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Boardinghouses: where the city was born

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

Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

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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In places like Boston, however, they were anything but minor: They were a key part of how 19th-century cities grew, and left an imprint that survives even now. Whole neighborhoods teemed with them. Boardinghouses for black, Irish, Jewish, and immigrant Bostonians filled the lower slopes of Beacon Hill, while even genteel landladies on fashionable Beacon Street advertised “rooms with a private family.” As American cities turned into true modern metropolises in the 1830s, boarding became a way of life; social historians estimate that between a third and half of 19th-century urban resident were either boarders themselves, or took boarders into their homes. As Walt Whitman, who lived in boardinghouses from his early teens until after the Civil War, declared in 1842: “Married men and single men, old men and pretty girls; milliners and masons; cobblers, colonels, and counter-jumpers; tailors and teachers; lieutenants, loafers, ladies, lackbrains, and lawyers; printers and parsons—‘black spirits and white, blue spirits and gay’—all ‘go out to board.’ ”

By the 1930s, traditional boardinghouses dwindled, and cities today—filled with apartments, condos, and tightly packed houses—have all but forgotten their boardinghouse heritage. But boardinghouses are now being rediscovered by a handful of historians who make the case that the institution was crucial to shaping American cities and culture, and in doing so had a lasting influence on the way we live.

They also may offer some insights into where we’re going. As Americans flock back into cities, Boston and other urban centers are seeing the development of new and denser housing. Some “micro-apartment” developments echo boardinghouses closely, with small private quarters and common areas in which residents can eat and socialize together. That’s prompting some observers to wonder if something bigger might change as well. As America’s earlier romance with boardinghouses showed, the way we live together can actually change our culture in unanticipated ways.

***

Jo March’s journey in “Little Women,” though idealized, wasn’t an unrealistic one for a woman in the 19th century. After landing at the boardinghouse, Jo earns money caring for the landlady’s boisterous young children, embarks on “riotous” adventures on Saturdays, and enjoys observing her neighbors, including a large Irish family and a friendly German professor she goes on to marry.

In the 1830s and 1840s, American cities were expanding upward and outward. Young people and immigrants flocked there for work, but most couldn’t afford to live in single-family homes; those who could saw the influx of poorer workers and began to decamp to more stylish neighborhoods. In Boston, for example, as wealthy residents left the South End, the neighborhood’s elegant townhouses were converted into boardinghouses, a pattern replicated in many cities.

Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

Today, the perpetual urban dilemma of how to live well in cramped, expensive neighborhoods is answered mostly by apartments, each effectively its own miniature house, complete with kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room. In the 19th century, the answer was to share. A boardinghouse proprietor provided housekeeping services and three meals a day, usually eaten at a common table. Boardinghouses “served people who really [couldn’t] get a foothold in urban space any other way,” explained Betsy Klimasmith, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of a 2005 book about urban domesticity in American literature.

As such, boardinghouses were a kaleidoscopic reflection of urban America in all its variety. In an 1857 book, “The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses,” re-issued by Rutgers University Press in 2008, an English humorist named Thomas Butler Gunn described houses for vegetarians, actors, and Bostonians, not to mention “the boarding-house where you’re expected to make love to the landlady.” Some houses catered to respectable middle-class families, while others welcomed rowdy single sailors. An 1869 guidebook to New York City described boardinghouses that ranged from $2.50 to $40 a week.

For a population accustomed to living with extended family, boardinghouses represented a first step toward the radical autonomy that we now take for granted in modern urban life. University of Rhode Island English professor David Faflik calls this a “national rite of passage,” as a population en masse split with the ties formed in towns and countryside. Rather than break completely with these ties, however, they re-created them, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a roommate comedy like “Friends.” Historian Wendy Gamber cites one 1850s Boston woman who called her fellow boarders her “family,” joining them for holiday celebrations and excursions to church and public lectures—an intimacy not hard to imagine for single urban people today, but boldly independent for the time.

With new freedoms came new anxieties. Most boarders were men, but many boardinghouses were coed; proprietors were responsible for maintaining a moral atmosphere, with varied levels of success. Many respectable women sought out coed houses because all-female boardinghouses were considered likely to be brothels, though charitable organizations like the YWCA opened heavily supervised women’s boardinghouses as the century progressed.

Gamber, a historian at Indiana University Bloomington, wrote the first book dedicated to boardinghouses as a general phenomenon in 2007. In her accessible “The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America,” she argues that in a century obsessed with the idealized home, boardinghouses represented a potent contrast: “If homes were private, boardinghouses were public,” she writes. “If homes nurtured virtue, boardinghouses bred vice.” As one mid-19th-century New York critic sniffed, “It may be safely affirmed that there are not ten boarding houses in the city, which do not contain improper characters.”

