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Dinner in the Steerage of a Transatlantic Steamship - 1890

Dinner is Being Served to Steerage Passengers on a French Line Steamship circa 1890.

Dinner is Being Served to Steerage Passengers on a French Line Steamship circa 1890. Note the Racks of Bunk Beds in the Background where the Steerage Passengers Slept. Harper's Weekly Supplement, 22 November 1890. GGA Image ID # 145c2d6def

Sorting out the grades and qualities of those who seek the United States, coming from abroad, it is to be asserted that this human freight as found in the vessels of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique is of a good kind.

Today the bulk of this steerage is made up of Italians, but there is a wide difference between the Piedmontese and Lombards and the Neapolitans and Sicilians.

These first two are cleanly and not illiterate, and they bring with them some little means. Of the Swiss, they are among the best of our immigrants. They are, for the major part, brought up to a trade, in which they excel, or if agriculturists, are proficient in their calling. They are invariably industrious.

French people do not come in quantity by any steamers, for France has Algeria for an adjacent colony, and Africa is only across the Mediterranean, a day's passage from Marseilles.

On these French steamers the provisions are ample and well cooked. The messes being divided into ten, the menu is as follows:

Early in the morning a small glass of spirits, generally known as "Taffia," is distributed. The women and children have well-made condensed milk given them as a substitute for spirits.

At seven o'clock, A.M., there is an early breakfast of coffee, bread, and butter, without any stint as to bread, which is regular bread, and not ship-biscuit.

At 11 A.M. there is the regulation déjeuner, consisting of soup, a dish of meat, one of vegetables, all the bread the people can eat, and a quarter of a liter of sound red wine for each one.

At 5 P.M. the dinner is served, and there is a dish of meat, one of vegetables, and always stewed fruit of some kind, with another quarter of a liter of wine. This certainly is ample and wholesome.

First-class passengers, accustomed to the excellent food of their cabin table, often speak of the fine odors arising from the cook's galley, where the ragouts and the "haricot de mouton" for the steerage are prepared.

M. de Thulstrup has drawn a neat sketch of a dinner in the steerage in one of these French ships. You can see the nationalities.

To the extreme right, they are people of German origin, and a mother is taking care of her children, the boy taking solid comfort out of a thick slice of bread-and-butter, an old man on the bench, who is eating his soup with a spoon, is the grandfather.

The little girl with the blond plaits ought to be Swiss, as is her mother. He who looks into the bottom of his coffee-cup is a Frenchman, and the graceful figures alongside, of the same nationality.

The waiter comes in with a huge tin in one hand, and with a kettle full of soup in the other.

There is, as Dr. Johnson said of that London brewery, potentiality in a steerage of this kind. It means the future of this country.

No one there present can become President of the United States, for, as we well know, he must be born here; but the two boys Mr. de Thulstrup has put in his illustration may be our future statesmen—Senators or Governors.

Anyhow, it may be insisted upon that onboard of these steamers the physical condition of these people on arrival is, for the major part, excellent. They have been well fed and cared for, and just something more, they have known how to care for themselves.

Save, then, for table manners, which may not be exactly perfect, nine days or less passed in the steerage of one of these French steamers brings no real discomfort; and it has happened that many an American, starting in full feather for a foreign tour, having had his plumage plucked, has been very glad to return home again as a steerage passenger, and without loss of personal respect.

"Dinner in the Steerage of a Transatlantic Steamer," in Harper's Weekly Supplement, New York: Harper & Brothers, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1770, 22 November 1890, p. 920+.

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