Boardinghouses of Yesterday and What They Mean for Today

+ Kari Kohn

The history of boardinghouses in the United States is an interesting case to consider during the current wave of urbanization. There are lessons that can be applied as new housing arrangements are considered in U.S. and other developed country cities where land values and real estate prices are high. As Ruth Graham writes in the Boston Globe:

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.

But, there are also insights for rapidly urbanizing countries in the developing world that have many parallels today to the U.S. in the 1800s.

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.

...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.

...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…

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