in Steerage

Immigrants Eating a Meal in Steerage

Not one young woman in the steerage escaped an attack. The investigator herself was among these, and yet the steerage officials made no effort to punish the offenders.

ome resisted for a time and then weakened; some fought with all their physical strength. Two refined Polish girls fought with pins and teeth.

The atmosphere is described as one of general lawlessness and total disrespect for women, which naturally demoralized the women after a time. Summing up, the government investigator says that her life during those twelve days was passed in disorder and in surroundings that offended every sense.

Steerage Passengers Pile Dinner on Deck in Protest of the Bad Food

Steerage Passengers Pile Dinner on Deck in Protest of the Bad Food

The vile language of the men, the screams of the women defending themselves, the crying of the children wretched because of their surroundings, and practically every sound that reached the ear, irritated beyond endurance.

There was no sight before which the eye did not prefer to close. Every impression was offensive. Worse than this was the general air of immorality due almost wholly to the improper, indecent, forced mingling of men and women, who were total strangers and often did not understand a word of the same language.

Current Conditions of Steerage

Examining Steerage Sleeping Accommodations in 1908

Examining Steerage Sleeping Accommodations in 1908

Contrast this terrible picture of conditions that cry to heaven for remedy, conditions that apply on steamships carrying perhaps two-thirds of our immigrants.

Contrast it with the picture of the new steerage, where the people are given staterooms, where practically everything is on a simplified second-cabin basis; the floors kept scrupulously clean, ample toilet facilities, separate for the sexes, are provided.

It's where clean towels, clean napkins, and fresh bed linen are furnished, where adequate food is supplied, where the wants of the sick and the children are looked after.

It's where women traveling alone are safe and not the prey of both crew and male passengers, and the difference is astonishing—and yet the difference in price on ships that are only partially converted from the old to the new steerage is only $7.50.

Pretty Immigrant Women in Steerage

Pretty Immigrant Women in Steerage

Note For Teachers: Ask students if photographs of steerage passengers can be biased. For example, if an author is anti-immigration, would they illustrate their article with the beautiful immigrants or the ugliest?

How long the United States will permit the significant portion of its prospective citizens to make their voyage to America under such conditions as the Immigration Commission says are typical of the old steerage no one can positively foretell, but the indications are that these disclosures will result in prompt action by Congress. The travels of the agents of the Commission in the steerage seem to have been the first time that the government ever has studied the steerage question in a first-hand way.

Perhaps ten million American immigrants have received such treatment as the Immigration Commission found to exist—and millions of them fared worse than that.

Of course, there is the defense based on the assumption that each immigrant is a free agent; that he comes of his own accord; that he is content because he will cross again and again under the same circumstances. But in this day of enlightenment few persons not wholly blinded by greed will justify on any grounds the cruelty, the indecency, the utter horror of the old steerage. The fact is proved by those steamship lines that are installing the new type of steerage accommodations.

Haskin, Frederic J., "Chapter 8, The Steerage Passenger." in The Immigrant, An Asset and a Liability, New York, 1913

This book is a reproduction of a series of articles which were published in a large list of newspapers throughout the United States. The material was taken largely from the exhaustive reports on immigration made by the federal government. Originally presented as the author's thesis (doctoral--University of London).

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