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The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America

Wendy Gamber

Publication Year: 2007

In nineteenth-century America, the bourgeois home epitomized family, morality, and virtue. But this era also witnessed massive urban growth and the acceptance of the market as the overarching model for economic relations. A rapidly changing environment bred the antithesis of "home": the urban boardinghouse. In this groundbreaking study, Wendy Gamber explores the experiences of the numerous people—old and young, married and single, rich and poor—who made boardinghouses their homes. Gamber contends that the very existence of the boardinghouse helped create the domestic ideal of the single family home. Where the home was private, the boardinghouse theoretically was public. If homes nurtured virtue, boardinghouses supposedly bred vice. Focusing on the larger cultural meanings and the commonplace realities of women’s work, she examines how the houses were run, the landladies who operated them, and the day-to-day considerations of food, cleanliness, and petty crime. From ravenous bedbugs to penny-pinching landladies, from disreputable housemates to "boarder's beef," Gamber illuminates the annoyances—and the satisfactions—of nineteenth-century boarding life.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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p. vii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction. Houses and Homes

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pp. 1-10

"Writing in the late 1990s about the increasing prevalence of grown children living with their parents, the etiquette expert Judith Martin ('Miss Manners') deplored the tendency of both parties to view their circumstances as 'some sort of landlord-boarder arrangement.' While she acknowledged that..."

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1 Away from Home

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pp. 11-33

"In 1820, eighteen-year-old John Locke, the son of a congressman by the same name, left his home in Ashby, a rural community in northwestern Massachusetts, for Boston. Accompanied by his father, Locke made the journey so many young men and women would make—from countryside to city, from..."

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2 Keeping House

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pp. 34-59

"Make no mistake. Susan Brown Forbes did not keep a boardinghouse. As the advertisement she placed in the Transcript made clear, she offered rooms in a 'private family.' Forbes defined family generously; she regularly entertained eight to ten lodgers at No. 6 Waverly Place, a house she and her husband had rented with the specific intention of taking in boarders. If her description seems..."

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3 "The Most Cruel and Thankless Way a Woman Can Earn Her Living"

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pp. 60-76

"A veteran landlady interviewed by the New York Times in November 1889 pronounced boardinghouse keeping 'the most cruel and thankless way a woman can earn her living.' She ticked off a laundry list of grievances: 'weary days and sleepless, anxious nights,' suspicious landlords, boarders..."


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4 Boarders' Beefs

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pp. 77-95

"A BOARDING-HOUSE COLLOQUY: Landlady (deferentially). Mr. Smith, do you not suppose that the first steamboat created much surprise among the fish when it was first launched?"

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5 Nests of Crime and Dens of Vice

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pp. 96-115

"In many respects Mary Surratt was a typical boardinghouse keeper. Her husband, less than competent in business affairs, died in 1862, leaving behind a Maryland plantation, a house in Washington, D.C., and numerous debts. The Civil War wreaked further havoc. Maryland abolished slavery in 1864, but by..."

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6 "Will They Board, or Keep House?"

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pp. 116-139

"“Will they board, or keep house?” For Eunice Beecher, wife of the famous— soon to be infamous—preacher Henry Ward Beecher, this was the momen- tous choice newly married couples faced. Beecher’s domestic advice books, com- pilations of the columns she published in the Christian Union, counseled new..."

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7 Charity Begins at Home

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pp. 140-164

"Homes dominated the nineteenth-century American landscape. Most secure in meriting this nomenclature were the single-family, increasingly sub- urban, domiciles of the new middle classes. Residents of tenements, board- inghouses, and modest cottages might also invoke the term, but, as many..."

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Epilogue "Decay of the Boarding-House"

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pp. 165-170

"The boardinghouse, the New York Times declared in 1878, 'represents the sinking industry of Manhattan, and . . . in its sinking evokes few tears even from them whose lachrymose glands are most easily and needlessly disturbed.' In claiming that boarding was a 'sinking industry,' the Times reporter..."


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pp. 171-197

Essay on Sources

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pp. 199-206


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pp. 207-213

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402598
E-ISBN-10: 1421402599
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801885716
Print-ISBN-10: 080188571X

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 10 halftones
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 794701449
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Lodging-houses -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Boardinghouses -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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