Record numbers of 19-century immigrants arrived in American port cities from the UK and Western Europe following the War of 1812—but that’s only if they managed to survive the journey. Many of the new arrivals were desperately poor, paid very little for their passage and were treated as nothing more than cargo by shipping companies.

One of the United States’ first immigration laws, the Steerage Act, passed on March 2, 1819, was a half-hearted attempt to improve such transatlantic travel conditions. But the regulations it introduced did little to address the horrors of 19th-century travel in steerage—a catch-all term for the lowest class of sea travel. In 1847, alone, close to 5,000 people died from diseases like typhus and dysentery on ships bound for America.

Disease thrived in the squalid conditions of steerage travel, where, depending on the size of a ship, a few hundred to 1,000 people could be crammed into tight quarters. Wooden beds, known as berths, were stacked two- to three-high with two people sharing single berths and up to four squeezed into a double. The only ventilation was provided by hatches to the upper decks, which were locked tight during rough seas and storms.

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Men, women and children in bunks between decks on board an immigrant ship in the mid 19th century.

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Since the only bathrooms were located above deck, passengers trapped below during stormy weather were forced to urinate and defecate (and get seasick) in buckets, which would overturn in the churning waves. The stench was unbearable and the spread of deadly diseases like typhoid, cholera and smallpox spread unabated.

Food was also in constant shortage. Some ships required passengers to bring their own meager provisions, while others provided only minimum rations meant to keep passengers from starving. A lack of clean drinking water and rancid food resulted in rampant bouts of dysentery

Congress professed to respond to these inhumane conditions with the Steerage Act of 1819, which was supposed to set minimum standards for cross-Atlantic travel. The act imposed a stiff penalty—$150, or $3,000 in 2019 dollars—for each passenger in excess of two people for every five tons of ship weight. It also laid down minimum provisions—60 gallons of water and 100 lbs of “wholesome ship bread” per passenger—but only required those rations for ships leaving U.S. ports for Europe, not immigrant vessels arriving in America.

The crux of the Steerage Act was a new requirement that all arriving ships provide U.S. customs agents with a written manifest of everyone on board, their age, sex and occupation, their country of origin and final destination. Captains also had to report the number and names of all people who died during the voyage. These customs records were the first to track the national origin of immigrants and would later lead to quotas and bans of certain ethnic groups (like the Chinese Exclusion Act).

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The light-handed regulations of the Steerage Act left the door open for the so-called “coffin ships” or “famine ships” of the late 1840s that carried untold thousands of Irish citizens fleeing the Potato Famine. Cian T. McMahon, an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, says that the average mortality rate of Irish coffin ships that made the fateful trip from Ireland to Quebec in 1847 was around 10 percent, and that at least two ships lost more than half their passengers.

McMahon says that the shockingly high mortality rates on coffin ships—a grim moniker that only caught on decades later—had multiple causes: a population already critically malnourished by the famine, a massive typhoid outbreak and a “laissez-faire” regulatory environment in Europe.

“The combination of a vulnerable population and poor regulation meant that the passenger ‘system,’ if you can call it that, was quickly overwhelmed when the famine hit in the mid-1840s,” says McMahon, who is writing a book about the coffin ships.

To meet the demand of desperate Irish emigrants, merchant sailing vessels equipped to haul cotton and timber were hastily rigged to carry steerage passengers. A tragically typical example of a coffin ship crossing was that of the Elizabeth and Sarah, which sailed from Ireland in July 1847 carrying 276 people (64 over her capacity) sharing just 32 berths with no working bathrooms. Food and water were almost nonexistent, and the journey took eight weeks instead of six because the captain took a wrong turn. Forty-two people perished on the voyage.

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Immigrants taking a meal aboard a crowded ship bound for America, circa 1870s. 

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While it’s true that some Irish emigrants were already on the brink of death when they boarded the coffin ships, it’s also true that tighter regulations and basic safeguards could have saved many lives, says McMahon. He points to the example of so-called “convict ships” that transported prisoners from the UK to Australia during the height of the Great Famine and typhoid outbreak.

“They were highly regulated with better food and surgeons on every ship, and as a result, the mortality rates were never anything close to the much shorter Atlantic route,” says McMahon.

It wasn’t until 1855 that the U.S. Congress passed far more comprehensive regulations of the passenger vessels. The Carriage of Passengers Act of 1855 specified the maximum number of steerage passengers per square feet of “clear space”—one person for every 18 square feet—listed detailed provisions that must be stocked for every ship, even those arriving in America, and most importantly, required ventilators to “carry off the foul air” from the stifling steerage hold.

All decks and passenger compartments needed to be constructed in such a way as to allow for regular swabbing and disinfecting and a physician and “hospital” were required on board each ship. The law called for at least one bathroom per 100 passengers. And, to help ensure compliance, the law stated that captains would be fined $10 for every passenger who died “by natural disease” during the voyage.

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By 1855, though, the Great Famine was over and so was the typhoid scare. Mortality rates had already dropped significantly and the advent of the steamship had reduced the transatlantic journey from six weeks to 10 to 12 days. That’s not say that steerage travel was a pleasant experience for the second half of the 19th century.

In 1879, when a journalist traveling from New York to Liverpool first stepped into the steerage compartment, he wrote, “Words are incapable of conveying anything like a correct notion of the kind of den in which I stood among 60 fellow passengers… The stench, combined with the heat, was simply intolerable.”

Another writer, taking the reverse journey from Liverpool to New York in 1888 described the food served in steerage as barely edible and only when respite from seasickness allowed one to eat. Steerage passengers were required to bring their own cutlery and dishes and washing up was equally nauseating.

“The galley cook filled a tub with hot water on the lee deck close by the rail,” she wrote. “About this we stood in circles six deep waiting for a chance to rinse our platters. When my turn arrived the water was cold and diversified with archipelagoes of potato and meat.

“To be first at the tub, to wash my dishes while the water was clean, became the aspiration of my existence.”