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

British History | January 12, 2021

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.

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.

Preserved hardtack from U.S. Civil War, Wentworth Museum, Pensacola, Florida. (Infrogmation of New Orleans/Wikimedia Commons)

Little Food But Plenty Of Booze

No luxury meals were served on the Mayflower. The crew stocked the galley with fresh meat, vegetables, and fish before they left England, but the fresh food ran out even sooner than expected after the Mayflower took on passengers from their doomed sister ship, the Speedwell, and their bread molded quickly in the damp conditions. That left only preserved food, like dried fish and salted pork, and hardtack, a type of biscuit whose lack of moisture gives it a long shelf life but also the consistency of a brick. 

It wasn't all bad: In the 1600s, it was thought that barrels of fresh water would turn bad over time, so the Pilgrims drank from casks of beer that pulled the double duty of keeping them hydrated and lifting their spirits. They only ate two meals a day for a total of about 500 calories, and each lost about 25% of their body weight during the voyage, but at least they were roaring drunk the whole time.

Mayflower II, a replica of the original Mayflower, docked at Plymouth, Massachusetts. (GmaJoli/Wikimedia Commons)

It Wasn't Over When It Was Over

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in early November just as a harsh New England winter was starting. With no settlement on land, the Pilgrims opted to drop anchor in the harbor and stay on the ship that they were probably all good and well sick of by that point through the winter. It turned out that they weren't nearly as sick yet as they would be: Although only one person died during the voyage across the Atlantic, more than half of the passengers, including little Oceanus Hopkins, died aboard the Mayflower that winter as sickness spread through the passenger hold. The bitter cold and lack of food didn't help, either. Religious persecution probably wasn't looking so bad at that point, but then again, it would have required going back.

Tags: british history | colonial america | pilgrams, the Mayflower

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.