Life On Board – Passengers

Life On Board – Passengers shares the similarities and differences among the classes traveling on steamships.

“In steerage there are males and females; in the second cabin, ladies and gentlemen.”

Weather and violent seas of the North Atlantic often left passengers’ bags flying around their staterooms or passengers themselves holding onto rails hoping that seasickness would pass them by. Henry Bessemer, inventor of the blast furnace, decided to try to cure seasickness with an elaborate invention called the Bessemer Saloon in 1873. The main cabin of the ship was suspended so that it could remain stationary while the hull rolled, but his experiment failed when the saloon rolled worse than the ship! One early passenger claimed that it was impossible to flirt because,”Alas! All the young girls are sick–devilishly sick.”

Steerage Passengers

Life On Board - Passengers

Steerage passengers on the deck.

Emigrants journeyed to the port cities for their departure often staying in miserable penny-a-night lodgings that were sometimes the first introduction to urban life. One Queenstown captain reported:

“They all seemed glad to leave their native land. We hardly got outside the harbor before diddles and concertinas would be produced, and they would be dancing away on the foredeck.”

The joy of the journey was short-lived. In the early days, emigrants were often transported in former slave ships, packed into suffocating holds. One historian wrote:

“Between decks was like a loathsome dungeon. When the hatchways were opened under which the people were stowed, the steam rose, and the stench was like that for a pen of pigs.”

Conditions later improved with William Inman, who first offered cheap steamship passage to emigrants in 1850. Until then, steamships mostly carried first-class passengers and express cargo. Although conditions improved, steerage quarters were crowded and noisy with minimal privacy. Even as late as 1890, it was common practice for shipowners to transport cattle in the same space that was occupied for human cargo on the return journey from America to Europe.

First Class Passengers

Life On Board - Passengers

On board the SS New York. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Life On Board - Passengers

Grand saloon of the Atlantic. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

First-class passengers took their time to say their good-byes, but for steerage ticket holders, they were advised to arrive early to secure the best bunk. First-class passengers would sometimes tour the lower decks, but steerage passengers were not allowed up to the first-class deck. In 1906, on the maiden voyage of the French Line’s La Provence, 422 first-class passengers found luxurious accommodations like a gilded dining saloon. On the White Star Line’s steamship, the Teutonic, one could find a beautiful Victorian interior, leather covered walls, mahogany woodwork, mirrors and murals, and plush settees. One first-class traveler noted:

“the domestic architect was called into service, entrusted to dispel the idea that one was really on board ship, in favor of the illusion that one was really living in a luxurious hotel.”


Byron S. Miller, Sail, Steam, and Splendour: A Picture History of  Life Aboard the Transatlantic Liners (New York: Times Books, 1977).