US Immigration Report On Steerage Conditions - 1911
Steerage Passengers at the Bow of the SS Frederich der Gross circa 1915. Bain Collection, Library of Congress # 2014707273. GGA Image ID # 145f5b3048
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.
Practically all of the more essential lines engaged in the immigrant-carrying traffic were included in the inquiry, and every type of steerage was studied. The report upon this subject was presented to Congress on December 13, 1909, and printed as Senate Document No. 26, Sixty-first Congress, second session.
It is reprinted here as a part of the Commission’s complete report to the Congress. Miss Anna Herkner, who, as an agent of the Commission, crossed the Atlantic three times as a steerage passenger, prepared the report on steerage conditions.
Introduction to Immigration Commission Report
Prior to the act of 1819, “Regulating passenger ships and vessels,” (Note a) there was no law of the United States for the protection of passengers at sea.
In 1796, Congress, at the instance of States having seaports, passed a law directing revenue officers “to aid in the execution of the quarantine and also in the execution of the health laws of the States.” (Note b)
Again, in 1799, it was decreed by Congress “ that quarantine and other restraints which shall be required and established by the health laws of any State or pursuant thereto, respecting any vessels * * * shall be duly observed by the collectors and other officers of the revenue o the United States.” (Note c)
These laws were intended to protect persons already in the country rather than those journeying to or from it in ships, but the act of 1819, above referred to, was the first national legislative attempt to improve conditions surrounding immigrants during the then long voyage across the Atlantic.
This law limited the number of passengers to be carried and specified the amount and kind of food to be provided. It is of interest also that under this law the recording of data relative to immigration to the United States was first provided for.
The introduction of steam as a motive power in ocean transportation and the enormous increase in the tide of immigration necessitated further legislation relative to the transportation of immigrants, the history of which is told in a special report of the Commission upon that subject.“ (Note d)
The latest general revision of the law upon this subject occurred in 1882, when “An act to regulate the carriage of passengers by sea ” (Note e) was enacted. Section 1 of this act was subsequently amended, (Note f) but otherwise it has remained unchanged.
The unamended act of 1882 was in force when the Immigration C0mmission’s investigation of steerage conditions was made.
There has never before been thorough investigations of steerage conditions by national authority, but such superficial investigations as having been made, and the many nonofficial inquiries as well, have invariably disclosed evil and revolting conditions.
The high percentage of sickness and death, which attended immigration by sea during the sailing-vessel period, has been practically eliminated by reducing the length of time required for the voyage, and perhaps also in part by the greater precautions in this regard taken by steamship companies; but improvements along other lines are much less conspicuous.
The steerage on some ships at the present time is entirely unobjectionable, but both unobjectionable and revolting steerage conditions may and do exist on the same ship.
It is the purpose of this report to show steerage conditions precisely as they were found, but, what is of more importance, it will also show that there is no reason why the disgusting and demoralizing conditions, which have generally prevailed in the steerages of immigrant ships, should continue.
This has been amply demonstrated by experiences of the Commission’s agents, and the Commission believes that the better type of steerage should and can be made general instead of exceptional, as is the case at the present time.
The report on steerage conditions is based on information obtained by special agents of the Immigration Commission traveling as steerage passengers on 12 different trans-Atlantic steamers and on observation of the steerage in 2 others, as well as on ships of every coastwise line carrying immigrants from one United States port to another.
Because the investigation was carried on during the year 1908, when, owing to the industrial depression, immigration was very light, the steerage was seen practically at its best.
Overcrowding with all its attendant evils was absent. What the steerage is when travel is heavy, and all the compartments filled to their entire capacity can readily be understood from what was actually found. In reading this report, then, let it be remembered that not extreme but comparatively favorable conditions are here depicted.
Note a: 1 U. S. Stat. L., p. 54, sec. 4 (Resume from Note a)
Note b: 1 U. S. Stat. L., p. 474 (Resume from Note b)
Note c: 1 U. S. Stat. L., p. 619 (Resume from Note c)
Note d: See Steerage Legislation, 1819-1908. Reports of the Immigration Commission, vol. 40 (Resume from Note d)
Note e: Appendix A (Resume from Note e)
Note f: Appendix B (Resume from Note f)
The Old Steerage - 1911
The Old and New
Transatlantic steamers may be classed in three general subdivisions on the basis of their provision for other than cabin passengers. These are:
- Vessels Having the Ordinary or Old-Type Steerage
- Those Having the New-Type Steerage
- Ships Containing Both Types
To clarify the distinction between these subdivisions, a description of the two types of steerage, old and new, will be given.
The Old Conditions
The old-type steerage is the one whose horrors have been so often described. It is unfortunately still found in a majority of the vessels bringing immigrants to the United States.
It is still the common steerage in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants from their first conceptions of our country and are prepared to receive their first impressions of it.
The universal human needs of space, air, food, sleep, and privacy are recognized to the degree now made compulsory by law. Beyond that, the persons carried are looked upon as so much freight, with mere transportation as their only due. The sleeping quarters are large compartments, accommodating as many as 300 or more persons each.
For assignment to these, passengers are divided into three classes, namely, women without male escorts, men traveling alone, and families.
Each class is housed in a separate compartment, and they are often located in different parts of the vessel. It is generally possible to shut off all communication between them, though this is not always done.
The berths are in two tiers, with an interval of 2 feet and 6 inches of space above each. They consist of an iron framework containing a mattress, a pillow, or more often a life preserver as a substitute, and a blanket. The mattress and the pillow, if there is one, are filled with straw or seaweed.
On some lines, this is renewed every trip. Either colored gingham or coarse white canvas slips cover the mattress and pillow. A piece of iron piping placed at a height where it will separate the bedding is the “partition” between berths. The blankets differ in weight, size, and material on different lines.
On one line of steamers, where the blanket becomes the property of the passenger on leaving, it is far from adequate in size and weight, even in the summer. Generally, the passenger must retire almost fully dressed to keep warm.
Through the entire voyage, from seven to seventeen days, the berths receive no attention from the stewards. The berth, 6 feet long and 2 feet wide and with 24 feet of space above it, is all the space to which the steerage passenger can assert a definite right. To this 30 cubic feet of space, he must, in no small measure, confine himself.
No space is designated for hand baggage. As practically every traveler has some bag or bundle, this must be kept in the berth. It may not even remain on the floor beneath. There are no hooks on which to hang clothing.
Everyone, almost, has some better clothes saved for disembarkation, and some wraps for warmth that are not worn all the time, and these must either be hung about the framework of the berth or stuck away somewhere in it.
At least two large transportation lines furnish the steerage passengers eating utensils and require each one to retain these throughout the voyage. As no repository for them is provided, a corner of each berth must serve that purpose.
Towels and other toilet necessities, which each passenger must furnish for himself, claim more space in the already crowded berths. The floors of these large compartments are generally of wood, but others consist of large sheets of iron were also found.
Sweeping is the only form of cleaning done. Sometimes the process is repeated several times a day. This is particularly true when the litter is the residue of food sold to the passengers by the steward for his own profit.
No sick cans are furnished, and not even large receptacles for waste. The vomit of the seasick is often permitted to remain a long time before being removed. The floors, when iron, are continually damp, and when of wood they reek with foul odor because they are not washed.
Open Deck Areas
Steerage Passengers on the Deck of the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria circa 1906. Bain Collection, Library of Congress # 2014688582. GGA Image ID # 145fcd88e2
The open deck available to the steerage is very limited, and regular separable dining rooms are not included in the construction. The sleeping compartments must, therefore, be the fixed abode of a majority of the passengers.
During days of continuous storms, when the unprotected open deck cannot be used at all, the berths and the passageways between them are the only space where the steerage passenger can pass away the time. When to this minimal space and much filth and stench is added inadequate means of ventilation, the result is almost unendurable.
Its harmful effects on health and morals scarcely need be indicated. Two 12-inch ventilator shafts are required for every 50 persons in every room, but the conditions here are abnormal, and these provisions do not suffice.
The air was found to be invariably unhealthy, even in the higher enclosed decks where hatchways afford further means of ventilation. In many instances persons, after recovering from seasickness, continue to lie in their berths in a sort of stupor, due to breathing air whose oxygen has been mostly replaced by foul gases.
Those passengers who make a practice of staying much on the open deck feel the contrast between the air out of doors and that in the compartments, and consequently find it impossible to remain below long at a time. In two steamers, those who could no longer endure the foul air between decks always filled the open deck long before daylight.
Washrooms and Lavatories
Washrooms and lavatories, separate for men and for women, are required by law, which also states they shall be kept in a “clean and serviceable condition throughout the voyage.”
The indifferent obedience to this provision is responsible for further uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions.
The cheapest possible materials and construction of both washbasins and lavatories secure the smallest possible degree of convenience and make the maintenance of cleanliness extremely difficult where it is attempted at all.
The number of washbasins is invariably by far too few, and the rooms in which they are placed so small as to admit only by crowding as many persons as there are basins.
The only provision for counteracting all the dirt of this kind of travel is cold salt water, with sometimes a single faucet of warm water to an entire washroom.
Also, in some cases, this faucet of warm water is at the same time the only provision for washing dishes. Soap and towels are not furnished.
Floors of both washrooms and water closets are damp and often filthy until the last day of the voyage when they are cleaned in preparation for the inspection at the port of entry. The claim that it is impossible to establish and maintain order in these parts of the immigrant quarters is thus shown to be false.
Regular dining rooms are not a part of the old type of steerage. Such tables and seats as the law says “shall be provided for the use of passengers at regular meals” are never sufficient to seat all the passengers, and no effort to do this is made by systematically repeating the seating arrangements.
Serving Meals to the Passengers in Steerage -- How Not to Do Meals. The Home Missionary, January 1908. GGA Image ID # 146846ccea
In some instances, the tables are little shelves along the wall of a sleeping compartment. Sometimes plain boards set on wooden stools and rough wooden benches placed in the passageways of sleeping compartments are considered compliance with the law.
Again, when a compartment is only partly full, the empty space is called a dining room and is used by all the passengers in common, regardless of what sex uses the rest of the compartment as sleeping quarters.
When traffic is so light that some compartment is entirely unused, its berths are removed and stacked in one end and replaced by rough tables and benches.
This is the amplest provision of dining accommodations ever made in the old type steerage and only occurs when space is not needed for other more profitable use.
Food and Dining
There are two systems of serving the food. In one instance the passengers, each carrying the crude eating utensils given him to use throughout the journey, pass in single file before the three or four stewards who are serving and each receives his rations.
The Result of Having No Dining Room Accommodations in Steerage. The Home Missionary, January 1908. GGA Image ID # 1468505274
Then he finds a place wherever he can to eat them, and later washes his dishes and finds a hiding place for them where they may be safe until the next meal.
Naturally, there is a rush to secure a place in line and afterward a scramble for the single warm-water faucet, which has to serve the needs of hundreds. Between the two, tables and seats are forgotten or they are deliberately deserted for the fresh air of the open deck.
Under the new stem of serving, women and children are given the preference at such tables as there are, the most essential eating utensils are placed by the stewards and then washed by them.
When the bell announces a meal, the stewards form in a line extending to the galley and large tin pans, each containing the food for one table, are passed along until every table is supplied. This constitutes the table service.
The men passengers are even less favored. They are divided into groups of six. Each group receives two large tin pans and tin plates, cups, and cutlery enough for the six; also one ticket for the group.
Each man takes his turn in going with the ticket and the two large pans for the food for the group, and in washing and caring for the dishes afterward. They eat where they can, most frequently on the open deck. Stormy weather leaves no choice but the sleeping compartment.
The food may generally be described as fair in quality and sufficient in quantity, and yet it is neither; fairly good materials are usually spoiled by being wretchedly prepared. Bread, potatoes, meat, and when not old leavings from the first and second galleys, form a reasonably substantial diet.
Coffee is invariably bad, and tea doesn’t count as food with most immigrants. Vegetables, fruits, and pickles form an insignificant part of the diet and are generally of very inferior quality.
The preparation, the manner of serving the food, and disregard of the proportions of the several food elements required by the human body make the food unsatisfying, and therefore insufficient.
This defect and the monotony are relieved by purchases at the canteen by those whose capital will permit. Milk is supplied for small children.
Treating Ill Passengers
Hospitals have long been recognized as indispensable, and so are specially provided in the construction of most passenger-carrying vessels. The equipment varies, but there are always berths and facilities for washing and a latrine closet at hand.
