Ship Travel in Third Class

| Sunday, 05 Mar. 2000

Regardless of the cabin category we choose in leafing through the brochures of our next voyage, today's cruise ships offer a level of luxury that would astound those who sailed the ocean liners of the past. We take things for granted that only a short time ago would have been well beyond our expectations.

Today, the average cruiser sails on ships that are luxurious. Our major decision is whether to choose an inexpensive inside or more pricey outside, balcony cabin, or suite; choices are simply a measure of degree of luxury. While we take it for granted today, this standard of luxury was not always the norm.

At one time, ocean travel had a practical purpose. It was the sole means of conveyance between the old world and the new. The degree of comfort was a direct reflection of social status on land. The average passenger booked what they could afford and for the majority this was third class, referred to as steerage. The movie Titanic clearly established the image of previous first class travel. Those who caught glimpses of steerage in the movie, have a better idea that, for Third Class passengers, ocean travel was a far different experience. It was the means of mass transportation, particularly in times of open immigration to the USA.

This mass immigration period spanned the late nineteenth century to 1924. Immigrants making their epic journey to a new life chose, out of necessity, to make the trip as inexpensively as possible. This meant steerage class. Even today this term congers up negatives, synonymous with a derisive reference to substandard travel.

What did it really mean to travel Third Class? Let's step back into the past and board a ship as a steerage passenger.

  • Prior to boarding, you passed a health inspection, intended to detect disease or illness- grounds for denying you entrance into the United States. This is a major consideration to the ship owners since they must transport you back to your port of embarkation should you fail your health inspection in America.
  • After you pass the ship's health exam you are separated from the other "classes" until boarding.
  • On board, the areas of the ship and facilities that are available to you were carefully controlled. Single men and women are separated and assigned specific sleeping locations. Married couples with or without children are placed together.
  • Your sleeping accommodation is a bunk rack, usually constructed of steel pipe with fabric stretched over the framework, at least three bunks in height. Pillows are not provided, but, depending on the ship, a simple blanket may be offered you.
  • Bathroom facilities are communal. Bathing facilities are sex divided, if provided at all.
  • There is no air conditioning and fresh air is often lacking, since steerage is often below the water line, which translates to no portholes. The hull plating is bare and the steel often sweats with condensation. With a lack of insulation, the sound of the sea hitting the ship is easily heard. It often makes such a racket that it's difficult to sleep.
  • Reports of people panicking in heavy weather from the cacophony of noise are common. Except for the time you spend on deck getting fresh air, you are trapped in a congested, noisy, smelly place with absolutely no privacy. There you will remain for the duration. How long? If you're fortunate enough to be aboard an express liner, typically about 6 days. On slower, older ships, crossings of two to three weeks are the norm. How dismal!
  • While your first classes co-cruisers are dining in style, your dining experience consists of long tables with tightly spaced seating. Meals are served from large tureens. There's no menu -- everyone eats the same food, soups or stews usually made from the cheapest cuts of meat. In earlier years passengers often had to use their own silverware. While not particularly appealing, the food is usually wholesome and adequately nutritious. It does the ship owners no good to deliver starving passengers to America where they could be rejected and have to be transported back at no charge.
  • There are few stewards and meals are self-service. If you're fortunate enough to have a little extra money you might obtain additional rations from a steward, who, for the right "gratuity" will bring you food from the second class dining room.
  • Of course, there's no shipboard entertainment. Passengers play simple games to pass the time musicians among the group share their talents with the cruisers.
  • Third class passengers are considered commodities rather than guests and are treated as such, but are also eagerly sought because they, rather than first class passengers, generated high profits-simple mathematics.

The 1905 Cunard Line's Caronia carried 300 passengers in First Class, 350 in Second Class and 2,000 in 3rd steerage -- this on a19,534 ton ship. By comparison, Carnival's Imagination is 70,400 tons and carries 2600 passengers. Considering the minimal outlays made by the ship on steerage class, revenues generated were basically pure profit. No wonder this type of accommodation lasted as long as it did.

The death knell for steerage came when the USA halted open immigration. Suddenly, the mass exodus to the new world ended and with it, the need for cheap overseas transportation. This forced ship owners to act. Older, expensive-to-maintain ships were sent to ship wreckers. Ships that retained an economic future were upgraded. Third Class areas were eliminated and replaced by simply-furnished cabins. To eliminate the steerage connotation, a new, "tourist" class was created. While Spartan by modern standards, the accommodations were a tremendous step up, designed to attract a new segment of passenger, who wanted to travel to the old world and tour the continent. Often these passengers were students or educators who wanted to see as much as possible but were frugal with travel dollars. So it went until overseas air travel made the ocean crossing obsolete. But that, as they say, is another story.

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