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.
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.
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.Continued...