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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Era of New York City Boarding Houses

The "House of Genius" / courtesy of the
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
Inspired by "Renters Week" over at our favorite real-estate blog, Curbed (where, among other things, you can read jealously about $50 rents in the 1940s), we began thinking about a form of residential living that was once ubiquitous but has really fallen by the wayside: the boarding house.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, tenants in New York City were divided into three basic categories: renters, lodgers, and boarders. Though these terms were used differently by various people, in general, renters paid for their own apartment, which was not shared. Lodgers paid for a room (or bed) in someone else's apartment, but received no meals. Boarders had both a room and meals, usually breakfast and dinner.

As we've been researching and writing our new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, boarding houses keep popping up. Footprints has a chapter on Edgar Allan Poe, who lived exclusively in boarding houses during his time in New York until he moved into his final home, Poe Cottage in the Bronx. Many other New York authors lived in boarding houses, as well: Herman Melville was born in one on Pearl Street in 1819; Walt Whitman lived in them most of his life; and on Washington Square, the so-called "House of Genius" (later torn down by NYU) was the residence of such luminaries as Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and O. Henry.

But it wasn't just writers--by some estimates, as much as thirty percent of New York's population by the middle of the 19th century lived in a boarding house. That included, before he was married, John Jacob Astor, who'd go on to be America's richest man. Astor actually married his landlady's daughter. In 1857, the first (and only?) contemporary study of boarding-house life came out, The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses by Thomas Butler Gunn. This slightly ironic guide features 30 different types of boarding house, including "The Cheap Boarding-House," "The Fashionable Boarding-House Where You Don't Get Enough to Eat," "The Theatrical Boarding-House," and "The Boarding-House Where There Are Marriageable Daughters." In his introduction, Gunn noted the necessity for such a work--everyone eventually ends up in a boarding house. "Like death," he wrote, "no class is exempt from it."

In some respects, what has replaced the boarding house in New York is the apartment share; people who were boarders in the nineteenth century would be roommates today. There was a sense of camaraderie around the communal table in New York's boarding houses that influenced life in the city; even with all the over-sharing on social media today, the city today lacks the intimacy of boarding-house life.

However, not everyone in a boarding house was happy to be there. A few weeks ago, we posted an excerpt from Edith Wharton's short story, "Mrs. Manstey's View," which talks about one woman's life in a boarding house. It was a theme Wharton (who is also featured in Footprints in New York) would return to, perhaps most famously in House of Mirth. In that novel, Wharton chronicles Lily Bart's descent from high society to abject poverty; at the end of the novel, Lily is living in the worst room in a boarding house--it's not even a real room. It's the end of a hallway that's been partitioned off so that the landlord can make a little extra money.

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Footprints in New York will be out on April 15, 2014, but is already available. (Visit for more information.) We also have a Twitter account ( where we tweet links to stories about the city and you can follow the book on Facebook at for more information about book talks, tours, etc. 


hintsandechoes said...

Seabury Tredwell was another 19th-century merchant who married his landlady's daughter. He had been living in the New York City boarding house that was taken over by Mrs. Mary Parker in 1814. At the time Mrs. Parker's daughter, Eliza, was 17. Six years later when Eliza was 23 and Seabury 40, they were married in St. George's Episcopal Church on Beekman. You can visit the Tredwell home at 29 East Fourth Street. Now known as the Merchant's House Museum, it has been preserved just as it was in the mid 19th century, complete with original family furnishings and possessions.

James and Michelle Nevius said...

Thanks for your comment, Mary. Your book is wonderful -- a real treasure-trove of good information about the era. In fact, we have an entire chapter in "Footprints in NY" about the Tredwells and the building boom in 1820s/30s in Greenwich Village.

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