A general aversion to using the hospitals freely is very apparent on some lines. Seasickness does not qualify for admittance. Since this is the most prevalent ailment among the passengers, and not one thing is done for either the comfort or convenience of those suffering from it and confined to their berths.
Since the hospitals are included in the space allotted to the use of steerage passengers, this denial of the hospital to the seasick seems an injustice. On some lines, the hospitals are freely used. A passenger ill in his berth receives only such attention as the mercy and sympathy of his fellow-travelers supplies.
Order and Cleanliness
After what has already been said, it is scarcely necessary to consider the observance of the provision or the maintenance of order and cleanliness in the steerage quarters and among the steerage passengers separately.
Of what practical use could rules and regulations by the captain or master be when their enforcement would be either impossible or without tangible result with the existing accommodations?
The open deck has always been decidedly inadequate in size. The amendment to section 1 of the passenger act of 1882, which went into effect January 1, 1909, provides that henceforth this space shall be 5 superficial feet for every steerage passenger carried.
On one steamer, showers of cinders were a deterrent to the use of the open-air deck for several days. On another, a storm made the use of the open air deck impossible during half the journey. The only seats available were the machinery that filled much of the deck.
Crew Excluded from Passenger Compartments Except while Performing Duties
Section 7 of the law of 1882, which excluded the crew from the compartments occupied by the passengers except when ordered there in the performance of their duties, was found posted in more or less conspicuous places.
There was generally one copy in English and one in the language of the crew. It was never found in all the different languages of the passengers carried, yet they are as much concerned by this regulation as is the crew. And if passengers of one nationality should know it, it is equally essential that all should.
This old-type steerage considered as a whole, it is congestion so intense, so detrimental to health and morals that there is nothing on land to equal it. That people live in it only temporarily is no justification o its existence.
The experience of a single crossing is enough to change bad standards of living to worse. It is an abundant opportunity to weaken the body and implant their germs of disease to develop later.
It is more than a physical and moral test; it is a strain. Admittedly, it is not the introduction to American institutions that will tend to make them respected.
The standard plea that better accommodations cannot be maintained because they would be beyond the appreciation of the emigrant and because they would leave too small a margin of profit carry no weight. Since the desired kind of steerage already exists on some of the lines and is not conducted as either philanthropy or a charity.
The New Steerage
Nothing is striking in what this new-type steerage furnishes. On general lines, it follows the plans of the accommodations for second-cabin passengers.
The one difference is that everything is simpler proportionately to the difference in the cost of passage. Unfortunately, the new type of steerage is to be found only on those lines that carry emigrants from the north of Europe. The number of these has become but a small percent of the total influx.
The competition was the most potent influence that led to the development of this improved type of steerage and established it on the lines where it now exists.
A division, by mutual agreement, of the territory from which the several transportation lines or groups of such lines draw their steerage passengers lessens the possibility of competition as a force for the extension of the new type of steerage to all emigrant-carrying lines.
The legislation, however, may complete what competition began. The new-type steerage may again be subdivided into two classes. The best of these follows the plan of the second-cabin arrangements very closely; the other adheres in some respects to the old-type steerage.
These resemblances are chiefly in the construction of berths and the location and equipment of dining rooms. The two classes will not be considered separately, but the differences in them will be noted.
The segregation of the sexes in the sleeping quarters is observed under the law in the new type of steerage much more carefully than in the other.
Women traveling without male escort descend one hatchway to their part of the deck, men another, and families still another. Enclosed berths or staterooms secure further privacy.
The berths are sometimes precisely like those in the old-type steerage in construction and bedding. The best, however, is built the same as cabin berths.
The bedding was found sometimes less clean than others, but the blankets were always ample. Staterooms contain from two to eight berths. The floor space between the berths is utilized for hand baggage. On some steamers, special provision is made beyond the end of the berths for luggage.
There are hooks for clothes, a seat, a mirror, and sometimes even a stationary washstand and individual towels are furnished. Openings below and above the partition walls permit circulation of air.
Lights near the ceiling in the passageways give light in the staterooms. In some instances, there is an electric bell within easy reach of both upper and lower berths which summons a steward or stewardess in case of need.
On some steamers, stewards are responsible for complete order in the staterooms. They make the berths and sweep or scrub floors, as the occasion requires.
The most important thing is that the small rooms secure a higher degree of privacy and give seclusion to families. On most steamships, some large compartments still remain. Men passengers occupy these when traffic is heavy.
In spite of the less crowded conditions, the air is still bad. Steamers that were models in other respects were found to have air as foul as the worst. The lower the deck, the worse was the air.
Though bearing no odors of filth, it was heavy and oppressive. It gave the general impression of not being changed nearly often enough.
Those who were able to go up on the open deck, and thus experience the difference between fresh air and that below found it impossible to remain between decks long even to sleep. The use of the open-air deck generally began very early in the morning.
Where there are not stationary washstands in the staterooms and their presence is still the exception and not the rule, lavatories separate for the two sexes are provided.
These are generally of a size sufficient to accommodate comfortably even more persons than there are basins. Roller towels are provided, and sometimes even soap.
The basins are of the size and shape most commonly found everywhere. They may be porcelain and cleaned by a steward, or they may be of a coarse metal and receive little care. It is not found impossible to keep the floors dry during the entire journey.
The water closets are of the usual construction—convenient for use and not difficult to maintain in, a serviceable condition. Floors are at all times clean and dry.
Objectionable odors are destroyed by disinfectants. Bathtubs and showers are occasionally provided, though their presence is seldom advertised among the passengers, and a fee is a prerequisite to their use.
Food and Dining Rooms
Regular dining rooms appropriately equipped are included in the ship’s construction. Between meals, these are used as general recreation rooms.
A piano, a clock regulated daily, and a chart showing the ship’s location at sea may be other pieces of evidence of consideration for the comfort of the passengers.
On older vessels, the dining room occupies the center space of a deck, enclosed or entirely open, and with the passage between the staterooms opening directly into it; the tables and benches are of rough boards and movable.
The tables are covered for meals, and the heavy white porcelain dishes and proper cutlery are placed, cleared away, and washed by stewards. They also serve food.
On the newer vessels, the dining rooms are even better. In equipment, they resemble those of the second cabin. The tables and chairs are substantially built and attached to the floor.
The entire width of a deck is occupied. This is sometimes divided into two rooms, one for men, the other for women and families.
Between meals, men may use their side as a smoking room. The floors are washed daily. The desirability of properly eating meals served at tables and away from the sight and odor of berths scarcely needs discussion.
The dining rooms, moreover, increase the comfort of the passengers by providing some sheltered place beside the sleeping quarters in which to pass the waking hours when exposed to the weather on the open deck becomes undesirable.
The food overall is abundant and when adequately prepared Wholesome. It seldom requires reinforcement from private stores or by purchase from the canteen.
The general complaints against the food are that suitable material is often spoiled by poor preparation; that there is no variety and that the food lacks taste.
But there were steamers found where not one of these charges applied. Little children received all required milk. Beef tea and gruel are sometimes served to those who for the time being cannot partake of the usual food.
Hospitals were found following the legal requirements. On the steamers examined there was little occasion for their use. The steerage accommodations were conducive to health, and those who were seasick received all necessary attention in their berths.
Along with the striking difference in living standards between old and new types of steerage goes a vast difference in discipline, service, and general attitude toward the passengers.
One line is now perhaps in a state of transition from the old to the new type of steerage. It has both on some of its steamers. It is significant that the emigrants carried in its two steerages do not look radically different in any way.
It is wholly unworthy of a transportation line that maintains such excellent new-type steerage to be content to still retain on its vessels the infamous old-type steerage.
The replacement of sails by steam and the consequent shortening of the ocean voyage has practically eliminated the problem of a high death rate at sea.
Many of the evils of ocean travel still exist, but they are not long enough continued to produce death. At present, the passing of a passenger on a steamship is the exception and not the rule.
A contagious disease may and does sometimes break out and bring death to some passengers. There are also other instances of death from natural causes, but these are rare and call for no particular study or alarm.
Inspection of Living Quarters
The examination of the steerage quarters by a customs official at our ports of entry to ascertain all the legal requirements have been observed is and in the very nature of things must be merely superficial. The inspector sees the steerage as it is after being prepared for his approval, and not as it was when in actual use.
He does not know enough about the plan of the vessel to make his own inspection, and so he only sees what the steerage steward shows him.
The time devoted to the inspection suffices only for a passing glance at the steerage, and the method-employed does not tend to give any real information, much less to disclose any violations.
These, then, are the forms of steerage that exist at the present time. The evils and advantages of such are not far to seek. The remedies for such atrocities as still exist are known and proven, but it still remains to make them compulsory where they have not been voluntarily adopted.
Recommendations by the Immigration Commission
As the new statute took effect so recently as January 1, and as the “new” steerage, in the opinion of all our investigators, fully complies with all that can be demanded.
The Commission recommends that a statute is immediately enacted providing for the placing of government officials, both men, and women, on vessels carrying third-class and steerage passengers, the expense to be borne by the steamship companies.
The Bureau of Immigration should continue the system inaugurated by the Commission of sending investigators in the steerage in the guise of immigrants at intervals.
In the past, no agent or employee of the bureau has ever crossed the Atlantic in the steerage, so far as the records show. The placing of government officials on the steamers will soon result in the abolition of the “old-style” steerage by legislation if necessary.
Legislation will be careful and comprehensive if based on the report of such officials as to steerage conditions when travel is reasonable, which it was not when the Commission’s investigations were made.
A Typical Old-Style Steerage: An Investigator's Report
While this report is long, a little over 6,000 words, it contains a snapshot of what it was really like crossing the Atlantic in the steerage class in 1908. The text was edited for spelling, grammar, and clarity to improve readability. Portions of the report were "redacted," and a "_____" was inserted to replace the redacted text.
Report of the Investigator
The statements in this report, unless otherwise indicated, are based on actual experiences and observations made during a twelve days’ voyage in the steerage of the ______ [ in the summer of 1908]
I arrived in ____ as a "single woman" in the disguise of a Bohemian peasant, under an assumed name, and with passage engaged in the steerage on the _____.
I called out the name of the agent from whom my ticket was purchased, ______, as directed in the circular sent me, and was approached by a porter, who carried my baggage and led me to ______ office.
From here, we were directed to a lodging house at which Bohemians and Moravians are usually lodged. Here I remained until my vessel sailed. The charges were 3 kroner a day for a clean bed and three meals—-a breakfast of coffee and rolls; a dinner of soup, boiled beef, potatoes, and another vegetable; and a supper of coffee, rye bread, and butter.
Later, on the steamer, other passengers told me of the places at which they had stopped. Some said the board had been much better than was being served on the ____.
Others complained that the landlords had tried to overcharge them, and when they rebelled, that half of the original bill was gladly accepted. No one could tell very definitely where he had lodged.
Each spoke of it as the agent’s, probably because he had been sent there by some clerk in the agent’s office.
During the day it was necessary to present myself at the agent’s office, pay the balance of my passage money, and give specific information about myself.
This consisted of my name, age, occupation, name and address of the people to whom I was going, name and address of nearest relative left behind, amount of money in my possession, nationality, last residence, whether married or single, and whether ever before in America.
Beyond this, no inquiries or investigation were made as to my literacy, my past, the source of my passage money, my morals, or mental condition. My ‘workbook ’ (Note a) which was to serve as my passport out of Austria, a counterfeit with a false and utterly blurred seal, was carefully examined, but no unfavorable criticism was offered.
On the day just before sailing all the steerage passengers who were not American citizens were vaccinated by the physician from the _____ and one other.
The women bared their arms in one room, the men in another. No excuse was sufficient to escape this requirement. However, the skin was not even pierced in any one of the three spots on my arm, and I later found this to be true in the case of many of the other passengers.
The eyes were casually examined by the same physicians. Each "inspection card" was stamped by the United States consulate and also marked ‘vaccinated.’
Sample Inspection Card of an Austrian Emigrant from 1912. Courtesy of the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives. GGA Image ID # 1d8800f929
July 30 we went by train from ______to _____, wherein the waiting room we were classed as "families," "single women" — that is women traveling alone — and "single men," or men traveling alone. Thus subdivided we went on board, each class into a compartment especially assigned to it.
