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. Still, there is a vast difference between the Piedmontese and Lombards and the Neapolitans and Sicilians.

These first two are clean 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 significant part, brought up to 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. France has Algeria as 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 are divided into ten, and the menu is as follows:

A small glass of spirits, generally known as "Taffia," is distributed early in the morning. The women and children have well-made condensed milk given to 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 the vegetables, all the bread the people can eat, and a quarter of a liter of good red wine for each one.

At 5 P.M., dinner is served, and there is a dish of meat, one of the 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 good 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. A mother is taking care of her children, the boy taking solid comfort out of a thick slice of bread-and-butter, and an older man on the bench, 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 are of the same nationality.

The waiter comes in with a large tin and a kettle full of soup in one hand.

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

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

It may be insisted upon that onboard these steamers, the physical condition of these people on arrival is, for the significant 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 perfect, nine days or less passed in the steerage of one of these French steamers brings no actual discomfort. 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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