Emigrants aboard the SS Patricia, c. 1906. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The evolution of steamship technologies played a significant role in the history of immigration to the United States. During the years between 1815 and 1921, more than 30 million people left their homelands to settle in the U.S. These immigrants left behind religious persecution, famine, pogroms, and autocratic regimes. Primarily from northern and western Europe, emigrants traveled in noisy, crowded, often unventilated bunks below deck. Traveling in often unsanitary conditions, many arrived in the U.S. ill or exhausted, if they made it through the journey at all.

Records are lacking for immigration in the early nineteenth century, but what records do exist suggest the mortality rate for the young and old for overseas travel could reach as high as 10 percent. In the 1850s, William Inman of the Liverpool based Inman Line, created a new steerage class that provided for better living conditions and briefer travel. By the late nineteenth century, separate steerage dining and sanitary facilities were common, as well as lounges and semi-private cabins.

Inspecting women immigrants. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By 1870, more than 90 percent of immigrants arriving to America came on steamships. The steamship shortened the length of a voyage from a minimum of five or six weeks at sea to less than two weeks, causing a decrease in variability of arrival time. Both of these factors reduced mortality of passengers. The shorter trip time also changed the nature of immigration itself.

During sail travel, immigrants usually were composed of families looking to settle permanently in the United States. With steam travel, more males migrated on a temporary basis, looking to come to the U.S. to work for a period of time and then return home to Europe. The steamship also shortened the time between Mediterranean ports, which allowed for people to leave from many more European ports.

In the early days of immigration, emigrants were often transported in former slave ships. Like slaves before them, emigrants were crowded into dark holds, often 6 to 10 people in bunks 10 feet wide, 5 feet long and 3 feet high. It was here that emigrants spent the 40 days, or 2 or 3 months depending on the winds and tides. Diseases like cholera, dysentery, yellow fever, small pox and typhus were rampant. Conditions improved with the years and in 1850, William Inman became the first to offer cheap steamship travel for emigrants and created steerage quarters to allow for privacy.

Baltic’s boatload of 1000 marriageable girls, 1907. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Beginning in 1820, ship captains were required to file a list of all passengers aboard an arriving ship to the U.S. port authorities, and serve as the basis for official estimates of immigration for the nineteenth century. Total immigration decreased in 1855 due to nativism and subsequently fell further with the economic downturn in 1857 and the outbreak of the Civil War. Beginning in 1863, immigration again began to increase and continued to do so until the depression began in 1873.

Before World War I (1914-1918), most passengers coming to the United States were immigrants. They came in steerage class seeking a more prosperous life. But after the Russian Revolution (1917), and fearing the influx of communists, the U.S. changed its immigration policy and congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in May 1921.

Political cartoon depicting Puerto Rican and Irish immigrants as troublemakers, 1897. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The National Origins Act of May 24, 1924, also put a cap on immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe after the war. With less immigrants making their way to America via steerage, steamship companies began to look to a new audience to ensure economic gains. Tourism and the rise of a new middle class that sought luxury travel took hold and the steamship companies began to change their marketing effort to follow suit.

Immigration Topics

Fabre Line and Immigration to Providence

Immigration and Disease

Immigration to Ellis Island

Life On Board – Passengers

Ventilation and AC

Additional Resources on Immigration

Ellis Island Oral History Program – approximately 1900 interviews. The interviews include people from dozens of countries, former Immigration and Public Health Service employees, military personnel stationed at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty as well as people detained at Ellis Island during World War II until it closed in 1954.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History: Ocean Crossings, 1870-1969 — Liners to America.

Liner Transatlantic Crossing Times, 1833 – 1952 (in days).

Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea’s online exhibit, Immigration and Steamships.

Test your knowledge of push/pull factors in immigration.

Port of Entry: Immigration – Use this Library of Congress tool to become a historical detective and investigate photographs and eyewitness account of immigrant life in America.

Immigration and Migration: Our Changing Voices – Through dialogue, documentation, research, and interviews, students understand their role in society.


Lorraine Coons and Alexander Varias, Tourist Third Cabin: Steamship Travel in the Interwar Years (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2003).

Paul Forsythe Johnston, Steam and the Sea (Salem, MA: Peabody Museum of Salem,  1983).

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

Raymond L. Cohn, “The Transition from Sail to Steam in Immigration to the United States,” The Journal of Economic History (June, 2005: Vol. 65, No. 2).