Where Did They Stay? About Black Boardinghouses

Nineteenth-Century Boardinghouses and the Colored Conventions Movement

During the nineteenth century, boardinghouses became a key part of urban life and an ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape. Most historians estimate that between 30-50 percent of urban residents lived in boardinghouses or took in boarders during the course of the nineteenth century. One of the reasons it’s challenging to gain a precise figure on the number of boardinghouses is because they took multiple forms. In terms of services, there are significant differences between boarding, lodging, and rooming houses. Boardinghouses provided residents board, housekeeping services, and three meals per day served at a common table. Lodging and rooming houses, in comparison, neither fed nor provided housekeeping for their customers. Despite these differences, many people used these terms interchangeably throughout the nineteenth century.

It's also difficult to estimate the number of boarding houses is because many who took in boarders chose not to advertise their services. A survey of all thirty-one issues of The Liberator published in the six months leading up to the August 1, 1859 New England Colored Citizens’ Convention reflects this trend and aversion toward newspaper advertisement. Not one advertisement for a boarding, lodging, or rooming house is published within this time range. Some boardinghouse owners even opted not to list their occupation in city directories. Yet, when one looks through the pages of nineteenth-century city directories, one will find a considerable number of residents listed as boarders. 

For some, decisions about advertisement related to the scale of their business. Those who recognized themselves as accepting boarders within “private residences” or “private families” and typically housed fewer boarders were less likely to advertise than those who operated larger boardinghomes. Often women took in lodgers within private residences for short periods of time. These lodgers often consisted of newcomers to cities who did not have sufficient financial resources to rent or buy a place of their own. Travelers such as those attending Colored Conventions also fell within the category of short-term boarders. In these cases, boardinghouses provided temporary lodging to those in need and also provided African American women with supplemental income. 

In other instances, rhetorical choices reflected nineteenth-century ideas about social respectability. People from middle- and upper-class backgrounds often opted to describe themselves as “hosting” guests or friends rather than embracing the label of boardinghouse owner. Despite the pervasiveness of boardinghouses in nineteenth-century urban culture, these decisions reveal the ways in which certain professions were stigmatized. Yet, others shied away from labeling themselves as boardinghouse owners for purely economic reasons.  In some areas, boardinghouse owners were required to pay additional taxes and secure licenses. Opting not to advertise one’s services in print marked one way these savvy entrepreneurs skirted costly regulations.

Other women operated boarding establishments specifically designed for the purpose. Typically, these types of boardinghouses were more prevalent in urban rather than rural areas. It’s also important to recognize that although these types of homes consisted of the smallest percentage of boarding facilities they are the ones that dominate the printed record. Historians estimate that between 5-10 percent of blackboarding house owners published such advertisements. Despite the fact that this represents just a small fraction of boardinghouses during the nineteenth century, these advertisements often form the basis of scholarship on the topic. These advertisements for “fashionable boardinghouses” often listed amenities and services provided to guests. In this way, the women operating these lodging establishments demonstrated their proficiency as skilled businesswomen.

Nevertheless, boardinghouses played an important role in the colored conventions movement serving as another arena for political debate and engagement. Within the boardinghouse, African American women like Mrs. Serena Gardiner of Philadelphia combined work in the home with social activism. 


Researched and written by Anna Lacy. Edited by Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman.

Sources: 

  • Juliet E.K. Walker, The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship, Volume 1 to 1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
  • Wendy Gamber, The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
  • “Lodging, Boarding, and Rooming Houses,” in The Encyclopedia of American Urban History, edited by David Goldfield.
  • Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).
  • Wendy Gamber, “Tarnished Labor: The Home, the Market, and the Boardinghouse in Antebellum America,” Journal of the Early Republic 22 (2002): 177-204.
  • M. Peel, “On the Margins: Lodgers and Boarders in Boston, 1860-1900,” Journal of American History 72 (1986): 813-834.
  • Wendy Gamber, “Away from Home: Middle-Class Boarders in the Nineteenth-Century City,” Journal of Urban History 31 (2005): 289-305.