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Steerage - Immigrant Journeys to Their New Home

Steerage Passengers on the Deck of an Ocean Liner circa Early 1900s.

Steerage Passengers on the Deck of an Ocean Liner circa Early 1900s. Photograph from a Postcard. GGA Image ID # 154782ffc3

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.

Pre World War 1 Conditions

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.

Westbound versus Eastbound Voyages in Steerage

The steerage from Liverpool to New York is one thing, the steerage from New York to Liverpool another. It is on the first-named voyage that one sees the wretched creatures huddling in groups like animals, shivering in abject terror at the motion of the water, croaking hoarsely in the obscure patois of remote European villages, and mumbling prayers at impromptu shrines.

Special Collections Related to Steerage

1895 Dutch Steerage Passage Contract on the Cunard Line for a German Immigrant. The Voyage Took Him from Rotterdam to New York via Liverpool.

Passage Contracts / Tickets / Receipts

The GG Archives has an assortment of steerage class contracts, steamship tickets, and agent receipts that can assist you in identifying the type of document you have. These can also be used to illustrate your family history book as an example of what the contract may have looked like.

Inspection Card - White Star Line Germanic - 1902 Hans Johansen Rosholt

Inspection Cards For Immigrants and Steerage Passengers

The Steerage Passenger collected a number of documents on their way to the new world. The GG Archives has a number of documents including Inspection Cards for Immigrants and Steerage Passengers, provided to steerage passengers and retained by them for identification through to their final destination.

1894-08-28 Voyage of the SS Lahn

Steerage Passenger Lists

Steerage souvenir passenger lists are exceedingly rare. With few exceptions, most steamship lines did not produce passenger lists for steerage passengers, as immigrants were unlikely to be a regular customer, nor was there any demand for a souvenir of a voyage that was likely far less than pleasant.

Horrors of the Emigrant Ship -- Scene in the Hold of the "James Foster, Jr." - 1869.

Steerage (Immigrant Journeys) Illustrations Library

Books, brochures, articles, and other ephemera provided many illustrations of the conditions and experiences of immigrants traveling in steerage from the late 1800s through World War I. Students and Family Historians are welcome to use these illustrations in your reports and family histories.

Steerage Passengers on Deck of Ocean Liner - 11 March 1897.

Steerage (Immigrant Journeys) Image Library

Books, brochures, articles, and other ephemera provided many photographs of the conditions and experiences of immigrants traveling in steerage from the late 1800s through World War I. Students and Family Historians are welcome to use these photographs to illustrate your reports and family histories.

Immigrants Enduring Hardships

  • Their Journey in Steerage
  • Steerage Conditions: An Intractable Problem
The "Yorkshire," an example of a Packet Ship, popular before 1850.

A Voyage in the Steerage of a Packet-Ship - 1832

In company with about forty other Steerage-passengers, the writer embarked at Liverpool on the 28th of March 1832, and on the 4th of May following landed at New York. The first week after leaving Liverpool we made but little progress, being detained by contrary winds; but upon the whole it was called a favorable voyage.

Landing Immigrants at Castle Garden in 1871

Journey In Steerage from Northern Europe - 1871

Various steamship lines are enumerated; with details concerning their management as far as steerage passengers, that is, emigrants, are concerned. The article includes information on Ports of Call and Rates Charged for Steerage.

Sanitary Conditions on Immigrant Ships - 1872

Sanitary Conditions on Immigrant Ships - 1872

As the object of this inquiry is not immediately connected with the physical condition of emigrants on embarkation, but with accommodation given, and treatment received.

A Cunard Liner at the Liverpool Landing Stage.

Cunard Line Steerage Accommodations - 1879

A British reporter takes a voyage on the Cunard Steamship Line in steerage and reports on the horrible conditions endured by immigrants.

Steerage Passengers Terrified by Rough Weather circa 1880.

Steerage Conditions Observed on the Cunard Line - 1881

In the steerage, where the heaving is greatest-that part of the ship often rises out of the water and, of course, goes down again-sickness is prevalent; yet children recover from sickness much sooner than their parents.

The United States Passenger Act of 1882

The United States Passenger Act of 1882

The passenger act, before referred to, affords protection to passengers against overcrowding, makes it obligatory to give them proper and sufficient food, air space, and in many respects promotes their comfort and safety.

Immigrants on Deck of Emigrant Ship as Breakfast Bell Sounds. The Graphic, 1884.

Crossing the Atlantic in Steerage - 1884

The following racy (sic) sketch of the experiences of a steerage passenger (belonging to Montrose), in crossing the Atlantic in an Ocean Liner, will be of interest to many of our readers.

Midvoyage Scenes from the Steerage

The Sham Immigrant Journey in Steerage - 1888

As a record of conditions already dead as the dodo, this honest account of a voyage from Liverpool to New 'York in 1888 is worthy of preservation in more convenient and enduring form than that in which it first appeared.

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

Dinner in the Steerage of a Transatlantic Steamship - 1890

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.

Scene In The Steerage, Ocean Passenger Travel.

Immigrant Journey in Steerage - 1890

Banking in with the Emigrants -- Uninviting Surroundings -- Some of the Noises, Smells, and Other Discomforts the Steerage Affords. The vast majority of immigrants to North America arrived via steerage. These are the conditions found in 1890.

