February 13, 2011.
STEERAGE -- Excerpts from the book The Story of Ellis Island by Willard Heaps.
The Findings of a Commission established in 1907 to study steerage conditions and published in 1911, showed that conditions on many ships with old-type steerage were deplorable, and that the nightmare of the voyage often formed an unhappy introduction to our country. As the report stated, "The typical old-type steerage is the poorest possible introduction to, and preparation for, American life. It inevitably lowers the standards of decency, even of the immigrants, and too often breaks down their moral and physical stamina. It shatters their bright visions of American life, and lands them cynical and embittered .... "
The old-type steerage was described by a Commission investigator who traveled on a westbound voyage from Italy. "Imagine a large room, perhaps seven feet in height," he wrote in 1909, "extending the entire breadth of the ship and about one-third of its length, located for the most part in the bow or stern (fore or aft) sections. The floor and ceilings are sometimes of iron, but more often of wood. Through the center of the room, very probably, descends the shaft to the hold.
"This room is filled with a framework of iron pipes, forming a double tier of six-by-two-feet berths, with only sufficient space left to serve as aisles or passageways. Such a compartment will sometimes accommodate as many as three hundred passengers and is duplicated in other parts of the ship and on other decks.
"The open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys .... The only provisions for eating are frequently shelves or benches or along the sides or in the passages of sleeping compartments. Dining rooms are rare and if found are often shared with berths installed along the walls. Toilets and washrooms are completely inadequate; salt water only is available.
"The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it .... Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them .... It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding .... "
Another comment from a passenger. "The steerage never changes, neither its location nor its furnishings. It lies over the steering screws, sleeps to the staccato of trembling steel railings and hawsers. Narrow, steep and slippery stairways lead to it.
"Crowds everywhere, ill smelling bunks, uninviting washrooms-—-this is steerage. The odors of scattered orange peelings, tobacco, garlic and disinfectants meeting but not blending. No lounges or chairs for comfort, and a continual babel of tongues—this is steerage."
Another memory of a 1905 trip, by a seventeen year old boy. By consulting his worn diary, for he "knew the trip would be something I would never forget, something I would want to tell my children and grandchildren about, and therefore I would want to put it all down." He sailed from Piraeus, the port of Athens, on an English liner in which, from his story, the steerage was obviously old-type. He paid $36 for the 15-day voyage; and the ship made stops at Fiume on the Adriatic and at Naples, so that the steerage finally held over two thousand. His fellow passengers were other Greeks, Syrians, Croatians, Dalmatians, Carpathians and Italians.
The steerage was located in the stern and forward sections of the ship on four levels, many of them below the water line. One lower deck was devoted entirely to steerage compartments.
“The rooms had about 150 people in each one, sometimes more," he recalled. "Our bunks were upper and lower and we had no place to put our bags, so we had to hold them on the mattress like we were sleeping with them and it was not very comfortable. We did not have springs, but instead there was some kind of metal strips which we could feel through the mattress. It was a great big burlap bag of straw, and not very much of that either. Besides, it smelled because a lot of people had probably been seasick on it and I am sure it had never been washed.
“There were no pillows and we used our life preservers instead. They were hard cork, I think, and so I put my folded coat over mine. I had a thin blanket, but it was never cold so I did not need it. Everybody slept in their clothes. There was no fresh air and after about three days the smell was terrible.
"To make it worse, in good weather everyone wanted to be on the decks at both ends of the boat and the space was little, and most of us had to stand up in a close crowd in order to get some fresh air.
"We had three stormy days . . . so we just stayed in our berths and everyone was sick, and no one came to clean up. We did not even have any pails or cans and once in a while there would be some sawdust put on the floor. I don’t believe I have ever felt worse in my life. It was the first time I was away from home and I was more homesick than seasick.
"Oh yes, we each had a plate and a cup and a spoon, and we ate in our berths. The cooks came with big pots of soup and stew and filled our dishes, but most people did not even try to eat. We had to wash our things in the salt water in the same basin where we washed our faces and hands.
"Complain? Who would I complain to? And what would be the good? We were just trapped, that’s all, and I was never as happy in my life as when we got to New York and Ellis Island!"
