Imagine yourself in this situation. Times in the old country are hard, food is scarce and expensive. Your family has scraped up enough money to buy you a ticket to Baltimore. There will be one less mouth to feed, and, once in Baltimore, you must get a job and send money home. You will come alone because there is so little money. After a tearful goodbye, you make a long, hazardous, overland journey to a European port such as Bremen, LeHavre, or Liverpool.
Once there you are subjected to a rigorous physical examination by a steamship company physician before you are allowed to buy a ticket. After 1891, according to U.S. immigration law, steamship companies were financially responsible for bearing all costs pertaining to returning rejected immigrants to their homelands (Kraut 1982). Immigration officials could exclude from entry those who were sick or those who, after 1882, it was felt could become a public burden (Brugger 1988). Like most passengers, you can only afford a steerage fare. The steerage hold of a ship is nothing more than a large open space originally designed to transport animals and cargo. You are crammed into this space with 2,000 other human beings. There is little ventilation; the water is bad. Epidemics aboard ships are not uncommon. Cooking is done in the open, and fire aboard the ship is a real possibility as are collisions with other ships or icebergs.