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The Immigration Commission's report on steerage conditions, which was presented to Congress December 13, 1909, was based on information obtained by special agents of the Commission traveling as steerage passengers on 12 different transatlantic steamers, as well as on ships of every coastwise line carrying immigrants from one United States port to another. There had never before been a thorough investigation of steerage conditions by national authority, but such superficial investigations as had been made, and the many nonofficial inquiries as well, had disclosed such evil and revolting conditions on some ships that the Commission determined upon an investigation sufficiently thorough to show impartially just what conditions prevailed in the steerage. It is, of course, true that the old-time steerage with its inherent evils largely disappeared with the passing of the slow sailing vessel from the immigrant-carrying trade, but the Commission's investigation proved clearly that the “steerage” is still a fact on some ships, although on others it has been abolished. Indeed, the investigation showed that both good and bad conditions may and do exist in immigrant quarters on the same ship; but, what is of more importance, it showed that there is no reason why the disgusting and demoralizing conditions which have generally prevailed on immigrant ships should continue.
The complete report of the Commission upon this subject includes a detailed account of the experiences of an Immigration Commission agent in the steerage of three transatlantic ships, but for the purpose of this summary a more general description of conditions under which immigrants are carried at sea will suffice.
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 concomitant 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.
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 old-type steerage, those having the new-type steerage, and those having both. In order to make clear the distinction among these subdivisions, a description of the two types of steerage, old and new, will be given.
* See Steerage Legislation, 1819–1908. Reports of the Immigration Commission, vol. 40. (S. Doc. No. 661, 61st Cong., 3d sess.)
THE OLD-TYPE STEERAGE.
The old-type steerage is the one whose horrors have been so often described. mi, 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 form 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 the compartments are often 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, is 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 mattresses is the partition” between berths. The blankets differ in weight, size, and material on the 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 a large measure, confine himself. No space is designated for hand baggage. As practically ev 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. Almost everyone has some better clothes saved for disembarkation, and some wraps that are not worn all the time, and these must either be hung about the framework of the berth or stowed 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 the 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 floors consisting 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 leavings 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 vomitings of the seasick are often permitted to
a See pp. 597-600.
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.
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 constant abode of a majority of the passengers. During days of continued storm, when the unprotected open deck can not be used at all, the berths and the passageways between them are the only places where the steerage passenger can spend his time.
When to this very limited 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 bad, even in the higher inclosed 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 vitiated air. 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 the open deck was always filled long before daylight by those who could no longer endure the foul air between decks.
Wash rooms and lavatories, separate for men and for women, are required by law, and this law also states that 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 unhygienic 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 washbasins are invariably too few in number, and the rooms in which they are placed are 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 wash room. And 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 wash rooms 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.
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 is made to do this by systematic repeated sittings. In some instances the tables are mere shelves along the wall of a sleeping compartment. Sometimes plain boards set on wooden trestles and rough wooden benches placed in the passageways of sleeping compartments are considered a compliance with the law. Again, when a compartment is only partly full, the unoccupied 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 most ample provision of dining accommodations ever made in the old-type steerage, and occurs only when the space is not needed for other more profitable use.
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. 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 afterwards 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
Under the new system of serving, women and children are given the preference at such tables as there are, and the most essential eating utensils are placed by the stewards and are 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 afterwards. They eat where they can, most frequently on the open deck. Stormy weather leaves no choice but the sleeping compartment.
The food may be generally 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, and meat, when not old leavings from the first and second galleys, form a fair substantial diet. Coffee is invariably bad and tea does not count as food with most immigrants. Vegetables, fruits, and pickles form an insignificant part of the diet and are generally of a 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.
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, and 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