True Immigrant Tales: Steerage Challenges in Getting Fed

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

            “Each steerage passenger is to be furnished “all the eating utensils necessary.” These he finds in his berth, and like the blanket they become his possession and his care. They consist of a fork, a large spoon, and a combination workingman’s tin lunch pail The bottom or pail part is used for soup and frequently as a wash basin; a small tin dish that fits into the top of the pail 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 into this projection is used for drinks. These must serve the passenger throughout the voyage and so are generally hidden away in his berth for safe-keeping, there being no other place provided. Each washed his own dishes, and if he wished to use soap and a towel, he had to provide his own.

Steerage dining room, circa 1910

            “Dish washing is not easy, as there is only one faucet of 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 dish washing. 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 are 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 part of a compartment on the first deck below the main deck. It contained seven long tables, each with two benches, and seating at the most 12 persons. The remainder of the compartment contained 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.

Steerage steward announces dinner while holding coffee pail.

            “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 table were assigned and no arrangement made for two sittings, and as all could not be seated at once, the result was 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 walls 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, it is undoubtedly 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 wash room. 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 of 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.”

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


4 thoughts on “True Immigrant Tales: Steerage Challenges in Getting Fed

  1. It boggles the mind! My grandmother aged nine with her mother and six (!) younger siblings, including a baby under a year old, came from southern Hungary to outback Manitoba via the Hamburg /Amerika Linie’s ship, Blucher in 1906. I have a feeling the baby died on the ship because he was listed in the census (oir he could have died as a young child, having a weak start as he did in the steerage of this ship.

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