Living and Sleeping Quarters
The compartment provided for single women was in some respects superior to the quarters occupied by the other steerage passengers. It was likewise in the stern of the vessel, but was located on the main deck and had formerly been the second cabin. The others were on the first deck below the main deck.
All the steerage berths were of iron, the framework forming two tiers and having but a low partition between the individual berths. Each bunk contained a mattress filled with straw and covered with a slip made of coarse white canvas, apparently cleaned for the voyage.
There were no pillows. Instead, a life preserver was placed under the mattress at the head in each berth. A short and lightweight white blanket was the only covering provided.
This each passenger might take with him on leaving. It was practically impossible to undress properly for retiring because of insufficient covering and lack of privacy. Many women had pillows from home and used shawls and other clothing for covers.
Other conditions in our compartment were unusually good, owing to the small number of passengers, 36 instead of 194 in this particular section. We were not crowded, and there were better air and fewer odors. The vacant berths could be used as clothes racks and storage space for hand baggage.
Our compartment was subdivided into three sections—one for the German women, which was boarded entirely off from the rest; one for Hebrews; and one for all other creeds and nationalities together.
The partition between these last two was merely a fence, consisting of four horizontal 6-inch boards. This neither kept out odors nor cut off the view.
The single men had their sleeping quarters directly below ours, and adjoining was the compartment for families and partial families—that is, women and children.
In this last section, every one of the 60 beds was occupied, and each passenger had only the 100 cubic feet of space required by law.
The Hebrews were here likewise separated from the others by the same ineffectual fence, consisting of four horizontal boards and the intervening spaces. During the first six days, the entire 60 berths were separated from the rest of the room by a similar fence.
Outside the fence was the so-called dining room, getting all the bedroom smells from these 60 crowded berths. Later the spaces in, above, and below the fence were entirely boarded up.
The floors in all these compartments were of wood. They were swept every morning, and the aisles sprinkled lightly with sand. None of them was washed during the twelve days voyage nor was there any indication that a disinfectant was being used on them. The beds received only such attention as each occupant gave to his own.
When the steerage is full, each passenger’s space is limited to his berth, which then serves as bed, clothes and towel rack, cupboard, and baggage space.
There are no accommodations to encourage the steerage passenger to be clean and orderly. There was no hook on which to hang a garment, no receptacle for refuse, no cuspidor, no cans for use in case of seasickness.
Two washrooms were provided for the use of the steerage. The first morning out, I took special care to inquire for the women’s restroom. One of the crew directed me to a door bearing the sign "Washroom for men." Within were both men and women. Thinking I had been misdirected, I proceeded to the other washroom.
This bore no label and was likewise being used by both sexes. Repeating my inquiry, another of the crew directed me just as the first had done. Evidently, there was no distinction between the men’s and the women’s washrooms.
These were on the main deck and not convenient to any of the sleeping quarters. To use them one had to cross the open-air deck, subject to the public gaze. In the case of the families and men, it was necessary to come upstairs and across the deck to get to both washrooms and toilets.
The one washroom, about 7 by 9 feet, contained 10 faucets of cold salt water, 5 along either of its two walls and as many basins. These resembled in size and shape the usual stationary laundry tub.
Ten persons could scarcely have used this room at one time. The basins were seldom used on account of their great inconvenience and because of the various other services to which they must be put.
To wash out of a laundry tub with only a little water on the bottom is quite tricky, and where so many persons must use so few basins, one cannot take the time to draw so large a basin full of water.
This same basin served as at dishpan for greasy tins, as a laundry tub for soiled handkerchiefs and clothing, and as a basin for shampoos, and without receiving any special cleaning. It was the only receptacle to be found for use in the case of seasickness.
The space indicated to me as the ‘women’s washroom’ contained 6 faucets of cold salt water and basins like those already described. The hot-water faucet did not act.
The sole arrangement for washing dishes in all the steerage was located in the women's washroom. It was a trough about 4 feet long, with a faucet of warm salt water.
This was never hot, and seldom more than lukewarm. Coming up in single-file to wash dishes at the trough would have meant very long waiting for those at the end of the line.
To avoid this, many preferred cold water and washbasins. The steerage stewards also brought dishes here to wash. If there was no privacy in our sleeping quarters, there indeed was none in the washrooms.
Steerage passengers may be filthy, as is often alleged, but considering the total absence of conveniences for keeping clean, this uncleanliness seems but a natural consequence.
Some may really be filthy in their habits, but many make heroic efforts to stay clean. No woman with the smallest degree of modesty, and with no other conveniences than a washroom, used jointly with men, and a faucet of cold salt water can keep clean amidst such surroundings for twelve days and more.
It was forbidden to bring water or washing purposes into the sleeping compartments, nor was there anything in which to carry it. On different occasions, some of the women rose early, brought drinking water in their soup pails, and thus tried to wash themselves adequately, but were driven out when detected by the steward.
Others, resorting to extreme measures, used night chambers, which they carry with them for the children, as washbasins. This was done a great deal when preparation was being made for landing. Even hair was washed with these vessels. No soap and no towels were supplied.
Seeing the sign "Baths" over a door, I inquired if these were for the steerage. The chief steerage steward informed me that this sign no longer meant anything; that when that section had been used by the second cabin, the baths had been there.
"Are there then no baths for the steerage?” I asked. "Oh, yes; in the hospital," he assured me. “Where all the steerage may bathe?" I continued. “They are really only for those in the hospital, but if you can persuade the stewardess to prepare you a bath, I will permit you to have one," he replied.
The toilets for women were six in number—for men about five. They baffle description as much as they did use. Each room or space was exceedingly narrow and short, and instead of a seat, there was an open trough, in front of which was an iron step and back of it a sheet of iron slanting forward. On either side wall was an iron handle.
The toilets were filthy and difficult of use and were apparently not cleaned at all during the first few days. Later in the voyage, they were evidently cleaned every night, but not during the day.
The day of landing, when the inspection was made by the customs official who came on board, the toilets were clean, the floors in both bathrooms and washrooms were dry, and the odor of a disinfectant was noticeable. All these were conditions that did not obtain during the voyage or at any one time.
Each steerage passenger is to be furnished all the eating utensils necessary. These he finds in his berth, and as the blanket, they are in his possession and his care. They consist of a fork, a large spoon, and a combination of workingman's tin lunch pail.
The bottom or pail art is used for soup and frequently as a washbasin; a small tin dish that fits into the top of the container is used for meat and potatoes; a cylindrical projection on the lid is a dish for vegetables or stewed fruits; a tin cup that fits onto this projection is for drinks.
These must serve the passenger throughout the voyage and so are generally hidden away in his berth for safekeeping, there is no other place provided. Each washed his own dishes, and if he wished to use soap and a towel, he must provide his own.
Dishwashing is not an easy job, as there is only one faucet for warm water, and when there is no chance to use this, he has no other choice than to try to get the grease off of his tins with cold salt water.
As the ordinary man doesn’t carry soap and dish towels with him, he has not these aids to proper dishwashing.
He uses his hand towel, if he happens to have one, or his handkerchief, or must let the dishes dry in the sun. The quality of the tin and this method of washing is responsible for the fact that the dishes are soon rusty, and not fit to eat from.
Here, as in the toilet and washrooms, it would require persons of very superior intelligence, skill, and ingenuity to maintain order with the given accommodations.
The steamship company clearly complies with the requirement that tables for eating be supplied in the steerage, and in spite of efforts cannot make the steerage passengers use these tables.
Apparently, it is true that the immigrants did not make use of the conveniences provided. But where are these tables, and how convenient is it to eat at them?
The main steerage dining room was a part of a compartment on the first deck below the main deck. It contained seven long tables, each with two benches, and seating at most 12 persons. The remainder of the compartment included 60 berths closely crowded together, the sleeping quarters for families.
During the first few days, the partition between these crowded sleeping quarters and the dining room was but a fence made of four 6-inch boards running horizontally. Only later was this partition made a solid wall. Most people preferred the open deck to this dining room and its disagreeable odors.
A table without appointment and service means nothing. The food was brought into the dining room in large galvanized tin cans. The meat and vegetables were placed on the tables in tins resembling smaller sized dishpans. There were no serving plates, knives, or spoons.
Each passenger had only his combination dinner pail, which is more convenient away from a table than at it. This he had to bring himself and wash when he had finished. Liquid food could not be easily served at the tables, so each must line up for his soup and coffee.
No places at the table were assigned, and no arrangement made for two sittings, and as all could not be seated at once, the result denoted disorder, to escape which many left the dining room. Besides these seven tables, there were two on the main deck, in the sleeping compartments of the single women.
In the other two sleeping compartments, there were shelves along the wall and benches by the side of these. Including these, there was barely seating capacity for the small number in the steerage on this trip.
On inquiring where the passengers were seated when the steerage was crowded, I was told by the Hebrew cook and several others of the crew that then there was no pretense made to seat them. The attempt at serving-us at tables was soon given up.
If the steerage passengers act like cattle at meals, undoubtedly it is because they are treated as such. The stewards complain that they crowd like swine, but unless each passenger seizes his pail when the bell rings announcing the meal and hurries for his share, he is very likely to be left without food. No time is wasted in the serving.
One morning, wishing to see if it were possible for a woman to rise and dress without the presence of men onlookers, I watched and waited my chance.
There was none until the breakfast bell rang when all rushed off to the meal. I arose, dressed quickly, and hurried to the washroom. When I went for my breakfast, it was no longer being served.
The steward asked why I hadn’t come sooner saying, “The bell rang at 5 minutes to 7, and now it is 20 after. I suggested that twenty-five minutes wasn’t a long time for serving 160 people, and also explained the real reason for my tardiness. He then said that under the circumstances I could still have some bread.
However, he warned me not to use that excuse again. As long as no systematic order is observed in serving food in the steerage, the passengers will resort to the only effective method they know. Each will rush to get his share.
Breakfast always consists of cereal, coffee, white bread, and either butter or prune jam. In the afternoon, coffee and dried bread were served. The two Sundays we were out, this was changed to chocolate and coffee cake, which were quite good and much appreciated.
The dinners and suppers were as follows:
Thursday, July 30, .—Dinner: Macaroni soup, boiled beef, potatoes, white bread. Supper: Stew of meat and potatoes, tea, black bread, and butter.
Friday, July 31, .—Dinner: Lentil soup, boiled fish, potatoes, gravy, white # Supper: Hash (mostly potatoes), dill pickle, tea, black bread, and butter.
Saturday, August 1, .—Dinner: Stewed liver, gravy, potatoes, stewed rice with dried apples and raisins, white bread. Supper: Boiled fish, potatoes, gravy, tea, black bread, and butter.
Sunday, August 2, .—Dinner: Salt pork, potatoes, string beans, white bread. Supper: Sausage, potatoes, tea, black bread, butter.
Monday, August 3, .—Dinner: Soup meat (evidently stewed leftovers of roasts), potatoes, white bread. Supper: Sauerkraut with liver (left over from Saturday), potatoes, tea, black bread, and butter.
Tuesday, August 4, .—Dinner: Sausage, potatoes, a vegetable mixture, white bread. Supper: Pickled herring, potatoes, tea, black bread.
Wednesday, August 5, .—Dinner: Soup, corned beef, potatoes, white bread. Supper: Mutton stew, cabbage, potatoes, tea, black bread, butter.
Thursday, August 6, .—Dinner: Macaroni soup, meat with gravy, potatoes, lentils, raisin bread. Supper: Potatoes, with meat gravy, tea, black bread, butter.
Friday, August 7, .—Dinner: Pea soup, either herring or meat with gravy, potatoes, cabbage, bread. Supper: Canned fish, potatoes, tea, black bread, butter.
Saturday. August 8, .—Dinner: Vegetable soup, left-overs of roast, potatoes, white bread. Supper: Hash (mostly potatoes), pickle, tea, black bread.
Sunday, August 9, .—Dinner: Soup, salt pork, potatoes, cabbage, bread. Supper: Sausage, potatoes, tea, black bread, butter.
Monday, August 10, .—Dinner: Soup, beef, potatoes, string beans, white bread. Supper: Boiled eggs, fried potatoes, bread.
The Reality of the Meals Served
These menus sound well, and the allowances for each person were generous, but the quality and the preparation of much of the food were inferior. It is no doubt a complicated matter to satisfy so many persons of such varied tastes, but the passengers of the nationality of the line were as [vocal in] their complaints of this cooking as any of the others.