Notice To Booking Agents of the White Star Line - 1892

Stop Booking Steerage Passengers - White Star Line - 1892

Often, steamship companies used flyers such as these to notify agents of changes in rates or announcing that certain classes of passengers for a voyage that is booked full.

RMS Campania of the Cunard Line on the River Mersey circa 1900.

Life in the Steerage on the RMS Campania - 1895

The arrangements for steerage passengers on one of the best ocean steamers, the Campania, are as follows. The steerage quarters, which are situated on the lower deck, are divided into seven different sleeping apartments for the accommodation of some 700 or 800 passengers.

Steerage Passenger on the deck of a steamship.

First-Hand Account of Steerage Conditions - 1898

The lavishly illustrated article provides a historical account of what a transatlantic voyage in steerage was like.

Scenes of the Steerage on the Prinzessin Irene

Immigrants and the Steamship Steerage Rate Wars - 1904

A comprehensive review of the Steerage Rate War between the Hamburg-American Line, Norddeutscher Lloyd, White Star Line, Dominion Line, Allan Line, Anchor Line, Canadian Pacific Railway, and Cunard Line during 1904.

First Cabin Passengers Find Amusement in Watching the Crush of Steerage Passengers below.

Leslie's Magazine Takes A Stand on Immigration - 1904

Every American citizen knows that the American immigration system is faulty. He knows that the designing steamship officials dump the refuse of the world on our shores, despite futile restrictions and laws too easy to evade.

Passengers of Steerage circa 1905

The Fellowship of the Steerage - 1905

The day of embarkation finds an excited crowd with heavy packs and heavier hearts, climbing the gangplank. An uncivil crew directs the bewildered travellers to their quarters, which in the older ships are far too inadequate, and in the newer ships are, if anything, worse.

Mid Voyage Scenes in Steerage.

Adventures In The Steerage - 1906

It can hardly be possible that the fare of those passengers, who are forced to sleep in the dining rooms in full view of the entire ship, is necessary to the profitable running of the ship.

Photo 1705G: Steerage Passengers Taking Life Easy On An Clean Liner circa 1905 (3b06393u LOC)

Improvements in Conditions in Steerage Class and Increased Head Tax - 1907

With the improvement in the steerage, which has taken place within the last few years, many companies have dropped the name steerage and now designate it as the "third class."

New Steerage Regulations - 1907

New Steerage Regulations - 1907

The effect of Section 42 of the new Immigration Act which has just passed both branches of Congress is an increase after Jan. 1, 1909, by nearly 25 percent in the minimum space allowed for each steerage passenger on ocean steamers coming from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and South America.

The Steerage, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz 1907

The Steerage: A Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz - 1907

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.

Preparing to Serve a Meal to Steerage Passengers on the Lahn from the Food-tanks and Bread-baskets.

Urgency of Improved Steerage Conditions - 1907

At the present time, the treatment of men, women, and children in the steerage of certain ships coming from German, Mediterranean and Adriatic ports is far below this standard.

Section 42 of Passenger Act As Amended, 1908

Section 42 of Passenger Act As Amended, 1908

Section 42 of the new immigration law was approved on February 20,1907, the purpose of which is to provide greater air space and better accommodations for immigrants. Section 42 does not take effect till January 1, 1909.

Women in Steerage on Ocean Liner early 1900s

Treatment of Women in Steerage - 1909

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

Scenes of the Steerage - 1908.

Steerage Report Stirs Ocean Steamship Lines – 1909

London Agents Call the U. S. Commission's Findings "Absurd" and "False." DENY MISTREATING ALIENS. The Immigration Commissioner Here Thinks Some of the Charges May Be Exaggerated.

Girls Dancing in Steerage

Abuses Among Immigrant Passengers in Steerage - 1910

Abuses among immigrant passengers who come to this country through the ports of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, have recently been the subject of a "silent" inspection by immigrant officers connected with the department of commerce and labor.

Steerage Passenger On the Deck of a Steamship

Steerage Conditions - 1911

A Report of the Immigration Commission - Excellent summary of the conditions and history of steerage.

Steerage Passengers (1905)

Steerage Conditions and Related Regulations - 1911

The report of the Immigration Commission on steerage conditions resulted from investigations by agents of the Commission who, in the guise of immigrants, traveled in the steerage of 12 trans-Atlantic ships.

Third Class / Steerage Four-Berth Room. 1912 Brochure RMS Franconia and Laconia - Cunard Line.

Changes to Steerage Conditions on Steamships - 1912

Emigrants who came to America in sailing vessels previous to the sixties of the last century, can never forget the steerage conditions under which they came.

British steamer Orteric

Worse Case of Steerage Passenger Abuse - 1912

Among her 1,242 steerage passengers, there were in the eight weeks of her voyage 58 deaths, 57 were children; the births numbered 14. Fines were levied against the steamship owners.

Racks of Beds in the Men's Section of Steerage

Conditions in Steerage - Then and Now - 1913

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.

Steerage Passengers Gathering near the Fantail.

The Cotterill Report on Steerage Conditions - 1913

Ernest C. Cotterill Reports on the Bad State of Affairs Among the Immigrants on Some Ships and Offers Recommendations for Improvement of Conditions at the time of the Titanic.

Examining Steerage Sleeping Accommodations in 1908

A Steerage Experience for Five Dollars - 1922

“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 — five dollars.”


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