The old—type steerage pattern occasionally had some variations. An Italian made the trip from Naples in 1907, when the immigration to the United States from Italy was at its peak. He paid $36. His sister was with him and they were to join his parents, who had immigrated three years before and sent them tickets. The unique feature of this voyage was that he and about 150 others shared their steerage quarters with a race horse!
"When we went on board in the morning my sister had to go to a special ladies’ section and I to one for men only." "We were almost all Neapolitans from central Italy. About three hundred men were usually in the section I was in, but this was cut in half for this particular trip. The double bunks were along the walls and in rows towards the center, with only small aisles between.
"But in the middle of the room, where some bunks had been taken away, there was a closed stall about four feet high and in it was a horse! Some of the men asked a sailor if there was not some mistake, that maybe the horse should be with the freight but not with people. But no, this animal belonged to a rich American who was in first class and this was the only place they could find room for him. All this was very puzzling because most Italian ships have a government representative on board as the law required. There was such a man but he seemed to think it was a great joke, so I guess he must have been paid to allow it.
"So the horse was with us while we slept and while we ate. He was a nervous horse, and he stomped a lot and neighed and made funny noises all the time except when it was dark. There was a man who did nothing but take care of that horse and twice a day he would take it up the stairs with boards over the steps, and the horse would get his exercise. The people on deck were as astounded as we were! Nobody said a word because the horse was kept clean, and as a matter of fact it was something to talk about! Besides, the ship was crowded and where could we go?
"We had no dining room and we ate wherever we could find room--in our bunks, on deck, on the stairways, everywhere and anywhere. There were no chairs at all any place and so we sometimes sat on the floor to eat.
"When we went on board we passed a storeroom and were given a blanket in which we found a tin pan, a dipper type of cup, a spoon and a fork, but no knife. I guess that was because many people tore the meat apart with their hands. The man told us that we had to keep these for the trip. We washed them in a barrel of cold sea water and with all the greasy pasta dishes it was not very good.
"We each had a red card which said ‘Good for one ration’ and an officer told us to organize in groups of six and appoint a capo di rancic [rations chief] who would go to the galley at each meal, hand over the tickets and bring back whatever we were to have, also the wine to go with it. Then he would come back and serve us. Mostly we had macaroni soup, at least so often that that’s all I remember. One day I was the capo-we took turns-and we had biscuits, and the steward took them out of a dirty burlap sack.
"I was used to washing regularly but we had to wait in line for a basin, sometimes for half an hour, and of course this was before the days of showers. The water was not even fresh; it was salt and some people got skin infections and split lips from the dried salt.
"One thing I did not understand. I never saw my sister during the trip because the people in different compartments went on deck at different times and then had to go back inside to make room for others. I did not sleep well on this trip. There were too many people around all the time and that horse really bothered me! Ellis Island seemed like paradise when I got there."
Another comment. The monotony of the voyage was officially broken twice. The ship’s doctor visited each compartment in a hurried survey; this was to avoid a fine if sickness was not later reported to immigration officials. Finally, on the last day, all passports were routinely checked.
In spite of the miserable conditions, all was not gloom in steerage. There were constant card games, much music and occasional dancing. And the conversation about the future was endless.
Rumors circulated about Ellis Island; the stories of rejections and deportations were repeated endlessly. Those who were familiar with the routines drilled the novices in giving the right answers which would prevent delays and difficulties. Scores of what one investigator called "useless lies" were rehearsed over and over. "Many persons whose entry into the country would be in no way hindered by even the strictest enforcement of the letter of the immigration laws," he reported, "were trembling in their shoes and preparing to evade or defeat the purpose of questions which they had heard would be put to them."
Men were coached in two important areas: "Remember, you have no work, and you paid your own way." The first was to avoid possible difficulties under the anti contract labor laws, the last to convince the officer that there was no possibility that the immigrant would not be able to make a living and thus become a "public charge."
Many passengers began learning and practicing a few English words, phrases and sentences. The end of the voyage would result in the clearance process and, if successful, the immigrant would need some knowledge of English to make his way in the fabulous new life of opportunities which he was sure awaited him.