So simple a thing as coffee was not adequately prepared. I carefully watched the process by which it was made. The coffee grounds, sugar, and milk were put in a large galvanized tin can. Hot water, not always boiling, was poured over these ingredients. This was served as coffee.
The white bread, potatoes, and soup, when hot, were the only good foods, and these received the same favorable criticism from passengers of all nationalities.
The meats were generally old, tough, and smelled terrible. The same was true of the fish, excepting pickled herring. The vegetables were often a queer, unanalyzable mixture, and therefore avoided. The butter was often inedible.
The stewed dried prunes and apples were merely the refuse that is left behind when all the edible fruit is graded out. The prune jam served at breakfast, judging by taste and looks, was made from the lowest possible grade of fruit.
Breakfast cereals, a food foreign to most Europeans, were merely boiled and served in an abundance of water. The black bread was soggy and not at all like the good, wholesome, coarse black bread served in the cabin.
During the twelve days, only about six meals were fair and gave satisfaction. More than half of the food was always thrown into the sea. Hot water could be had in the galley, and many of the passengers made tea and lived on this and bread. The last day out we were told on every hand to look pleasant, else, we would not be admitted in Baltimore.
The Farewell Dinner
To help bring about this happy appearance the last meal on board consisted of boiled eggs, bread, and fried potatoes. Those who commented on this meal said it was "the best yet."
None of this food was thrown into the sea, but all were eagerly eaten. If this simple meal of ordinary food, well prepared, gave such general satisfaction, then it is really not so difficult after all to satisfy the tastes" of the various nationalities.
A few simple standard dishes of fair quality and adequately prepared, even though less generously served, would, I am positive, give satisfaction. The expense certainly would not be higher than that now caused by the waste of so much inferior food.
The interpreter, the chief steerage steward, and one other officer were always in attendance during the meals to prevent any crowding. When all had been served, these three walked about among the passengers asking: "Does the food taste good?" The almost invariable answer was: "it has to; we must eat something.’"
The Popular Bar
There was a bar at which drinks, fruits, candies, and other such things were sold. This was well patronized. Those who had any money to spare soon spent it at the bar—-the men for drinks, the women for fruit.
Several of them told me they only had to supplement the mediocre food, and in doing so had spent all they dared for apples and oranges at 3 cents apiece. Different stewards told me that 1,000 marks and more were taken in at the bar when travel was more substantial.
There was a separate galley and another cook for the preparation of kosher food for the Hebrews. They used the same tables with others if they used any, and were served in the same manner. Their diet also seemed of the same quality.
The Shipboard Hospital
The two clean, light, airy hospital rooms on the port side of the main deck, one for women, the other for men, made an excellent first impression. Each contained 12 berths in two tiers.
The iron framework was the same as that of all the steerage berths, but the beds had white sheets and pillows with white slips. By the side of each berth was a frame, holding a glass and a bottle of water. Also, a sick can. A toilet and bath adjoined each hospital.
The steerage stewardess, whose chief duties were distributing milk for little children, and giving out bread at meals, acted as nurse. According to her own statement, she had never had any training in the care of the sick. She spoke German and some English.
The interpreter, I was told, interprets for her and the doctor when it is necessary. However, when the doctor learned that I could speak both Slavic languages and German, he called on me to interpret for him in the case of each of his four Slavic patients.
On one occasion a 6-year-old girl was seized with violent cramps. The doctor ordered a hot bath, but the hot-water faucet gave forth nothing. The stewardess had to bring hot water from the galley across one deck, up the stairs, across another deck, and down other stairs.
Later he ordered a cold bath, which could be given only after another delay. The water ran so thick and filthy that it was not fit to use. There were no towels, and a sheet was used instead.
Aside from the berths and a washstand, there were no hospital conveniences or apparatus in the room. The most trivial articles had to be sent for to the ‘drug store’ at some distance.
At another time I had proof of the difficulty of getting the doctor to respond to a call. A Polish girl was suffering from severe pains in her chest and side. This was reported to a passing officer with the request that the doctor is sent.
Later the same request was made of the chief steward, and then of another officer. Finally, someone secured the stewardess, and she went for the doctor. In all more than two and one-half hours had elapsed between the time when the case was first reported and the doctor’s appearance. The doctor never was sympathetic, and when not indifferent was quite rough.
I remarked to this physician that I and many others were not going to have any vaccination mark to present, and I showed some fear of not being admitted at Baltimore. He assured me, with a smile of self-satisfaction, that the mark on the inspection card was the vital matter.
Inspection of Immigrants Onboard Ship
The daily medical examination of the steerage was carried on as follows: The second day out we all passed in single file before the doctor as he leisurely conversed with another officer, casting an occasional glance at the passing line. The chief steerage steward punched six holes in each passenger’s inspection card, indicating that the inspection for six days was complete.
One steward told me this was done to save the passengers from going through this formality every day. The fourth day out we were again reviewed. The doctor stood by. Another officer holding a cablegram blank in his hand compared each passenger’s card to some writing on it.
There was another inspection on the seventh day when we were required to bare our arms and show the vaccinations. Again, our cards were punched six times, and this completed the medical examination.
Just before landing, we were reviewed by some officer who came on board and checked us off on a counting machine operated by a ship’s officer.
In the women’s sleeping compartment, in an inconspicuous place, here hung a small copy of section 7, passenger act for 1882, in German and English. A similar copy hung in the so-called dining room.
Few of the women could read either of these languages. From the time we boarded the steamer until we landed, no woman in the steerage had a moment’s privacy.
The Lack of Privacy
One steward was always on duty in our compartment, and others of the crew came and went continually. Nor was this room a passageway to another part of the vessel. The entrance was also the only exit. The men who came may or may not have been sent there on some errand.
This I could not ascertain, but I do know that, regularly, during the hour or so preceding the breakfast bell and while we were rising and dressing, several men usually passed through and returned for no ostensible reason. If it were necessary for them to move so often, another passageway should have been provided or a more convenient time chosen."
“As not nearly all the berths were occupied, we all chose upper ones. To get anything from an upper berth or to deposit anything in it or to arrange it, it was necessary to stand on the framework of the one below. The women often had to stand thus, with their backs to the aisle.
The crew in passing a woman in this position never failed to deal her a blow—even the head steward. If a woman were dressing, they always stopped to watch her, and frequently hit and handled her. Even though they were sent there, this was not their errand.
Two of the stewards were quite strict about driving men out of our quarters. One other steward who had business in our compartment was as annoying a visitor as we had and he began his offenses even before we left port.
Some of the women wished to put aside their better dresses immediately after coming on board. As soon as they began to undress, he stood about watching and touching them. They tried to walk away, but he followed them.
Not one day passed, but I saw him annoying some women, especially in the washrooms. At our second and last inspection, this steward was assigned the duty of holding each woman by her bare arm that the doctor might better see the vaccination.
A small notice stating the distance traveled was posted each day just within the entrance to our compartment. It was the only one posted in the steerage as far as I could learn, and consequently, both crew and men passengers came to see it, and it served as an excuse for coming at all times.
The first day out the bar just within our entrance was used. This brought a large number of men into our compartment, many not entirely sober, but later the bar was transferred.
One night, when I had retired very early with a severe cold, the chief steerage steward entered our compartment, but not noticing me approached a Polish girl who was apparently the only occupant. She spoke in Polish, saying, "My head aches—please go on and let me alone."
But he merely stood on and soon was taking unwarranted liberties with her. The girl, weakened by seasickness, defended herself as best she could, but soon was struggling to get out of the man’s arms.
Just then, other passengers entered, and he released her. Such was the man who was our highest protector and court of appeal.
I cannot say that any woman lost her virtue on this passage, but in making free with the women, the men of the crew went as far as possible without exposing themselves to the danger of punishment. But this limit is no doubt frequently overstepped.
Several of the crew told me that many of them marry girls from the steerage. When I mentioned that they could scarcely become well enough acquainted to marry during the passage, the answer was that the acquaintance had already gone so far that marriage was imperative.
Steerage Passengers Crowded on Deck. From Stereograph by Underwood & Underwood, New York, 1905. GGA Image ID # 1d88074a41
Treatment of Women
There was an outside main deck and an upper deck on which steerage passengers were allowed. These were each about 40 feet wide by 50 feet long, but probably half of this space was occupied by machinery, ventilators, and other apparatus.
There was no canvas to keep out the rain, sun, and frequent showers of cinders from the smokestack. These fell so thick and fast that two young sailor boys were kept busy sweeping them off the decks. It is impossible to remain in one’s berth at the time, and as there were no smoking and sitting rooms, we spent most of the day on these decks.
No benches nor chairs were provided, so we sat wherever we could find a place on the machinery, exposed to the sun, fog, rain, and cinders. These not only filled our hair but also flew into our eyes, often causing considerable pain.
These same two outdoor decks were also used by the crew during their leisure. Then asked what right they had there, they answered: "As much as the passengers."
No notices hung anywhere about to refute this. How the sailors, stewards, firemen, and others mingled with the women passengers was thoroughly revolting.
Their language and the topics of their conversation were vile. Their comments about the women, and made in their presence, were coarse. What was far worse and of frequent occurrence was their handling the women and girls. Some of the crew were always on deck, and took all manner of liberties with the women, in broad daylight as well as after dark.
Not one young woman in the steerage escaped an attack. The writer herself was no exception. A hard, unexpected blow in the offender’s face in the presence of a large crowd of men, an evident acquaintance with the stewardess, doctor, and other officers, general experience, and manner were all required to ward off further attacks.
Some few of the women, perhaps, did not find these attentions so disagreeable; some resisted them for a time, then weakened; some fought with all their physical strength, which naturally was powerless against a man’s.
Others were continually fleeing to escape. Two more refined and very determined Polish girls fought the men with pins and teeth, but even they weakened under this continued warfare and needed some moral support about the ninth day.
The atmosphere was one of general lawlessness and total disrespect for women. It naturally demoralized the women themselves after a time. There was no one to whom they might appeal. Besides, most of them did not know the official language on the steamer, nor were they experienced enough to know they were entitled to protection.
The interpreter, who could and should a friend of the immigrants, passed through the steerage but twice a day. He positively discouraged every approach. I purposely tried on several occasions to get advice and information from him, but always failed.
His usual answer was, "How in the d___ do I know?" The chief steerage steward by his own familiarity with the women made himself impossible as their protector.
Once when a man passenger was annoying two Lithuanian girls, I undertook to rescue them. The man poured forth a volley of oaths at me in English. Just then, the chief steward appeared, and to test him I made a complaint.
The offender denied having sworn at all, but I insisted that he had and that I understood. The steward then administered this reproof, "You leave them girls alone, or I fix you easy.’"
The main deck was hosed down every night at 10 when we were driven in. The upper deck was washed only about four times during the voyage. At 8 each evening, we were driven below.
This was to protect the women; one of the crew informed me. What protection they gained on the same dark and unsupervised deck below isn’t at all clear. What worse things could have occurred them there than those to which they were already exposed at the hands of both the crew and the men passengers would have been criminal offenses.
Neither of these decks was lighted, because, as one sailor explained, maritime usage does not sanction lights either in the bow or stern of a vessel, the two parts always use by the steerage. The descriptions that I might give of the mingling of the crew and passengers on these outdoor decks would be endless and all necessarily much the same.
A series of snapshots would provide a more accurate and impressive account of this evil than can words. I would here suggest that any agent making a similar investigation be supplied with a Kodak for this purpose.
A Summary of the Investigators' Experience
To sum up, let me make some general statements that will give an idea of the awfulness of steerage conditions on the steamer in question. During these twelve days in the steerage, I lived in disorder and in surroundings that offended every sense. Only the fresh breeze from the sea overcame the sickening odors.
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 ear, irritated beyond endurance.
There was no sight before which the eye did not prefer to close. Everything was dirty, sticky, and disagreeable to the touch. Every impression was offensive.
Worse than this was the general air of immorality. For fifteen hours each day, I witnessed all around me this improper, indecent, and forced mingling of men and women who were total strangers and often did not understand one word of the same language. People cannot live in such surroundings and not be influenced."
All that has been said of the mingling of the crew with the women of the steerage is also true of the association of the men steerage passengers with the women. Several times, when the sight of what was occurring about me was no longer endurable, I interfered and asked the men if they knew they might be deported and their actions reported on landing.
