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.”
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.”Continued...