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Steerage Definition, Conditions, Immigrant Journey

Steerage Passengers on Deck

On steamships, Steerage (or Tween Decks) and Third Class was the default choice of many immigrants from the 1850s through the 1930s. The conditions varied by steamship line and were likely to be relatively harsh compared to modern standards.

The expression "steerage passenger" means all passengers except cabin passengers, and persons shall not be deemed cabin passengers unless the space allotted to their exclusive use is in the proportion of at least thirty-six clear superficial feet to each passenger.[1]

Early steerage often housed hundreds of immigrants in one large room, often converted from cargo holds to hold what might have been described as human cattle. These potential new citizens were emigrants from many countries around the world who endured a journey unlike any other.

Steerage Passengers – Enduring Hardships

Steerage Passengers on the Kaiser Wilhelm.

“THE STEERAGE” a 1907 photograph by Alfred Stieglitz taken on board the Kaiser Wilhelm II

Steerage Conditions: An Intractable Problem

Examining Steerage Sleeping Accommodations in 1908

Examining Steerage Sleeping Accommodations in 1908

A Steerage Experience for Five Dollars

“There was keen competition at this time.” Said Mr. Williams, “and I have known steerage passage to America to be given for a single sovereign—live dollars.”

The food was excellent in those days on the Atlantic liners, but very poor in the Mediterranean service, according to Mr. Williams.

He ascribed this to the fact that the American steamers were victualed by the company, while those plying through the Straits of Gibraltar were victualed by the captain, who received an appropriate allowance—and, apparently, did not expend it as judiciously as he might have done.

Mr. Mclver, one of the directors in the early days of the Cunard Line, happened to be at Malta on one occasion when there was a great deal of complaining going on. He instituted an inquiry, and things were soon put right.

It was while Mr. Williams was serving in the Algeria, in the “seventies,” that she burst a boiler tube one day out from Queenstown, westbound. He was then boilermakers mate, and it fell to his lot to plug up the burst tube.

To do this he had to crawl through the furnace into the smoke-box, and, the fire having only just been drawn, no great imagination is required to picture his condition when he had finished the job.

He had to be carried on deck, dosed with grog and put to bed for twenty-four hours. On the ship’s arrival in New York, the “Chief” sent for Mr. Williams and gave him a sovereign and a day off in which to spend it.

 “This,” concluded the veteran “shows that the Cunard Line knew how to treat its men, even in those long-departed days!”

Reported by the Shipping Magazine: Marine Transportation, Construction, Equipment, and Supplies, New York: Shipping Publishing Co, Volume 15, No. 5, March 10, 1922, p.14.


IN 1907 Alfred Stieglitz, in the photograph (above) which we publish in the present number of “291 " under the title “The Steerage,” obtained the verification of a fact.

The desire of modern plastic expression has been to create for itself an objectivity. The task accomplished by Stieglitz's photography has been to make objectivity understood, for it has given it the true importance of a natural fact.

He has surpassed “Art,”-that idiotic word which during centuries has dominated everything, and which in reality has only expressed a mental state, a state of unconsciousness. “Art" has become an esoteric God who had for his sole prophet “Conventional Beauty.”

“Art" and “Conventional Beauty” together have exercised a tyranny. It is surely due in great part to photography that we have finally freed ourselves from that spell. We have escaped from the fetishism into which that word “Art" had hypnotized us, making us insensitive to the respective realities of our inner selves, and of the outer world.

I speak of that photography in which the genius of man leaves to the machine its full power of expression. For it is only thus that we can reach a comprehension of pure activity. Objective truth takes precedence over Stieglitz in his work.

By means of a machine he shows us the outer life. Stieglitz comprises the history of photography in the United States. “Camera Work” bears witness to this.

If he has given sometimes too much importance to the intellectual juggleries of others in mechanical representation, he has unwaveringly put into practice the principle of Boileau, “Nothing is beautiful but the truthful.” And in seeking truth he has acted as a real creator.

If modern plastic expression has made us conceive the possibility of creating new forms to express new sentiments, photography in the hands of Stieglitz has succeeded in determining the objectivity of form, that is to say, in obtaining the initial condition of the phenomena of form; phenomena which, under the domain of human thought, give birth to emotions, sensations and ideas— “291.”

De Zayas, M., “The Steerage” in American Photography: Incorporating Popular Photography and The Photographic Times, Boston: American Photographic Publishing Company, Vol. X, No. 3, March 1916, p. 120-121

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