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  • The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Amy S. Greenberg
The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America. By Wendy Gamber (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. xii plus 213 pp.).

There were few more evocative ideals than that of "home" in the nineteenth century. The single family home, along with the domestic ideology that both sustained and was sustained by those structures, has long been a favored topic of social, cultural and architectural histories. But very little has been written about the great foil of the single family home—the distinctly not-home known as the boardinghouse. According to Wendy Gamber, between one-third and one-half of nineteenth-century urban residents were either boarders or took in boarders. Boarding appealed to a wide variety of urban dwellers, married and [End Page 826] single, old and young, male and female, even as boardinghouses were demonized as places of vice and immorality. This concise and well-written study investigates the practice and meaning of both keeping and boarding in a lodging house in the 1800s. Gamber argues not only for the ubiquity of these houses but also for their cultural significance; they "offered nineteenth-century Americans a means of defining home by representing everything that home was not" (2).

This book does two separate things, and does them both well. It illuminates the lives of a number of compelling individuals, like former Lowell mill-girl Susan Parson Brown who lived with a diverse group of boarders in Boston and seemed to consider the other residents part of her "family." She ultimately married a fellow boarder and then opened a boardinghouse of her own. Gamber also investigates the shifting cultural meaning of the boardinghouse in nineteenth-century urban America, and asserts that the existence of the boardinghouse was crucial to the creation of domesticity and the ideal of the single family home. By subjecting women's household labor to the marketplace—by turning it into paid labor—boardinghouses proved that they were not true homes. "If the home furnished a refuge from the market; indeed, if its very existence justified the ruthless pursuit of self-interest in the marketplace, what then of the boardinghouse?" (7). The idea that boardinghouses helped to resolve the contradictions in the rhetoric of the home during this period is a compelling one, as is Gamber's assertion that boardinghouses had more detractors in the postbellum period than they did earlier because the ideal of the single family home had grown stronger. She offers some excellent evidence in support of this later point: Catharine Beecher praised a worthy boardinghouse keeper in her 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy but dropped the anecdote from her 1869 American Woman's Home. But while both 1820s and 1890s boardinghouses find discussion here, in general Gamber's evidence is heavily slanted towards the later period.

One of the most significant contributions of this monograph is to the history of women's labor in the nineteenth century. Gamber's study features a wealth of details about the generally unpleasant work that went into running a boardinghouse, from shopping to cooking to caring for sick boarders, as well as the shifting cultural meaning of domestic labor. One of the main reasons that boardinghouses and brothels were so often conflated, and why even expensive boardinghouses were routinely demonized in the later part of the century, was that both sold women's services. At the same time boardinghouses were critiqued for breeding indolence among female lodgers, particularly married ones.

This study is also a notable addition to the growing body of sophisticated histories that combine social and cultural analysis to illuminate the shifting meanings of gender and class in the nineteenth-century city. The female boardinghouse keeper, like the seamstress in Michael Zakim's Ready Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the Early Republic, 1760–1860 (Chicago, 2003) was a culturally-charged figure in both public discourse and fiction at mid century, in large part because both upset the illusion that women's labor at home existed outside the dictates of the market. The lowly white-collar clerk is another rhetorically-charged figure that has received ample recent attention by historians (most notably in...


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