Friday, September 17, 2010

From “The More Things Change…” Department: The New Steerage Class

"State of the Art" Transportation in the mid -19th Century


My bedtime reading tends to be eclectic, since there are always more books than time and since one thing usually leads to another, topically.

Generally, there are a half-dozen or more books, journals and articles scattered around the house, each with a bookmark or two, and all waiting to be picked up again and perused.  For example, last night I scanned a couple or three articles in the latest “Magazine of Virginia Genealogy”, then read another chapter in How We Decide by the incredibly brilliant and witty Jonah Lehrer, who makes neuroscience seem almost as much fun as genealogy.

Then, while searching for something else entirely, I found an intriguing piece written by William Henry Rideing (1853 – 1918) more than 130 years ago about the immigrant voyage across the Atlantic.  Called “The Immigrant’s Progress”, it was first published in Scribner’s Monthly magazine in the September 1877 issue.

In it, Rideing describes the conditions in what was known as “steerage class” on immigrant ships headed from Europe to North America.  He writes:

But the accommodations for emigrants remained shamefully defective, and nearly twenty out of every hundred passengers died at sea of fever or starvation. The steerage deck was usually about five feet high, without ventilation or light, and in this space the bunks were ranged in two or three tiers.

The health of the passengers was further impaired by another evil which, up to a very recent date, prevailed on board emigrant vessels. The emigrants were expected to provide and cook their own food. Many embarked without any provisions at all, or an insufficient quantity, and others found no opportunity to cook what they had. On the upper deck of the vessel there were two small galleys, about five feet wide and four feet deep, each supplied with a grate, and these were the only arrangements made for cooking the food of several hundred persons.


Thousands never lived to see their destination. Out of about ninety-eight thousand laborers sent from Ireland to Canada after the famine of 1846, nearly twenty-five thousand perished in consequence of the poor rations and defective ventilation of the ships. Later still, in 1868, on one vessel alone,—the “ Leibnitz,” from Hamburg,—over one hundred passengers died, out of five hundred
.”

As I said earlier,  one thing usually leads to another.  As soon as I finished the Rideing article, I remembered the news flash I had seen earlier that morning.  Apparently, some folks who design aircraft cabin interiors have decided that there’s lots of extra space going unused (and unsold) up there in the wild blue yonder.  So, they’ve come up with some new seating that will be unveiled at an upcoming trade show in Long Beach next week.

I’m sure that if you fly a lot, you’ll be thrilled.

So, take a quick peek.  Here’s the link.

Considering that in-flight airline food is now scarce to non-existent, (perhaps reminiscent of Rideing’s description above) and that check-in procedures bring to mind the herding of steers through cattle corrals in slaughterhouses, I'm compelled to ask the obvious question:

Is this the new 21st century "steerage class"?

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