BC (Before Cruising) Travelling in Steerage

We’ve all heard many people emigrated to America from Europe crossed the Atlantic in steerage. Before you complain your cabin is too small or the food onboard isn’t as good as it was, you might consider what steerage class was like.

Steerage was the least expensive option for crossing the Atlantic. Around 1900, the crossing took 7-10 days. If you were crossing between 1850 and 1900, in the early days, a ship might offer three classes: First, Second and Steerage.

  • Accommodations. Passengers slept, ate and interacted in the same large space. (Yes, this sounds like abiding by the stay at home restrictions during our pandemic, only with more people.)
  • Sleeping. Bunk beds in one large space, accommodating perhaps 900 people. Men, women and children mingled together. Straw mattresses. No bed linens.
  • Food. It depends on the time period and the ship. In some cases, passengers brought their own food. Sometimes food was provided, but passengers had to cook it. Other times, the fare included a meal plan.
  • Toilets. Let’s start by saying there weren’t en suite accommodations. Some descriptions use the words “inadequate sanitary conditions.”
  • Deck space. These accommodations were deep inside the ship. In good weather, the hatches were opened. People would get fresh air and sunlight. In rough weather, they needed to “batten down the hatches” confining people inside.

Accommodations gradually became better. Steerage “disappeared,” replaced by Third Class. People might be accommodated two or four to a cabin, sleeping in bunks. There were dining rooms, although passengers ate at long tables. Cabins and running water and electricity. Such were the third class accommodations on the Titanic.

Cover photo: San Francisco dock ©Dennis Cox/WorldViews

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