Steerage is the lower deck of a ship, where the cargo was stored above the open hold. During the early 1900s many immigrants were too poor to travel on the upper decks, with wealthy passengers, so they were cramped in converted cargo spaces which provided the lowest cost and lowest class of travel. The living conditions on the steerage deck were often horrible, with no bathroom facilities besides pots and pans. These horrible conditions caused many deaths due to unsanitary and cramped quarters. Gradual improvements to steerage class after the arrival of ocean liners led to its replacement by Third Class cabins.
Traditionally, the steerage is "that part of the ship next below the quarter-deck, immediately before the bulkhead of the great cabin in most ships of war, also identified as the portion of the 'tween-decks just before the gun-room bulkhead. The name originates from the steering tackle which ran through this area to connect the rudder to the tiller or helm. In some ships the second-class passengers are called steerage passengers. The admiral's cabin on the middle deck of three-deckers has been called the steerage."
The steerage area of the ship was once used to accommodate passengers travelling on the cheapest class of ticket, and offered only the most basic amenities, typically with limited toilet use, no privacy, and poor food. Many immigrants to the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century traveled in this area of the ships.
The American photographer Alfred Steiglitz wrote in 1907 of conditions in steerage aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm II in the following terms:
...the 900 steerage passengers crowded into the hold of so elegant and roomy a steamer as the Kaiser Wilhelm II, of the North German Lloyd line, are positively packed like cattle, making a walk on deck when the weather is good, absolutely impossible, while to breathe clean air below in rough weather, when the hatches are down is an equal impossibility. The stenches become unbearable, and many of the emigrants have to be driven down; for they prefer the bitterness and danger of the storm to the pestilential air below. The division between the sexes is not carefully looked after, and the young women who are quartered among the married passengers have neither the privacy to which they are entitled nor are they much more protected than if they were living promiscuously.
The food, which is miserable, is dealt out of huge kettles into the dinner pails provided by the steamship company. When it is distributed, the stronger push and crowd, so that meals are anything but orderly procedures. On the whole, the steerage of the modern ship ought to be condemned as unfit for the transportation of human beings...Take for example, the second cabin which costs about twice as much as the steerage and sometimes not twice so much; yet the second cabin passenger on the Kaiser Wilhelm II has six times as much deck room, much better located and well protected against inclement weather. Two to four sleep in one cabin, which is well and comfortably furnished; while in the steerage from 200 to 400 sleep in one compartment on bunks, one above the other, with little light and no comforts. In the second cabin the food is excellent, is partaken of in a luxuriantly appointed dining-room, is well cooked and well served; while in the steerage the unsavory rations are not served, but doled out, with less courtesy than one would find in a charity soup kitchen.
The steerage ought to be and could be abolished by law...On many ships, even drinking water is grudgingly given, and on the steamer Staatendam, four years ago, we had literally to steal water for the steerage from the second cabin, and that of course at night. On many journeys, particularly on the SS Fürst Bismarck, of the Hamburg American Line, five years ago, the bread was absolutely uneatable, and was thrown into the water by the irate emigrants.
In providing better accommodations, the English steamship companies have always led; and while the discipline on board of ship is always stricter than on other lines, the care bestowed upon the emigrants is correspondingly greater.
- Smyth, William Henry; Belcher, Edward (1867). The sailor's word-book: An alphabetical digest of nautical terms, including some more especially military and scientific ... as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc. London: Blackie and Son. p. 654.
- Steiner, pp 30-47.
- Steiner, Edward A. (1906): On the Trail of the Immigrant, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, © 1906, Fifth Edition. Chapter III, The Fellowship of the Steerage, Pages 30–47 GGA SDC 1555046572.