True Immigrant Tales: Traveling in Steerage

Steerage conditions varied greatly, depending on the steamship line and the ship’s size, but all were unpleasant to say the least. Below is testimony from a government inspector, disguised as an immigrant, reporting in 1909 to the Dillingham Immigration Commission about the poor sanitary conditions on a smaller ship that carried less than 200 immigrants.

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 underneath 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 coverings. . . .


Our compartment was subdivided into three sections—one for the German women, which was completely boarded 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. Outside the fence was the so-called dining room, getting all the bedroom smells from these 60 crowded berths. . . .

The floors in 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 wash room. One of the crew directed me to a door bearing the sign “Wash room for men.” Within were both men and women. Thinking I had been misdirected, I proceeded to the other wash room. 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 women’s wash rooms. These were on the main deck and not convenient to any of the sleeping quarters. To use them one had to cross the open deck, subject to the public gaze. In the case of the families and men, it was necessary to come upstairs and cross the deck to get to both the wash rooms and the toilets.


The one wash room, 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 difficult, 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 a 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 wash room” 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 wash room. 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, and to avoid this many preferred cold water and the wash basins. The steerage stewards also brought dishes here to wash.  If there was no privacy in the sleeping quarters, there was certainly none in the wash rooms.

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 keep clean. No woman with the smallest degree of modesty and with no other conveniences than a wash room, used jointly with men, and a faucet of cold salt water can keep clean amidst such surroundings for a period of twelve days and more. It was forbidden to bring water for washing purposes into the sleeping quarters, nor was there anything in which to bring it. On different occasions, some of the women rose early, brought drinking water in their soup pails, and thus tried to wash themselves effectively, 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 wash basins. 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. 

[Read about the people and events of Ellis Island prior to 1909 in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

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