Women provide Transient Housing and Social Networks

October 7, 2014

Women operated boardinghouses from the seventeenth to early-twentieth centuries. Typical boardinghouses, establishments privately operated by families to bring in extra income became popular during the mid-nineteenth century. Some families chose to co-inhabit with other families as boarders, creating two-family households. Thomas Butler Gunn’s satire The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses (1857), chronicled the variety of female dominated networks found in boardinghouses. Filled with anecdotes about scheming landladies, carousing bachelors, slovenly housemaids, and an odd cast of fellow boarders, boardinghouse life emerged as an aspect of cosmopolitan American culture. Indeed, individuals who chose to live solitary lives during the nineteenth century were considered to be odd loners or hermits.

Taking in boarders, was a crucial economic factor in the financial success of both urban and rural families during the early nineteenth century. Operating a boardinghouse was a rigorous weekly cycle of washing laundry, baking, and mending, and daily cycles of cooking, cleaning and serving. While husbands could leave the boardinghouse to work and run errands, wives and children kept the operation going even when they got sick, injured, or pregnant. Women recognized the economic value of their labor produced by taking in boarders was a means for women to bring cash into the household. Compared to taking in sewing, running a grocery, catering from their kitchens, or working as unpaid labor in their husband’s trades, operating a boardinghouse brought good income that could be reinvested into businesses or supply family needs.

Boardinghouse living could supply a surrogate family along with room and board. Immigrants clustered in boardinghouse communities or “quarters.” These groups generally included young men or women of similar professions, who assimilated to the new climate together. Mealtime became an opportunity to socialize and network for boarders who enjoyed similar foods and spoke the same language. Accustomed to living in urban areas, immigrants set up their own grocery and dry goods stores, liquor stores, boardinghouses, and restaurants. Boardinghouse culture was ephemeral and transient in nature. Boardinghouse living waned during the early twentieth century as urban planners focused on creating apartment communities to accommodate the American sensibility that the single lifestyle was acceptable.

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