The Conditions On The Mayflower: What Was It Like On The Famous Ship?

By | January 10, 2021

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The replica of the Mayflower under sail on its way back to Plymouth Harbor. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Our elementary school lessons about the Pilgrims gave us a romantic view of the founding of the United States, but in reality, crossing the Atlantic in the Mayflower was a harrowing experience, with too many people crammed into a damp, dank ship. It was unsanitary, smelly, and downright miserable.

The Mayflower Was Smaller Than You Think

The Mayflower was surprisingly small, only about 25 feet wide and 106 feet long. The hold where the passengers stayed was, of course, even smaller, about the size of two semi trailers side by side with a ceiling only five feet high, meaning most Pilgrims couldn't fully stand. In that small space, 102 people spent one month in port and then more than two months at sea with zero privacy or insulation from the elements. The frigid water of the North Atlantic seeped into the wood, coating the entire passenger hold in a film of chilly dampness, and the Pilgrims practically slept on top of each other. Some families tried to carve out their own spots by hanging curtains, but they weren't very effective. Even when a passenger named Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth, to a son appropriately named Oceanus, the rest of the passengers could hear the entire ordeal.

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Chamber pot in Westerwald ceramics, early 18th century. (Raakvlak/Wikimedia Commons)

One Smelly Ride

When nature called, the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower didn't have a bathroom to run to. We might find that shocking today, but in the 1600s, no one had bathrooms. People relieved themselves in outhouses or chamber pots, basically a fancy term for a bucket in a corner of the house that people squatted over to do their business. At home, however, one was typically afforded a degree of privacy—such was not the case on the crowded MayflowerOften, chamber pots were emptied only when they got full, and even then, the Pilgrims didn't exactly have an abundance of cleaning supplies.

As if that wasn't smelly enough, the Pilgrims went months without bathing on the tub-free ship, and many of them suffered from seasickness. Like other bodily waste, their vomit was collected in buckets which were kept right in the unventilated passenger hold and only emptied when necessary.