Most of them had been in America before, and the answer generally provided was "Immorality is permitted in America if it is anywhere. Everyone can do as he chooses; no one investigates his mode of life, and no account is made or kept of his doings."
Note a: “A small record book showing past employment, common among working classes in many sections of Europe. The “workbook" also serves as a local passport. (Resume from Note A)
A Typical New Type Steerage: An Investigator's Report
Report by the same investigator as to another vessel. Clearly, the experience was dramatically improved over the previous voyage. The text was edited for spelling, grammar, and clarity to improve readability.
The steerage, or third-class passage, as experienced on the steamer _______of the ______ Line, differed but slightly from the usual cabin passage, except in plainness and simplicity of appointment.
The steerage passenger was treated with every consideration from the very beginning of his relations with the line. It was not necessary that he be at the port of embarkation any significant length of time before the departure of the steamer.
I, for instance, arrived in London the day previous to the vessel’s sailing, presented myself at the company’s offices, requested passage, received my ticket immediately, and was told there was no necessity of leaving London until midnight.
This train brought many other emigrants and me to ____ in the morning of the day of sailing. Another train carried us from the same station to the docks. From here, a bus belonging to the _____ Line conveyed passengers and hand baggage to the steamer without charge. It was about 10 am when we went on board.
We were all placed in one of the large dining rooms, and from there passed the doctor in single file. He examined the eyes of each one, and we proceeded to a portion of the open deck.
Then we marched again in single file to another portion of the deck, giving up the two parts of the steamer ticket as we went and receiving a doctor’s card—those who were still without it.
The last official approached in this procession assigned staterooms and berths. This was done both judiciously and with an evident desire to give satisfaction.
Friends and acquaintances were placed together. The various nationalities were quartered near together as much as possible. The few Jewish passengers were assigned staterooms distantly removed from all the others.
All these proceedings followed a careful plan and were kindly conducted so that no excessive crowding and rough handling resulted. The same consideration that was shown here continued throughout the ten days’ journey.
The steerage passengers on board, examined, and assigned to their quarters, the steamer pulled out of the dock and proceeded to the landing where cabin passengers were taken on.
The steerage on the ______ presented practically no novelty and interest due to unique and inhuman accommodations. The same human needs were recognized as in the case of cabin passengers, and every revision was made for these. The appointments, however, were plain and simple and entirely devoid of all nonessentials.
Relative to the main deck, the first wholly enclosed deck extended the entire length and breadth of the vessel, the sleeping quarters were located on the first and second decks below the main deck.
These two decks were divided into sections designated by letters of the alphabet. These could be, and in some cases were, shut off from one another by iron bulkheads.
A separate entrance or stairway led to each section. In no case did a hatchway open directly from the upper or spar deck into a sleeping compartment, admitting water and wind.
Each section or compartment with but two exceptions was subdivided into staterooms. These contained two and four berths each.
The partitions were of wood, painted white, and kept thoroughly clean. A current of air was admitted at the base and top of the barriers. The air we breathed on these two decks, both in the staterooms and hallways, was remarkably fresh.
Berths were arranged in two tiers, and in construction apparently differed in no way from those usually found in the second cabin. Each berth contained a straw-filled mattress and pillow. Both of them were covered with white slips, which, however, were not changed during the ten days.
For covering, a pair of heavy gray blankets were provided. These were of ample size and weight to be practically sufficient even on the coldest nights of the journey.
At the head of the berths was a drop-shelf that served either as a seat or table, as the occasion demanded. Each room was furnished with a mirror, and hooks to hold clothes were quite abundantly supplied.
A lever for turning on the electric light in the room and a bell for summoning steward or matron were within easy reach of both berths. There was plenty of space for hand baggage under the lower berths and also beyond the foot of the berths.
The floors everywhere were of plain white boards, and these were kept scrupulously clean. They were scrubbed every day by the stewards on their hands and knees, and were well dried, to avoid all unnecessary dampness.
At 9 o’clock each morning, all the passengers except those who were ill or indisposed were requested to vacate their rooms. The stewards then went through them all, giving each such attention as it needed-making beds and sweeping or scrubbing floors. At intervals in the hallways were placed cans to receive waste.
These were not frequent and convenient enough to be used by all in cases of seasickness, but they did afford a place for other waste. If a criticism might be offered on the staterooms, it could only be on the lack of cans to use in case of seasickness.
The stewards were untiring in cleaning up the results of the innumerable cases of illness resulting from the rough sea during the first few days. Many of them provided such cans as were available for this disposition.
Each section was in the distinct charge of a steward, who was held strictly responsible for all order in his section. A steward was always on duty in the hallways, both day and night, and lights burned all night in the passageways.
Men, women, and families were assigned each to separate sections. The capacity of steerage passengers is 2,200. Staterooms are provided for 1,600. The two sleeping sections or compartments previously excepted from the arrangement just described contained about 300 berths each.
When the steerage is full, these two rooms are used as sleeping quarters for men. The berths are constructed and supplied precisely like those in the staterooms.
There were numerous toilet rooms, usually containing five basins each, with a faucet of running water and five toilets. The basins were of the conventional shape and size and were supplied each with a stopper that could be applied to retain water in the basin or removed to allow its escape.
There was always an abundance of soap, and large roller towels were supplied frequently enough to ensure the presence of clean ones at all times.
The floors in these rooms were of tile. These were practically always in a fit condition for use. Only when an accident occurred, occasioned by a leak in some pipe, was the floor wet, and this was remedied as soon as discovered.
The toilet rooms were all located on the main deck and as much as possible immediately at the head of stairs leading up from the sleeping quarters.
In no instance was it necessary to cross the open deck to reach a toilet room, and in many cases, it was not even necessary to cross a passageway other than the one on which the stateroom opened.
Since there were less than 250 passengers in the steerage, not nearly all the steerage quarters were in use. However, enough toilet rooms were open to avoid all crowding.
The toilet and staterooms of the men were so completely separated from those of the women that there was no possibility of mistaking them or using them in common. The supervision in this respect was particularly strict; men were positively kept out of the women’s quarters.
There were four large dining rooms for the third class, two on the main deck and two on the deck below. Only the two on the main deck were needed on this trip, and even these were only about half full each.
The one was used by the men passengers, the other by the women and families. The two were side by side and were served from one pantry, located between the two.
Long tables were seating from ten to fourteen persons. At meals, these were covered with white cloths, and each place was set with a thoroughly good knife, fork, and spoon. Bread, salt, pepper, and mustard were arranged all along the center of the table. Soup and meat were served from the pantry.
Vegetables preserves, pickles, and sugar were placed at either end of the table in large dishes, and each passenger could serve himself. Each table was in charge of one steward, who laid the cover, served, and attended to the wants of those there seated.
The service and attention were real and all that could be asked. The food was of very fair quality and abundant. Absolutely everything served was such as might be eaten without hesitation b anyone.
The preserves served with each breakfast and the fresh fruits, apples, and oranges, given out several times at dinner were of exceptional quality and would have made endurable, meals of much poorer quality.
Coffee, tea, and hot water could be had by women and children at almost all hours of the day from the pantry.
A bar opening on the passageway near the entrance to the men’s dining room afforded stout, ginger ale, soda water, and smokers’ necessities. This received some patronage but was not particularly popular.
Although the set of notices everywhere posted forbade the sale of all provisions by any of the crew, there were some such indirect dealings. Some passengers appeared on deck continually with apples and oranges when these had not been given out at the table.
Others, who were ill, complained they could eat nothing but fruit and that that was not available. It proved that those who could speak English or give tips to the right persons were abundantly supplied with fruit.
Nothing, however, was openly offered for sale except at the bar. The total seating capacity in the dining rooms of the steerage on the ______ is about 1,100. However, even when the steerage is full, all passengers are served at the table, so I was told. In that case, there are two sittings for each meal.
The Hebrew steerage passengers were looked after by a Hebrew who is employed by the company as a cook and is at the same time appointed by Rabbi ______ as guardian of such passengers. This particular man told me that he is a pioneer in this work.
He was the first to receive such an appointment. He must see that all Jewish passengers are assigned sleeping quarters that are as comfortable and good as any; to see that kosher food is provided and to prepare it. He has done duty on most of the ships of the ______ Line.
On each, he has instituted this system of caring for the Hebrews and then has left it to be looked after by some successor. An interpreter who spoke English, Swedish, Norwegian, and some German was on board to serve when needed.
He was, however, not at all conscientious in the performance of any duties and evidently not very capable. His price for granting privileges, performing favors, and overlooking abuses was a mug of stout.
I know him to have openly asked one passenger for such a treat and, judging from the number of gifts he received and the reputation given him by others of the crew, he did not hesitate to solicit free drinks from everyone. He was generally present in the dining room during meals, though he did nothing.
To young women passengers, his manner could be most friendly and gracious. To others, he was positively rude. He made most disparaging remarks about a German who merely refused to buy favor with drinks. A matron or stewardess performed necessary services for the sick. She brought food to those who were unable to go to the dining room.
At the table, she gave out milk to the children and served bouillon to women and children during the forenoon. She went the rounds of the sick at least three times a day to inquire after their needs and was patient enough in waiting on them. She could be even more obliging when her palm was crossed with a coin.
Only one serious complaint about her was heard during the journey. A group of Jewish women who occupied staterooms at an extreme end of the second deck below the main deck were ill and unable to attend meals.
There were no men in their immediate party to bring them food, and some fellow travelers who would have performed this kindness were not admitted to the women’s quarters.
The stewardess very evidently had no sympathy for suffering Hebrews and, moreover, the distance to carry the food was somewhat long and no tips seemed forthcoming. The repeated complaints of a Russian friend did secure some attention for the sick Hebrew women from the stewardess.
This same Russian who constituted himself a friend of the slighted Jewish women and had entered several complaints on their behalf insisted that there was a strong anti-Semitic spirit among the crew. However, the number of Jews present was extraordinarily slight, and there was little occasion to witness such a feeling.
For the passing of the many hours of leisure time that are left on the hands of practically every passenger, a large portion of the spar deck in the stern of the vessel was set apart for the steerage.
This was entirely free of machinery and provided ample open space for games, walking, dancing, and other exercises. A part of this deck was partially enclosed and covered, and thus afforded a shelter even during stormy weather.
Comfortable benches were placed at frequent intervals about the deck. These were almost used continuously and gave both pleasure and comfort. The deck was thoroughly scrubbed and hosed off each day and swept as often as waste accumulated on it.
At night, it was well lighted and might be used until 9 o’clock, when the interpreter announced that it was time to go below. On pleasant evenings, when the entertainment was lively, this time was somewhat extended.
There were some musical instruments among the passengers, and there was much singing and dancing after the first few rough days were over.
For those with whom, for various reasons, the open deck did not find favor there was access to the dining rooms. The tables when not prepared for meals were covered with red cloths and could be used for games, writing, or any other purpose.
A piano in the women’s dining room found an untiring performer in a German student. Notices of the distance traveled each day were also posted in each of the dining rooms.
A clock, regulated each day, was also placed there. The men might smoke in their own dining room but not in the other.
Three sets of notices were framed and hung at the entrance to every section of the steerage. One of these was a set of regulations for the conduct of third-class passengers, the other was section 7 of passenger act regulating the carriage of passengers at sea.
The third notice informed passengers that valuables might be deposited with the purser. Each announcement was given in several languages. Those used were English, German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Russian.
Such rules and regulations as were posted were well enforced. The two daily inspections that were scheduled—one at 10.30 am, the other at 9 pm—actually did take place, and seemed intended to discover any abuses or neglect that might exist. Where smoking was forbidden, it was positively not allowed.
The quarters of the crew were in an entirely different part of the steamer. The duties of the stewards and others of the crew finished, they were not to be found taking their leisure among the passengers.
Except for a steward who occasionally ran up on the open deck for a few breaths of fresh air, the crew did not mingle in the least with the passengers.
A day in the steerage began with the ringing of the rising bell at 6.30 a. m. At 7 am the bell announced breakfast. When the meal was finished, the passengers who could take their wraps and proceed to the open deck or to the wide passageways on the main deck. Meanwhile, the stewards cleaned the staterooms and scrubbed the floor of the dining room.
The morning inspection took place, and about 10 am we were again allowed everywhere below. At 11 o’clock, the women received bouillon; at noon, we had dinner.
The afternoon was again spent for the most part on the open or spar deck and in the dining rooms. Supper at 5 marked another interval. Yet there was a general withdrawal to the upper deck, where during the evening there was much singing, dancing, walking, and merrymaking generally. A crowd of Scandinavians frequently played children s ring games for pastime.