Gamber also observes that boardinghouses seemed an affront to convention because landladies made money by performing domestic tasks—cooking, washing bed linens, and so on—that women were “supposed” to perform for love. Female residents, particularly married women, were also suspect, having handed over their “natural” domestic duties to another woman. One early 20th-century moralist warned that boarding wives were having abortions because it would be too inconvenient to have children in a boardinghouse; others simply fretted that boarding bred lazy wives.

The sense of threat is crystallized in an 1846 novel by Sarah Josepha Hale, influential editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book. In the cautionary “Boarding Out,” Hale, herself a longtime boardinghouse resident, depicts a headstrong Boston wife who insists on moving her family from their own comfortable house to avoid becoming a “mere drudge.” The family auctions off its furniture and moves to a fashionable boardinghouse, where the mother grows vain and the father idle, and their young daughter Fanny takes ill and dies. The child’s last words are, “I want to go home.”

Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

***

As histrionic as their warnings may sound today, 19th-century hand-wringers were right to worry that boardinghouses threatened the status quo. Boarding not only saved money and time, but to writers or others who craved exposure to a world beyond small towns, they provided an opportunity for social mixing, privacy, storytelling, and intimacy with strangers. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allan Poe all lived occasionally as boarders.

A new book by David Faflik, “Boarding Out” (Northwestern University Press), argues that boardinghouses fundamentally reshaped the consciousness of the 19th century, particularly as seen through literature. Borrowing his title from Hale’s alarmist novel, he argues that the literary genre he calls “boardinghouse letters” is characterized by a sense of speed and scarcity he finds in works as varied as the ostensibly pastoral “Walden” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s utopian novel “Blithedale Romance.” In many of these works, narrators alternate, story lines speed ahead and then cut off, and characters come and go in a style Faflik compares to a revolving door.

“Many of the works we would not associate with boardinghouses or even the city itself are very much based or founded on these changed ways of seeing the world that derive from boarding,” he said. “We wouldn’t have had an American Renaissance without cities, and we wouldn’t have had cities without boardinghouses.”

By the turn of the 20th century, boardinghouses were in decline, in favor of suburban homes, made practical by improving public transportation, and apartments, with their modern sheen of independence. Faflik calls antebellum boarding “a kind of adolescent stage for Americans as they adapted to a modern urban condition.” In the decades after the Civil War, people moved on to lodging houses, which lacked boarding’s shared meals and common spaces, as well as tenement houses, apartment hotels, and apartments as we recognize them today. “Boarders have simply ceased to be boarders,” a New York Times writer declared, somewhat prematurely, in 1878. “They have decided to live more wholesomely and satisfactorily.”

The boardinghouse spirit still survives, however. Cooperative housing, in which residents band together to maintain facilities (and respectability), carries echoes of it. Single-room occupancy buildings offer rooms with a shared kitchen. Halfway houses for recovering drug addicts and formerly homeless people often offer boardinghouse-style independent quarters and shared meals. The YMCA, whose American iteration was founded in Boston to provide boarding services to “young strangers” new to the city, and the YWCA live on, providing transitional housing and meals to the needy. College students living in dormitories and eating together in a cafeteria get a taste of the social spark boardinghouses offered; for travelers, bed and breakfasts offer a genteel, temporary version.

Some newer innovations, too, are capturing boardinghouses’ allure, offering a way to save money, escape the constraints of home, and find something like a family in the middle of a city.
Micro-apartments, extra-tiny private spaces with shared kitchens down the hall, are taking off in cities including Boston, New York, and Seattle. The website Airbnb connects people with extra space to strangers who need a place to stay. In this innovative moment, it’s not hard to imagine a 21st-century revival of more traditional boardinghouses, too. “While boarders’ complaints were numerous, they often formed long-lasting bonds with their housemates,” Gamber wrote in an e-mail. “I’m not sure how practical or affordable running a boardinghouse or living as a boarder would be...but I suspect that enterprising entrepreneurs would find a ready market.”

One variation has seen young Americans boarding with the most patient landlords of all: their parents. The recent recession pushed a quarter of American young adult “boomerang kids” back into living at home. As the economy slowly recovers, however, independent young workers are beginning to move back out on their own, bringing with them all the demands that made 19th-century boardinghouses so practical. Today’s Jo March may be sleeping in her parents’ basement, dreaming of a room for herself in the city.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.
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