Around the beginning of the 20th century, crossing the Atlantic Ocean by steamship took from six to twelve days. Though Professor Angelo Colosi and his daughter, Lucia, were prosperous enough to make the journey in the comforts of the second-cabin class, for most of our other relatives along with most immigrants in general, the experience was one of misery.
Most immigrants booked into the less expensive steerage-class and paid around $25 for their ticket. This was about two or three week’s worth of wages for most of them. The steerage compartments were located in the lowest decks where the ships steering controls and engines were housed. Each steerage passenger was assigned a numbered metal berth, a canvas or burlap mattress stuffed with hay or seaweed, a life-preserver which doubled as a pillow, and a tin pail and utensils for meals, which were often served from a large tank.
The bunks were typically stacked two high and side by side. A compartment usually accommodated up to 400 passengers. The conditions were poor, although they were vastly improved from those of earlier years. Ships built after 1910 replaced steerage-class with third-class where there would be four-berth or six-berth cabins, and stewards serving meals in dining rooms with china and flatware.
Infectious diseases often developed in steerage due to the large number of people packed in like cattle. The average mortality rate was 10 percent per voyage. It was hard to have fresh air, especially in bad weather when the hatches were down, and it wasn’t all that easy to go up on the limited and poorly placed deck that steerage-class was allowed on. Many would do their best to go up on deck even in bitter and dangerous storms, because the stench in steerage would become unbearable, but they would often be driven back down to their compartment.
The division between the sexes was not looked after carefully. Young women were often put together with those who were married and they had no privacy. The food was undesirable, too, and when it was distributed, the stronger would push and crowd others out. Many complained that steerage should be condemned as unfit for transporting human beings.
Second-cabin tickets cost twice or more as steerage. They often had six times as much deck room, and it was much better protected from inclement weather. Two to four would sleep in a cabin, which was comfortably furnished. But for steerage, there would be 2 to 4 hundred in one compartment on bunks, with little light and no comfort.
In second-cabin the food was excellent, and was partaken of in a luxuriantly appointed dining-room. It was well cooked and well served; while in the steerage the unsavory rations were not served, but doled out, and without courtesy.
On many of the ships even drinking water was grudgingly given out, sometimes immigrants had to literally steal water at night from second-cabin. At times bread was uneatable, and was thrown into the water by irate immigrants.
The crew did not always treat the immigrants well, either. Some would complain that the crew was villainous, bossy, arrogant and overbearing, saying that they treated the steerage-class like animals.
To pass the time, those in steerage would play cards, sing, dance and talk. Rumors about rejections and deportations at Ellis Island caused many to do rehearsals for answering the immigration inspectors’ questions. And hour upon hour was spent learning a new language.
By the time the trip came to an end, most immigrants were in a state of shock physically, mentally and emotionally. But at the shores of the new world with tears of relief streaming down their faces, in spite of the misery they endured, the immigrants had faith for their future in this land called America.