In New York, an officer of the customs service came on board, also a physician. The customs official passed through the steerage quarters, making some observations.
The physician reviewed the passengers. The inspections and a short stay at Ellis Island presented practically nothing new. When the inspector learned from the "manifest sheet" that I had been in the country before, he put no further questions than those as to address and amount of money in my possession.
The telegraph agent in the room below was not soliciting telegrams as actively as on my previous landing. The commissary clerks were likewise far less insistent in offering for sale the provision boxes.
My ticket to Baltimore was this time on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. We were transported to Jersey City by the usual small ferryboats. The Baltimore and Ohio waiting room for immigrants was less dingy than that of the Pennsylvania line, and the officials in charge seemed more humane.
At first, we were told that the immigrant train would leave at 8 pm, but report later changed this to 1.30 am. Knowing that there were several regular trains to Baltimore before this time, I requested to be allowed to pay the difference and go by regular train. My immigrant ticket had cost $4.60. By spending 25 cents more, I was allowed to ride in the smoker of a regular train.
The Old and New Type Steerage in the Same Ship: An Investigative Report
Reported by the same investigator, with redactions of some text to obscure the actual ship, steamship line, along with their officers and crew members. We have edited the text for spelling, grammar, and clarity to improve the readability of the report.
Located at the junction of the three countries, Germany, Austria, and Russia, it was necessary to come from some eastern point in Austria to pass through the control station Myslowitz.
Because of my familiarity with it and the consequent convenience, I chose Krakow as my origination point. Unfortunately, there was no agent for the ______ Line in that city. Partial payment on my passage brought me a ticket from the central office.
The steamer ______ was to sail November 3. From Krakow to ______ is less than a twenty-four-hour ride with even an ordinary train. Thinking to give myself ample time, I left Krakow Saturday, October 31, about noon, with a through ticket to ______ on fast trains.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Myslowitz. The immigrants to America were led through a narrow hall before a desk at which stood three men, one apparently an agent of the steamship companies, the other, judging by their uniforms, a Russian gendarme and a German officer.
To the agent, we gave up our tickets both for the steamer and railroad. Then with our baggage, we were led into a large hall; we from Galicia into one, immigrants from Russia into another.
These halls have tiled floors, painted walls, high ceilings, and colored-glass windows. They are steam heated and electric lighted and equipped with means of ventilation.
Wide wooden shelves or benches were arranged around the entire hall. The baggage is placed under these, and on them, the immigrants sleep—as many as find space. The rest sleep either on their luggage or on the floor.
No other sleeping accommodations were available. Men, women, and children from one country are all contained in one hall. Inadequate and insufficient toilet facilities and washing rooms were situated in the small yard. Nothing is charged for accommodations during this enforced stay at Myslowitz, nor can they rightly be called "accommodations."
The walls in the two halls were alive with vermin. When I noticed this and learned that I must remain until the evening of the following day, I sought to escape the threatening danger.
There was no responsible person in charge to whom to apply. Finally, one watchman allowed himself to be convinced that my baggage might become infected and permitted its removal to an adjoining hall, where I also insisted upon being allowed to remain.
Two Polish girls who arrived on a later train were lodged with me, and the three of us slept on the bench along the wall. A watchman made his bed in the other end of the room.
Once the emigrant has entered this hall or control station (and he is conducted there immediately on descending from his train), he is not allowed to leave the building except to enter the train that is to bear him from there.
Food and provisions are to be had only at the canteen. The keeper was intoxicated the evening of our arrival, as were the watchman and porters during the entire time.
Though the price lists on the walls contained fruits and other desirable foods, the stock at the canteen consisted mostly of drinks, beer and various wines and whiskeys in small bottles. There were also tobaccos, some bread, and sausage. The travelers ate such provisions as they still had from home.
Sunday morning we tried to get either some coffee or tea. The canteen keeper was either still or again drunk, and there was nothing to be had of him but liquors, and, moreover, his manner was most objectionable.
The officers who again appeared to relieve newly arrived emigrants of their tickets declined to release us to go to the adjoining depot for some breakfast. They replied that there was a canteen to supply all an emigrant’s needs.
Finally, after 9 o’clock, the wife of the canteen keeper appeared, and she consented to get us some coffee. By ordering it immediately, we were able to have some dinner at noon.
This consisted of soup, boiled beef, potato salad, and bread. The price charged us was 25 cents. Later a higher rate was asked of others.
This, of course, was excessive and far beyond the means of the average emigrant. Besides, not less than the full meal could be had, and this must be ordered a half day in advance. Prices, too, were continually wavering, and getting correct change was all luck.
German, Russian, and Polish were all spoken in the canteen, and German, Russian, and Austrian money all accepted. Ignorance of some one of these languages or coins was continually affected to defraud.
A Russian laid a half mark on the counter and ordered a glass of beer. He drank it and waited for change. Receiving none, he asked for it. The waiter pretended he had been given only the price of the beer.
In other instances, he argued that the coin given him had not the supposed value, or returned too little change. More often, he insisted on explaining in a language unknown to the emigrant.
There was constant arguing at the bar about overcharges and watching the transactions there for some three hours, I saw that most of the complaints were well-founded.
In a few instances where the emigrant insisted and was about to prove his point beyond dispute, he was turned over to the drunken canteen keeper, who talked so loudly and so without reason that no argument availed.
It was not only difficult but practically impossible, to get any food, while beer and whiskey tempted the hungry and the thirsty. Needless to say, many of the emigrants drank more or less, not only in Myslowitz but later on the train. Liquor was the one thing with which a person could supply himself for the journey.
About 2 o’clock the doctor came and the examination, for which some were detained twenty-four hours, some longer, was to take place. All were driven into one room and passed single file before the doctor. He examined each one’s eyes, and the ordeal was over.
The clothing and baggage of some of the Russian Jews were disinfected, our tickets were returned, and we were sorted and packed into the train. There were coaches for Bremen and for Hamburg.
The Jews were put in separate coupés, but this division was not strictly observed, for in the coupé with myself and two Roman Catholic Poles were also three Jews.
I had had a through ticket from Krakow to ______, third class, for fast trains. In Myslowitz the agent returned me 6 marks 80 pfennigs on it and said I would go with the regular emigrant train, third class, and also fast, but would only pay for the fourth-class fare. The train made but few stops and reached ______ in twenty hours.
The coaches were the regular third-class kind, supplied with wooden seats, and divided into coupés. They were filled to their utmost capacity, and the numerous and bulky baggage filled the racks overhead and the floor. Some coupés were so loaded that the occupants took turns standing.
The sleep obtained under these conditions was anything but restful. In the morning at about 5 o’clock, our train stopped at Magdeburg. Here there was a mad rush to the pump at the station to wash and to get water to drink. That continued to be the one excitement the entire half day — watching for stops at stations where drinking water was to be had.
No stop was made for breakfast, and there was no opportunity to get anything along the way, except at about 10, when our cars had been attached to some regular train.
Sandwiches were sold at the station at 35 pfennigs apiece, a price beyond the emigrant. After twenty hours’ ride, we gladly piled out of the train at ______."
We were first led into a room for examination. A physician looked into each one's eyes. Another officer measured each one, noted his description and birthplace.
Another officer put the usual questions as to age, kind of employment, the address of friends in America and Europe, and the amount of money at hand. To him were also given such papers as each had to indicate that his passage was paid or partly paid.
While these were taken to the office for inspection, we were led to an adjoining room where food awaited us. Each place at the long tables was supplied with a small white enameled dish resembling a washbasin. On this were two large slices of good rye bread. There was also good fruit, marmalade, and tea.
When the officers returned, the names of all those having passage engaged in the steerage of the _____ were called off. An interpreter was told to inform us that the steerage passengers had gone on _____ just before noon; and that we either had to wait ten days for the next Steamer or pay the difference of 30 marks and go third class on the _____. This news caused great dismay to all.
Waiting meant not only weariness and loss of time but an expense of at least 2 marks 25 pfennigs per day for board and lodging. The payment of an additional 30 marks was impossible for some, for others it meant the paying out of their last coin, and how was one to get to his destination?
What could he show in money in America, or how telegraph his friends there? And there was no longer time to get money from home by telegraph.
Many of those from eastern Galicia and Slavonia had already had to make unexpected additional payments along the way after thinking that their transportation to New York had all been paid to the agent at home. Serious consultations took place.
My own plight was just as serious, similar to that of the others. The stay of ten days would have been horribly tedious, and there was nothing of value to be learned more than a short stay would reveal.
The agent in Prague had been most unwilling to sell a ticket for passage in the steerage, saying that practically none but Russian and Polish Jews of the filthiest habits traveled thus.
Now, all my fellow travelers from Myslowitz were to go third class and no doubt many others who were lodged elsewhere. A group of Slavonians and myself, who were most anxious to go steerage, proposed that we be allowed to pay only for the more convenient transportation to the steamer and there be put in the steerage.
The officers would consider no other alternatives; we must pay the difference and go third class or wait ten days for the next steamer. There was more consulting, counting, borrowing, and lending.
At last, all had decided to pay and go and take the chances of being admitted on the other side because of lack of money. My lot was cast with the rest.
On the morning of the departure of the steamer ______ we were called early, had breakfast, and received our tickets. Our hand baggage was labeled "inspected." That inspection was not made in our presence and could have taken place only while we were at breakfast.
Then we, together with our baggage, were placed in large wagons, driven to the railway station in ______, and went from there by train to ______, where we boarded the steamer.
The third class on the _______ proved to be an idealized steerage. The passengers were treated with care and consideration. There was every attempt to give satisfaction.
Where cabins were for any reason unsatisfactory, a new arrangement was attempted and made wherever possible. All actual human needs were supplied, with cleanliness, order, and decency. The third class was confined to the stern of the vessel.
The sleeping quarters were situated on the second deck, below the main deck. A large space extending in width of the ship was subdivided into cabins containing two, four, and six berths. Families and friends were lodged together.
Men had cabins on one side with women on the other. Very simple but clean beds were arranged in two tiers consisting of an iron framework. Each bed was supplied with a mattress, a white sheet, and a blanket.
They also provided a pillow having a colored gingham covering. These were clean at the outset but were not changed during the voyage.
Each cabin was furnished with a washbasin, drinking glasses, towels, sick cans, and was cleaned every day and supplied with fresh water.
The toilets were on the main deck. There were 10 each for men and for women. They were of a form convenient for use and were well equipped. Cleanliness was maintained here as well as in every other part of the third-class quarters.
There were also rooms labeled men’s and women’s washhouses. These proved to contain one bathtub each and about 10 wash basins. Women were allowed to do some little laundry for the children in the basins, and a bath could be had by feeing the stewardess one-half mark. This room was usually locked and could be used only by permission of the stewardess.
Meals were served in a large dining room seating 300 persons and situated on the first deck below the main deck. The tables accommodated l4 persons each for the most part and each was the special charge of one steward.
There were red covers, white napkins (which were changed once during the journey), heavy white porcelain dishes, and proper cutlery. There was double supervision and a thorough one by two higher officers of the dining room, as well as of the sleeping quarters and promenade deck.
In consequence of this, the stewards performed their duties carefully and thoughtfully, and so gave splendid service. The food, though it offered practically only actual necessities, was sufficient in quantity and adequately prepared and decently served.
The menu card which appeared each morning read:
- Breakfast.—Cereal, meat or eggs (sometimes), bread, butter, jam, coffee.
- Dinner.—Soup, meat, potatoes, one other vegetable, stewed fruit (occasionally), dessert.
- Three-o’clock lunch.—Coffee and coffee cake.
- Supper.—Bread, butter, tea, meat.
The open deck extending over the part of the vessel allotted to the third class served as its promenade deck. There was also a small upper deck, supplied with four benches. On this upper deck was an ‘American bar,’ well patronized, and a smoking room containing a piano. There was no special sitting room for women.
For entertainment, there was a very decent library of German and English books. The band played a half hour each afternoon in the dining room. Walking on the deck was popular since the air below in the cabins was heavy.
The stewards cleaned and scrubbed all day, and everything was kept clean. The floor in the dining room, the decks, and all the passageways between the cabins were washed every day. The floors in the cabins were swept as often and cleaned when necessary.
