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Crossing the Ocean: Travelers and Immigrants in 1900

The experience of those traveling to and from the U.S. early in the 20th century was very much determined by their wealth. The steamship lines operating then usually offered three classes of cabins. In first class, you usually had a private cabin. In second class, you'd be sharing with several others. And third class was steerage, where you would be in a large room of single men, single women, or families.

There were usually separate dining rooms and lounges for first- and second-class passengers. Those in third class ate in large dinning halls. Not too long before, in the19th century, most third-class passengers were expected to bring their own provisions.

There were large differences in the quality of accommodations among different ships, even within the same steamship line. The newest ships tended to be the most lavishly furnished (at least for the first- and second-class passengers) and the fastest. And there was a corresponding wide range of fares. According to the 1902 What's What, first-class fares ranged from 18 to 247 pounds, equivalent to $2,000-$30,000 today. Second class was 8 to 16 pounds, $1,000-$2,000 today. And steerage would run about 5 to 8 pounds, $625-$1,000 today. Put another way, the salary of a New York policeman, or male teacher, was $900 at the time, which would be about 185 pounds. I have a post on comparing prices and wages.

The trip would take anywhere from 5 to 10 days depending on the ship, the route and the weather. The first stop would be in New York's Lower Bay, where a pilot and quarantine officer would come on board. If there were cases of communicable diseases, I believe the patients were removed here and taken to Swinburne Island or Hoffman Island, two man-made islands in the Lower Bay. From there, the ship would dock at a pier in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Hoboken, New Jersey, depending on the steamship line. First- and second-class passengers went through an immigration and customs check at the pier. But third-class, steerage, passengers were put on smaller steamboats and taken to Ellis Island for processing.

Those obsessed with illegal immigration often repeat the canard "yes, my people were immigrants, but they came here legally." But during most of our history, including the time of peak immigration from 1890-1914, there were very few legal limits on immigration. My family's case is probably fairly typical. I have ancestors who came from Britain as early as the 17th century, some who came from Germany in the mid-19th century, and some from Poland in the late-19th century. For those people, there were no restrictions at all. The first real restriction was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. But for Europeans, there were no restrictions until the 1920s.

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