Life On Board – Passengers

SOCIAL STUDIES – Find out the similarities and differences among the classes traveling on steamships in Life On Board – Passengers.

“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. Passengers held onto rails hoping that seasickness would pass. 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. 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. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Emigrants journeyed to the port cities for their departure often staying in miserable penny-a-night lodgings, 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 did not last long. In the early days, former slave ships carried emigrants, 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 remained crowded and noisy with minimal privacy. Even as late as 1890, oftentimes shipowners transported cattle in the same space that as their human cargo on the return journey from America to Europe.

Life On Board - Passengers
On board the SS New York. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

First Class Passengers

Rudolph Valentino on board the Leviathan, c. 1925, E. N. Pickerell Collection, SSHSA Archives.
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. For steerage ticket holders, they had to arrive early to secure the best bunk. First-class passengers would sometimes tour the lower decks, but steerage passengers could not go 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.”

Questions for Further Thought

  1. What were living conditions like for passengers in first-class compared to steerage-class?
  2. How did conditions change for the better for steerage passengers over time? What still needed improvement?


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

Education Standards

National Council for Social Studies

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