There was a separate entrance to the steward’s quarters, and except when taking the air on the open-air deck they did not mingle with the passengers. Sailors and others of the crew came into the third-class quarters only to perform assigned duties.
The nearly 300 passengers were a mixed lot ----from fairly well-to-do Americans, German artisans, clerks, etc., coming to America to try their fortune to servants returning from a visit to their native lands, laborers returning after the crisis, peasant women going to their husbands in the mining sections, and sheepherders, clothed in crude garments made by themselves from the skins of the sheep; from those who understood the use of the fork to those who ate with their fingers.
Nor was this mingling of extremes delightful to either side. Those who came from comfortable circumstances found accommodations somewhat too plain and simple and the presence of "them people awful," meaning the immigrants. The latter, again being made to feel their inferiority, held themselves in the background and hesitated to enjoy the comforts for which they had paid.
Some who had been obliged to pay the difference with their last money and go third class worried about their admittance at Ellis Island, and so did not enjoy the added comforts. Others were glad that they had escaped the steerage, though it took their last or all but that.
On the ______ each class was not so strictly confined to its own quarters; at least it was easy enough to go into the steerage and the third class.
During daily visits to the steerage, I made the acquaintance of a Bohemian girl there. She, though somewhat surprised at the generous offer, gladly changed places on the steamer with me. Our arrangement occasioned no serious inquiries.
The steerage was located in the bow of the vessel. The first entirely enclosed deck extending the entire length and width of the steamer was termed the main deck.
On this, there were three large compartments. The foremost of these was assigned to the use of families or women with children. The next, not being required for sleeping quarters on this trip, had its beds piled in one corner and was supplied with long wooden tables, having benches attached on either side.
This was the dining room, also the general lounging place in stormy weather. The third room was the sleeping quarters of women traveling alone. On the deck below were three similar compartments.
The men slept in the middle one of these. The other two were not used on this trip. The beds were the usual iron frames used in the steerage, built in two tiers and of the required dimensions.
Each was supplied with a mattress and pillow of seagrass and covered with a colored slip, a pair of gray blankets and a life preserver acting as a. second pillow.
These beds received no attention from the stewards throughout the entire voyage. Besides being a sleeping place, each bed also served as a repository for all hand baggage, additional clothing, and food, and as a rack for towels. Whatever belongings the steerage passenger had with him must be tucked away in his bed.
Each berth, littered as it necessarily was by every possession that the passenger could not wear or carry continually on his person, was nevertheless his one and only place of refuge or withdrawal.
Here, amid bags and baskets, outer wraps and better garments saved for disembarking, towels, and individual drinking cups and teapots, each of us undressed for the night and combed and dressed in the morning. Nor could there be proper or even decent preparation for retiring owing both to lack of privacy and to the lack of space for the disposal of clothes.
These must remain in the berth, and so it made little difference whether they were about or merely over the person. If the pipes running overhead sprung leaks, as they did on several occasions, garments were safer under the blankets than on top of them.
As for privacy, that is left entirely out of consideration in the steerage, where people are housed together in such large numbers and must spend every hour of the twenty-four, and this for many days, in the presence of so many others.
This entire lack of privacy accounts for more than one of the filthy or indecent habits of the immigrants on board. People, both men and women, who were ordinarily cleanly about their person, complained that it was totally impossible to keep clean with the given accommodations.
A self-respecting person couldn’t wash properly in a room that was being used at the same time by several others, and there was no avoiding becoming dirty.
Some very nice German girls, seeking to change their linen in private, waited until long after midnight, when all were asleep and even then stood as guard and screen for each other against the steward on duty in the compartment.
The floors in all the steerage quarters except on the main or open deck were made of large sheets of iron. In the sleeping compartments, though the floors, even under the berths, must be kept free of baggage, they were never washed.
They were swept in the morning in preparation for the daily inspection by the captain and his officers. And whenever the waste accumulated, it was again swept. But this sweeping by no means kept the floor clean.
No sick cans or receptacles for waste of any kind were provided. The sea was rough much of the time, and there were many sick. This alone kept the floor wet and in an awful condition, and since it was never washed the smell from it was dreadful.
The cleaning and littering of the floor went on in regular rounds. When the steward had finished sweeping, he brought out from his private stores a basket of boiled eggs and offered them for sale at all the berths. Then followed a basket of apples, another of oranges, dried prunes, pickled herrings, and sausage.
The immigrants bought as freely as their purses allowed of these edibles to supplement the regular meals, and when the steward had completed his round of sales the floor was again littered with egg shells, orange peels, apple cores, prune stones, and herring bones.
Nor could it be otherwise. There were no waste cans in which to throw these, and passengers more or less sick could not be expected to leave their berths and climb up on the open deck to throw such waste into the water. On the many stormy days, rainwater came down through the hatchways and through leaks in the ceiling.
The sleeping quarters were always a dismal, damp, dirty, and most unwholesome place. The air was heavy, foul, and deadening to the spirit and the mind. Those confined to these beds because of sickness soon lost all energy, enthusiasm, and ambition.
A division of the steerage into two classes was soon apparent. Those who were good sailors and could be up and out kept away from the sleeping rooms until very late and left them often as early as 5 am.
Those whom seasickness rendered weak and helpless in their beds were so stupefied and enervated by the oppressive, foul atmosphere that they continued to lie in their bunks as though in a stupor.
Such surroundings could not produce the frame of mind with which it is desirable that newcomers approach our land and receive their first impressions of it.
The dining room was quite as cheerless and dispiriting. At times when steerage travel is heavy, it is a sleeping compartment, as are all the other rooms of the steerage.
The three or four thousand Italians who are to return home for the holidays on the will not have the convenience of even this crude dining room but must eat wherever they can find a place to stand or sit.
The furniture of this dining room consisted of rather ingenious pieces, a table, and chairs, all in one. A long-board attached to the framework of the table on either side served as a solid bench.
This combination piece of furniture is probably convenient to handle in moving, but it indeed was most inconvenient for women to have to step over the benches getting in and out.
In the serving of the meals, the women were shown some consideration. Their tables were set by stewards. Each place was given a heavy, white porcelain soup plate, a knife, fork, and spoon.
The knife blades made of the very cheapest quality of steel were cleaned once during the voyage, and then the stewards gathered a crowd of the women passengers to help sandpaper them.
There were just barely enough dishes to go around, and more often not quite enough. For this reason, the passengers soon learned it was necessary to get a place at the tables as soon as they heard the rattle of dishes, to grab a plate and the cutlery as soon as it left the stewards’ hands and hold it until the food came.
The following bill of fare for the steerage was posted on the walls and was quite closely followed:
Breakfast, 7 am.-—-Coffee with milk and sugar; fresh bread, butter, oatmeal, corned beef, or cheese or herring.
Diner, 12 noon.—
- Sunday: Bouillon with rice and vegetables, fresh meat, potatoes, pudding with plum sauce.
- Monday: Pea soup, fresh beef or salted pork, potatoes, and sauerkraut.
- Tuesday: Bouillon with rice, fresh-meat, potatoes, French beans.
- Wednesday: Barley soup, fresh or salted beef, potatoes, cabbage or carrots.
- Thursday: Bouillon with rice and vegetables, fresh meat, potatoes, pudding with plum sauce.
- Friday: Bean soup, fresh beef or salted pork, potatoes, turnips or sauerkraut.
- Saturday: Barley soup with plums or bouillon, fresh or salted meat, potatoes, and sauce.
Afternoon, 3 o'clock.—Coffee with milk and sugar, bread or cake.
Supper, 6 pm.—A warm dish consisting of rice in milk or barley with plums or potatoes with herrings or Lapskaus or Râgout or Irish stew. Also white or rye bread, butter, and tea with sugar.
Dinner and supper were served an hour earlier than announced. Not much time was consumed in serving meals — never more than a half hour. The food was brought to the tables occupied by the women. It was passed down from the gallery on the open deck along with a line of stewards, as pails of water are by a bucket brigade.
For dinner each table receives a pail of soup, a small dishpan of meat and potatoes another with vegetables; or the other meals a large tin kettle o either tea or coffee already containing milk and sugar, bread, a plate of prune jam or a butter substitute. The dishes were afterward collected and washed by stewards.
The male passengers did not receive even this much service. Each of them had to take his turn in bringing the food for his table and in washing and caring for the table’s dishes. There were a couple of tubs of warm water in the corner of the dining room for dishwashing, but no towels.
There was also no place provided for keeping these dishes, so the beds and the floor beneath that already served so many purposes also acted as dish cupboard. Seats at tables were not assigned, nor was there any attempt to establish or maintain any order beyond to prevent crowding.
And even here the attempt was only apparent, for the real cause of it rested not with the passengers. They were obliged to seek places at the first sign of preparation for a meal; grab dishes if they were to be sure of any. More than one learned that to be a trifle late was to be too late.
The quality of the food was not bad, but the manner and haste in serving it made the meal unsatisfying. It might not be unreasonable to demand a little more care in its preparation and seasoning.
The Hebrew cook who prepared kosher food for the Jewish passengers received much the same materials as our cook. Some of the better passengers, mainly Germans, found the Jewish cooking so much more appealing that they sought favor with its cook to secure it continually.
They also complained of the quality of the bread, and the purser allowed their table to have the same bread supplied to the third class. The coffee and tea were less satisfactory than the other food, but hot water was available, and many prepared their own drink.
At the bar, besides drinks, apples and pickled herrings were sold. Several stewards had supplies of edibles that they offered for sale. The steerage passengers were already buyers.
The plain, tasteless, quickly bolted meals really required supplementing, and as long as there was money with which to buy, it was quite impossible to resist.
The washing and toilet rooms were entirely inadequate just as the sleeping and eating accommodations. These were located on the main or open deck. There were eight toilets and as many wash basins for the women; the men had two similar rooms adjoining. The construction of the toilets rendered them convenient enough for use had they been kept clean and dry.
The hose hung continually attached, and the daily cleaning consisted of washing off with the hose. The floor and seats were always wet, and, as the individual compartments were so very short and narrow, it was impossible to go in or out without rubbing one’s clothes against the wet and often dirty floor, step, and seat. In the washroom, leading to the toilets, the water often stood inches deep on the floor.
The eight washbasins were insufficient for over 200 women and children. The little room was crowded most of the day. We rose at 5 o’clock, or earlier, to get washed before breakfast, which was served so promptly at 7 o’clock. It really was no wonder to me when some finally gave up trying to keep clean.
In such filthy surroundings, it was necessary to wash often, and keeping even comparatively clean would have meant a perpetual struggle to get at a basin.
The two or three days before landing those who had given up the struggle resumed it with renewed vigor. The little washroom was crowded all day until late into the night with women washing their own and the children’s heads, and washing out towels and clothing.
They were genuinely heroic efforts at cleanliness in the face of every obstacle. Thorough washing of the body, or even a part of it, was entirely out of the question.
There were no bathtubs, and to monopolize a basin for more than a very few moments was impossible. Besides, one could never have the washroom entirely to himself even for a moment.
Here, where the surroundings make a bath imperative, it was an impossibility. All the human physical needs were so miserably provided for, or else entirely ignored, that it was not at all strange if the passenger developed and showed some animal propensities.
The steerage passenger certainly gets but very little besides his passage. Practically no consideration is had for him as regards either space, food, service, or conveniences. The first rule of ten on the walls announce that the passengers are responsible for the order and cleanliness of the steerage.
The difference in cost between a passage in the third class and the steerage is about $7.50; the difference between accommodations is everything, and the third class does no more than providing decently for the most straightforward human physical needs. The white napkins are the only nonessential that might be omitted.
Every other provision is essential to decency, dignity, health, and the preservation of self-respect. To travel in anything worse than what is offered in the third class is to arrive at the journey’s end with a mind unfit for healthy, wholesome impressions and with a body weakened and inappropriate for the hardships that are involved at the beginning of life in a new land.
The letter of the law may be obeyed implicitly without bringing about the desired reforms and conditions. This was very true on the ______. There was apparently every observance of the law, and yet the conditions in the steerage were such as should not exist.
Observing everything closely and considering it very carefully I could not see how conditions could be improved without changing the entire general arrangement of the steerage.
The undesirable features of the large sleeping compartments will continue as long as the use of the large compartments themselves continues. And so with many of the other evils; they are the inevitable accompaniments of the system itself.
The total abolition of the present steerage and the substitution for it of the third class would seem the complete solution of the many evils of the steerage.
