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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Boardinghouses: where the city was born

How a vanished way of living shaped America — and what it might offer us today

Late in the 1860s novel “Little Women,” heroine Jo March, dreading her friend Laurie’s budding romantic feelings for her, tells her mother she feels “restless and anxious to be seeing, doing and learning more than I am.” Her solution is to move to the city, to live and work in a boardinghouse. There, she has a room to herself, time to write, and the welcome distraction of friendships with her fellow boarders.

Today the notion of the boardinghouse—a “big house full of strangers,” as Jo writes in a letter home, where a variety of people would rent rooms and eat at a common table—seems at best quaint, and at worst unsafe and unsavory, as 19th-century critics had it. In the grand narrative of American home life—farm, small town, suburb, apartment—the boardinghouse feels like a long-vanished footnote.

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