Immigrant trade was the staple of European steamship lines. Timber and cotton filled the holds on the inward voyage, and people on the outward. Liverpool, Southampton, Rotterdam, Cherbourg, and Hamburg were the major ports to America and Australia. The Baltic ports, closer in distance to Eastern Europe, were too frequently iced-in to allow for a regular shipping service and their distance, by sea, to America was far greater: Libau is 4,400 kilometres from New York whereas Hamburg is only 3,600 kilometres.
There was no infrastructure to cope with the overwhelming number of foreigners arriving in the port cities. Thousands of confused immigrants thronged through the streets, and they were easy prey for the deceitful, and the sharpies. “Runners” pretended to help the befuddled who spoke no English, offering to carry bags, and refer them to lodging houses and passenger brokers. In reality, they were mere con artists who returned baggage only in exchange for large sums of money. Others lured young women into prostitution or swindled trusting immigrants out of their passage money and their possessions. Parked in squalid houses or filthy hotels where they were charged exorbitant sums, immigrants waited for boats to leave, or for ticket money to arrive from relatives. Some, never able to pay, stayed behind.
Eventually, because it was feared that immigrants were carriers of disease, also because those rejected by American Immigration were returned at the ship owner’s expense, conditions did improve. By the end of the nineteenth century, shipping companies were providing medical care, food and lodging to those en route, and special train lines delivered them to “hotels” and quarantine areas when they arrived in the port. Some huge hangars could handle 2,400 people at a time.
Most passengers travelled in the notoriously crowded steerage, and conditions were horrific. The large compartments that held 300 passengers per section were poorly ventilated; during gales, hatches would be fixed down, and when the boat was overloaded, windows were below water level. Berths were divided into two tiers and contained mattresses and pillows filled with seaweed and straw that were “occasionally” replaced after a voyage. Floors made of sheets of iron were more desirable than wooden floors that retained the smell of vomit. Neither sick cans nor waste receptacles were furnished and compartments were not cleaned until ships reached the ports of inspection. There were no dining rooms; tables were shelves along the walls of sleeping compartments.
Since space on the open deck was limited, the majority of passengers had to remain below. Water was too scarce for bathing, sanitation was lacking and there was no heating on winter crossings. Added to these wretched conditions were risks of icebergs, fire, food shortages and illness. Those who died during the passage were buried at sea.
And although the exhausted immigrants had hoped that their troubles would be over when they arrived in the New World, they were wrong. Waiting for them were the same tricksters, sharpies and pimps, the same terrible lodging houses, and the tyranny of sweatshop labour.
(Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers by Jill Culiner)