Section 7 of the passenger act was posted in conspicuous places and was relatively well observed. However, there were a few breaches. Sailors and stewards did sometimes find themselves on the open deck with the steerage passengers and on such occasions did not hesitate to make free with the women.
This, however, was not of frequent occurrence. The steward in charge of the women’s sleeping compartment promptly expelled any adult male passenger who entered. The steward, however, and even the chief officer of the steerage, did not occasionally hesitate to poke, punch, and handle the women as they lay in their berths.
From those who had gone aboard as steerage passengers, I learned that they had been taken in a small vessel to the steamer the day before it sailed. They had been vaccinated by the ship’s physicians and relieved of their ship cards.
The physicians accompanied the captain on his daily tour of inspection, passing through all the steerage and third class quarters. However, there was no examination of the passengers until just the evening previous to landing.
Then each one bared his arm and presented the vaccination to the doctor for inspection. The women were all kept in first, then the men. After that, so that the last memories of the steamer might be pleasant, each woman was given a little candy, each man a pipe and package of tobacco.
The day before this, ship cards had been returned, and attached to each was a number to aid the division of passengers at Ellis Island; also a doctor’s card. Similar cards were given in the third class. These were marked and stamped in identically the same manner, though the one class had been vaccinated and the other had not.
Example of an Inspection Card with Page Numbers corresponding to the Manifest where the passenger was listed. GG Archives Image ID # 1d88299c7f
There were hospital rooms, one for men and one for women, but there seemed a strong objection to using them. A sign on the doors strictly forbade admittance, and the doors were locked except when a stewardess was present, and then she kept out the curious.
During the journey two women after much effort were admitted to the hospital. One was so weak she had to be carried. She was returned in a couple of days, but was still so weak she dropped in a heap on the iron floor of one of the compartments.
Neither stewards nor the two stewardesses noticed her, and when urged to get a mattress for her and help her to a berth said that was the business of the chief officer of the steerage, not theirs.
The two stewardesses in the steerage apparently had few duties. They distributed meal gruel to children and in nice weather drove out all the women on deck. Much of the time, they were not in the steerage at all.
There were 450 passengers in the steerage and almost 300 in the third class. They differed very little in kind. Nevertheless, it was possible to maintain cleanliness and order in the third class.
The blame for the filth of the steerage cannot then be placed entirely on the passengers. The third class is proof that if given an opportunity the poorer passengers do keep clean.
At Ellis Island, the inspection by the doctors and the officers of the Immigration Service was quickly completed. The work here has been reduced to a smooth system, and the officers are all kind, considerate, and humane until one has passed the boundary of their immediate jurisdiction.
After getting my railroad ticket, I was approached by an agent of the telegraph company. The ordinary immigrant would not have distinguished him from the immigration officials.
"Show your address," he commanded. "What’s your name?" and before I knew what it was all about, "Thirty cents for the telegram." And so he caught them, except those who had been there before and refused to be caught again.
Later I learned the usefulness of these telegrams. It said "Meet me at Union Station," but mentioned no trains. My friends spent a night at the station and then didn’t meet me. The other telegrams are about as useful.
Further on in the room, where the immigrants are sorted according to the railroad by which they are to continue their journey, they are considered prey.
A rough guard pushed me to the pen into which I belonged. A commissary clerk met me, led me 'to a spot where my baggage could be deposited, then to a counter, saying "Show your money."
I was about to obey, as a steerage passenger follows these commands given at so many points of his journey when I concluded that this was the attempt to compel one to buy a box of provisions for his trip to his ultimate destination. Many of the passengers had told me of it and warned me.
I refused to show my money. I was only going to Baltimore and did not need provisions for so short a journey. The man continued shouting, thinking thus to force me into buying, until he spied someone else entering. Then he dropped me and ran for the new victim.
Immigrants who had been here before and refused to be forced to buy received volleys of oaths and curses. The immigrants are practically forced to buy these boxes, regardless of the length of their journey or their desires.
One man bought a cigar and handed over a dollar. Three quarters were laid down in change, and when he demanded the rest, the clerk insisted on his taking something more instead of the 20 cents, and hadn’t the immigrant been experienced in the ways of the world he would have had to yield.
Finally, we were taken from here to our respective stations. We who were going on the ______ Line crossed in a ferry to a dingy, dirty, unventilated waiting room next to the ______ station in Jersey City.
Here we waited from 6 o’clock in the evening until after 9. About 8 o’clock the attendant signaled us to go downstairs, showing our tickets as we went. We all expected we were to board the train, so anxiously hurried along, dragging our heavy and numerous hand baggage.
The poor, travel-tired women and the sleepy little children were pitiful sights. Arrived at the bottom of the long stairs, we waited and waited, but there was no train.
Finally, the same attendant summoned us to return upstairs. Weary, tired, and disappointed, we climbed up again. Finally, we were led to our train at the big station.
We were again sorted according to our destination, and our train proceeded to Philadelphia. There we halted somewhere in the yards. Our entire coachful was to change cars. We piled out in the middle of the night, all laden down with luggage, the women had, also, sleeping and sleepy little children.
A trainman guided this weary and dejected party along the car tracks through the sleet and snow over a seemingly endless distance to the station.
Their pity seized him or else he was tired from l1elping carry the baggage of one poor woman who had five small children with her, and he allowed her to remain in the waiting room.
The rest of us, with our baggage, trudged farther on to what evidently was a lounging room for section hands. We were locked in there for an hour and a half when we were again led to the station to be put on a train.
They assigned us to the smoker—women, children, and all—and refused even to open the women’s toilet for us, compelling us to use the men’s.
For my immigrant’s ticket from New York to Baltimore, I paid $4.67. The regular price is $5. For this reduction of 33 cents, I was first placed in the charge of two rough, coarse, insolent attendants and compelled to wait over three hours in a dirty, foul-smelling room.
Then I was nine hours making a distance usually covered in six and compelled to sit in a smoker and use a men’s toilet. What those immigrants who had to travel longer distances suffered can be well imagined from the experiences of this short journey.
Treatment of Immigrants on Steamers in the Coastwise and Inland Traffic
A certain percentage of the immigrants who are distributed from New York City and other points travel toward their ultimate destination on smaller steamship lines in the coastwise trade. There seems to be no attention whatever paid to the accommodations for or care of immigrants on these ships.
On one steamer investigated it was found that steerage passengers were carried in a freight compartment separated from the rest of the vessel only by canvas strips and that in this compartment the immigrants were not provided with mattresses or bedding. There was practically no separation between the women and the men.
On this boat passengers other than aliens who pay the same price as the aliens have regular berths with mattresses and pillows, and a dining room is provided.
There is also the separation of the sexes. In this compartment, the negroes who patronize this line are quartered and receive for the same price much better treatment than the immigrants. This line has carried as many as 200 immigrants on one trip in these freight compartments.
On another line, however, which has accommodations for about 50 immigrants in its usual boats, the immigrants could obtain the same food as the crew, but the berths are in three tiers instead of two, as on the trans-Atlantic ships. They are also allowed the freedom of the lower forward deck.
On another trip, consisting of but one night, however, the berths for immigrants were in three tiers, and they were given the same food that was served to the crew, and there seems to be some care for the immigrants by watchmen and otherwise.
On a boat on the Hudson River the description of the cruelties to the immigrants is as follows:
Forward of the freight, in the extreme bow of the ship, is an open space. I saw Immigrants lying on the floor, also on benches, and some were sleeping on coils of rope, in some cases using their own baggage for headrests.
Conditions on the other line from New York to Albany were found to be identical, though in neither case was there the excuse of crowding, as there was plenty of room.
Of a vessel in the coastwise trade an investigator reports:
There was no attempt to separate the men from the women, and going into the sleeping quarters found the women and men in all state of dress and undress (mostly the latter). Hot nights they slept on deck, as it was too hot below.
Sunday, August 9, 1909, some man crept into the Polish woman’s bunk and attempted an assault, but her cries drove him off (this about midnight).
Monday night about the same time, the same man presumably, now acknowledged being some member of the crew (sailor)—this information I obtained by talking to some members of the crew (sailors)—attempted or did succeed in assaulting the same woman.
The captain started an investigation, but what came of it I was unable to learn, as the matter was hushed up.
It is proper to say that this charge was taken up by the proper authorities, but that no further evidence could be obtained. The quarters of that particular boat were clean and well kept and the food fair.
It is satisfactory to learn that upon the steamers of the Panama Railroad and Steamship Line, practically owned and operated by the United States Government, the conditions and discipline were found to be good, the only complaint being as to the food, which was said to be of inferior quality and of very scanty allowance on one of the boats.
The general comment to make concerning this class of transportation of the immigrants seems to be that it is left entirely to the companies. If the line is humane and progressive, the immigrants are well treated. If it is not, the immigrants suffer accordingly.
In all probability, the condition of the immigrants on these ships' could be made much better by the enforcement of existing statutes.
Results of the Italian Law Providing For Official Inspection of Steerage
Given the recommendation that immigrant inspectors and matrons travel on each ship carrying immigrants, the following extracts from a report on an Italian vessel are pertinent: The investigation was made by a woman.
(a) The food was good, wholesome, and abundant. The water was fresh. A notice was always given before each meal, and the same always served on time.
(b) Mothers, infants, and children were supplied twice daily with sterilized condensed milk, and also twice daily with beef tea and noodles.
(c) The royal commissioner, the ship commissioner, and frequently the captain, took their places at the head of the line and watched the distribution of the food, to see that the same was correctly served.
(d) The royal commissioner would always test the food prepared for steerage passengers. If it was found good and palatable, his orders were given to serve the same; if not found satisfactory, he saw that it was made fit for serving.
(e) The royal commissioner secured special food for steerage passengers who could not eat the food given by the company.
(f) Four cooks prepared the meals, two of whom did the service from the kitchen window. Two sailors helped to keep order outside of the kitchen window where the line of men was formed. These assistants were kind, strict, and attended well to their duties.
(g) The two entrances leading to the women’s compartment were always locked and guarded during the day, prohibiting any who made an effort to enter without permission.
Passengers were allowed on deck from 6 am to 5 pm, weather permitting. During this time, the sailors in charge of the women’s compartment performed their regular duties. The compartment was thoroughly washed and disinfected. Two sailors also kept guard at night.
(h) Officers, such as the royal commissioner and the doctor, visited the women’s compartment only when absolutely needed. On one occasion the captain was called upon to remove a man who wanted to remain with his wife, who was not well.
They were given a place by themselves. When the royal commissioner made his rounds, he was always accompanied, and his interest always seemed for the benefit of the passengers. Without such an officer steerage passengers doubtless would have suffered.
For passengers who were not well and unable to digest the foods served by the company, the royal commissioner spoke with the doctor’s approval and enabled them to get something special, such as a piece of beefsteak or beef tea with noodles.
Passengers had access to the first-class kitchen and at stated times and with the written permission from the royal commissioner received whatever they could get by paying a regular price for it.
It was evident that the royal commissioner worked for the interest of the steerage passengers. He was seen very often among them and helped those who needed special attention.
He cared for the sick and took the utmost interest to see that they were made comfortable. He administered medicine, arising at night; even, to visit extreme cases.
A Seaman's Statement Regarding Third Class
An investigator, formerly a seaman, who has crossed the Atlantic in all classes of ships makes the following comments concerning third class on one of the newer types of steamship:
I find that all the changes which I proposed to make in the law as stated in my former report are working most satisfactorily on board the ______. I also find that such changes would tend to the uplift of the average third-class passenger.
We had some of the same kind of immigrants on board as on the other ships. I have watched these people closely on the ______, and have noticed a remarkable difference in the behavior and cleanliness of the people on board this steamer.
I had a suit of old clothes myself which I wore going out on the ______. I intended to wear it back, but did not dare to nor want to, because nearly all passengers were dressed very well indeed.
He also states that he was so well treated that he was really obliged to tip the stewards. Some of the women whose cleanliness, neat clothing, and general good behavior he praises were from the races where the women wear no hats, but do wear boots, and were thus clad.
"Steerage Conditions," in Reports of the Immigration Commsion, Volume 37. Steerage Conditions--Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Puroses -- Immigrant Homes and Aid Societies -- Immigrant Banks. (S. Document No. 753, 61st Congress, 3rd Session) Presented by Mr. Dillingham, 5 December 1910, Washington: Government Printing Office (1911) P. 2, 5-51