Aboard a Packet

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants left Europe for the United States in the 1800s. They sought economic opportunity, religious and political freedom, and the chance to join family members who had gone ahead.

Many immigrants sailed to America or back to their homelands in packet ships, vessels that carried mail, cargo, and people. Most crossed in the steerage area, below decks. Conditions varied from ship to ship, but steerage was normally crowded, dark, and damp. Limited sanitation and stormy seas often combined to make it dirty and foul-smelling, too. Rats, insects, and disease were common problems.

A typical packet in the 1820s and 1830s could also accommodate 10 to 20 well-to-do cabin passengers. Rich or poor, many travelers alternated between anxiety and boredom on long ocean crossings, depending on the weather.


From Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

“The Embarkation, Waterloo Docks, Liverpool”

In the mid-1800s, most British immigrants to the United States departed from Liverpool, England. Many Scandinavians also sailed to America through the British port. Other European emigrants sailed from Le Havre, France; Bremen and Hamburg, Germany; and Antwerp, in Belgium.


From Some famous sailing ships and their builder, Donald McKay . . . by Richard C. McKay, copyright 1928

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

“Interior of the Saloon of a Sailing Packet-Ship”

Wealthy travelers took advantage of packets’ reliable sailings to study, tour, or transact business abroad. Staterooms, although tiny, normally came equipped with a mattress and linens, a washbasin, and some drawers. Their ventilated doors opened directly into the cabin or saloon, a common area for eating and socializing. On many ships, the captain dined with the cabin passengers.


Train & Co. sailing announcement, August 1850

Imagine you were emigrating from Great Britain to the United States in 1850. How would this announcement help you prepare for your voyage?

What was included in the price of a steerage ticket?
What could you expect to eat while on board?
What was not included with your ticket?
How could Irish travelers starting in Belfast get to Liverpool, England, to catch the ship for their transatlantic crossing?

This document uses traditional English weights and measures. 1 stone = 14 pounds (6.3 kilograms); 1 cwt or hundredweight = 112 pounds (50.8 kilograms)


Cooking at Sea

From Liverpool each passenger receives weekly 5 lbs. of oatmeal, 2 1/2 lbs. biscuit, 1 lb. flour, 2 lbs. rice, 1/2 lb. sugar, 1/2 lb. molasses, and 2 ounces of tea. He is obliged to cook it the best way he can in a cook shop 12 feet by 6! This is the cause of so many quarrels and...many a poor woman with her children can get but one meal done, and sometimes they get nothing warm for days and nights when a gale of wind is blowing and the sea is mountains high and breaking over the ship in all directions.
—Anonymous, New-York Daily Times, October 15, 1851


This report of conditions in steerage was written by a doctor who had crossed the Atlantic many times on large American packet ships. “Reform must be made,” he wrote, “to better the condition of the poorer classes of emigrants.”


Steerage Ticket, 1856–57

Purchased in October 1856, this one-way steerage ticket was good for passage on any of the Cope Line’s ships sailing from Liverpool to Philadelphia before the middle of May 1857.


Illustrated London News, May 10, 1851

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

In Steerage

Steerage passengers slept, ate, and socialized in the same spaces. They brought their own bedding. Although food was provided, passengers had to cook it themselves. On rough crossings, steerage passengers often had little time in the fresh air on the upper deck. If passengers didn’t fill steerage, the space often held cargo.


From Die Gartenlaube Leipzig Fruft Neil

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

Inside a Packet Ship, 1854

This cutaway reveals how travelers, immigrants, and cargo sailed together. Travelers with enough money purchased “cabin passage” and slept in private or semiprivate rooms. The vast majority of passengers, usually immigrants, bought bunks in steerage, also called the ’tween deck for its position between the cabins and the hold.


German cartoon, about 1850

Complaints about overcrowding, poor food, abuse, and disease on immigrant ships led the United States and countries in Europe to enact new laws in the 1840s and 1850s.

From Die Reform, Nr. 46, 1848, S. 184 (Hamburg)

Courtesy of www.historic-maps.de


Packet ship Shenandoah

Built at Philadelphia, 1840

Capacity: about 290 passengers

View object record

A Ship on a Schedule

Beginning in the 1820s, transporting immigrants developed into a profitable, large-scale business. The Shenandoah carried people and freight from 1840 until 1854, usually running between Philadelphia and Liverpool. On a typical crossing in August 1845, the ship arrived in New York with 231 passengers—all but a handful of them farmers, clerks, mechanics, and laborers from England and Ireland.