Conditions in Steerage - Then and Now - 1913
The Beds in the Men's Section of Steerage. The Home Missionary, January 1908. GGA Image ID # 14680e02ec
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 in which these people meet beggar description and the official picture that has been painted of it is so startling that one could scarcely accept it 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 immigration reached a very low ebb. The Commission is careful to tell us that immigration officials obtained the information when travel was at its lightest and the steerage at its best.
Excluded Immigrants About To Be Deported From Ellis Island. GGA Image ID # 1d99ea83b9
Three kinds of steerage are now recognized —the old, the new, and the combination. The old brings the bulk of our immigration from southern and eastern Europe. It is unspeakably bad.
The new type of steerage brings the bulk of the immigrants from northwestern Europe, which is all that one can desire. 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 between decency and indecency, between a chamber of horrors like the Black Hole of Calcutta and comfortable quarters.
The Proper Way to Serve Meals in the Steerage -- Dining Room on Another Steamship Line -- The Ideal Condition. The Home Missionary, March 1908. GGA Image ID # 146932660b
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 steerage traveling as a single Bohemian peasant woman. Before sailing, all steerage passengers were supposed to be vaccinated.
Horrors of the Emigrant Ship -- Scene in the Hold of the "James Foster, Jr." - 1869. Harper's Weekly, 27 March 1869. GGA Image ID # 145fe7f646
The women and men were vaccinated in separate rooms. An inspection card stamped by the U. S. Consulate, certifying that they had been vaccinated, was given to them. In her case, not one of the three scratches had punctured the skin. She found that others had fared the same way.
She describes the compartment in the steerage for single women as better than those for other steerage passengers. The bunks were arranged in tiers, each having a straw mattress covered with a slip sheet.
It was practically impossible to undress appropriately for retiring because of a lack of privacy and insufficient covering. A small blanket was the only covering provided. There was no pillow; a life preserver under the head of the mattress was the substitute.
Immigrants Driven Out from the Steerage While Between-Deck Cleaning Takes Place. The Home Missionary, February 1908. GGA Image ID # 146af9d5d8
When the steerage is full, each passenger's private space is limited to their bunk alone. It must serve him at once as sleeping quarters, clothes closets, baggage room, kitchen, pantry, and whatnot.
There is no hook upon which to hang clothes, a receptacle for refuse, a cuspidor, or convenience for use in times of seasickness.
There were two washrooms used indiscriminately by men and women. One was 7 by 9 feet, with ten cold water faucets along two of the walls. The washbasins resembled in size and shape the ordinary stationary laundry tub.
A Mother's Effort to Keep Her Children Clean in the Steerage. The Home Missionary, February 1908. GGA Image ID # 146888061b
They had to serve as wash basins, dishpans, and 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 seawater, seldom hot, from one faucet.
Many of the passengers made heroic efforts to keep clean. It was forbidden to bring water into the sleeping compartments for washing purposes. Still, even when the women rose early and carried in a bit of water in the soup pails, they were brutally driven out by the stewards as soon as they were discovered.
The law requires that each immigrant be furnished with all the necessary eating utensils. They are each equipped with a workingman's dinner pail, a spoon, and a fork.
Each immigrant must care for their pail and, as a rule, has nothing but cold salt water to wash it throughout the trip. The buckets 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 be furnished for the passengers to eat upon. Still, these are only long single-board affairs, usually in a part of a steerage sleeping compartment not used on that voyage for bunks.
All 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 Deck of Ocean Liner as Seen by a Lady of the First Cabin. The Fellowship of the Steerage Makes Good Comrades, Where no Barriers Exist and Introductions are Neither Possible nor Necessary. From Stergraph. Copyright © 1905 by Underwood & Underwood, NY. GGA Image ID # 146b639daa
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 served were terrible in quality and preparation, and the crew threw more than half of the food waste 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.
The Result of Having No Dining Room Accommodations in Steerage. The Home Missionary, January 1908. GGA Image ID # 1468505274
Not one young woman in the steerage escaped an attack. The investigator herself was among these, yet the steerage officials did not try 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 general lawlessness and total disrespect for women, which naturally demoralizes the women after a time. The government investigator says that female steerage passengers passed their life during those twelve days in disorder and in surroundings that offended every sense.
Jewish Steerage Passengers Engage in a Food Strike by Piling Their Dinner on the Deck in Protest Against Its Poor Quality. The Home Missionary, February 1908. GGA Image ID # 1468968f45
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
Inspectors from the Board of Trade Examine the Sleeping Accommodations for Steerage Passengers. The Syren & Shipping Illustrated, 24 June 1908. GGA Image ID # 147366c336
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 are kept scrupulously clean, and ample toilet facilities, separate for the sexes, are provided.
It's where clean towels, napkins, and fresh bed linen are furnished, adequate food is supplied, and the wants of the sick and the children have been looked after.
It's where women traveling alone are safe and not the prey of crew and male passengers. 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.
Two Young Women in Steerage the Writer tried to Protect. The Home Missionary, March 1908. GGA Image ID # 146ad32c09
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 a significant portion of its prospective citizens to make their voyage to America under conditions the Immigration Commission says are typical of the old steerage no one can positively foretell? Still, the indications are that these disclosures will prompt Congress action. The travels of the agents of the Commission in the steerage have been the first time the government ever has studied the steerage question first-hand.
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, and 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. This fact is proved by those steamship lines 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).