Boardinghouses and Hotels in 19th Century America

Sunday, March 18, 2012

So what kind of temporary accommodations might a hero or heroine find in 19th century America?  In my collection of historical notes that I've been browsing in an effort to get back to posting and updating this blog's historical information, I found this one for the Victorian era.

In an increasingly mobile America, the population increased much faster than the available housing could handle.  But unless you wanted to sleep under the stars (as many did) or on your mode of transportation, the temporary accommodations of boardinghouses, stage stations and hotels became a welcome home away from home.  And, just as the modern day traveler still wishes for the escape of time travel in the midst of a long journey, many travelers of the 19th century needed a break from sleeping on trains and stagecoaches.  I can just imagine myself on a "layover" refusing to get back on the coach!

Who knows, maybe the trials of travel, besides running out of funds, is the reason many Americans settled where they did.  As an immigrant who'd just had a long ocean voyage, I think I'd have the urge to travel out of my system.  For a while anyway.  In the meantime, I'd need a place to rest.

In the eastern cities and midwest...

For immigrants and the "industrious poor" boardinghouses were the answer to inexpensive lodging. As provided by Kenneth Scherzer in The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City, 1830-1975:

"The standard cost at a boardinghouse ranged between four dollars and seven dollars a week for working-class accommodations, and twelve dollars and fifteen dollars for simple middle-class rooms. For luxurious residential hotels the rate could be one hundred-fifty dollars a week - this at a time when a laborer might earn one dollar a day."

It was a win win situation for both the boarder and the landlord as boardinghouses provided a family environment for the boarder and a unique opportunity for women to earn money for their families or support themselves. 

Heading west...

Many women left the east and headed out west on the heels of the 1849 gold rush and established boardinghouses for miners. As provided by JoAnn Levy in They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush:

"In 1850 nine out of every thousand persons gainfully employed in California ran boardinghouses or hotels."

One such female entrepreneur from Maine who started a boardinghouse in the mines had ten boarders from which she "earned $189 per week, expecting to clear $75.00 after expenses."

In the boardinghouse tradition, the residents ate together and often shared the parlor with the family. Many old west boarding houses and hotels took things a step further by providing the dual service of a saloon or they at least had informal gaming tables for monte or faro. Owners offered free meals for customers that drank at their saloon.

In addition to boardinghouses and quickly built hotels, fancier accommodations for the more well-to-do could be found in urban areas and gold rush communities.  Many luxurious hotels with grand lobbies, high ceilings and lavish furnishings survive today as historic landmarks.

And yes, many 19th century Americans were actually on vacation when they traveled.  Victorian seaside resorts and more are likely information for another post, but a quick search turns up many Victorian hotels.  How about a stay at the haunted Cresent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas?

Related Links: (Links checked July/August 2013)

New!  The Find for July/August is  Romantic 19th Century Hotels - This article by Kathy Manney describes California's Del Coronado Hotel, Michigan's Mackinac Island Grand (where the movie Somewhere in Time was filmed) and Georgia's Jekyll Island Club Hotel.

Article Source:

Boarding Houses - an article by Alice Ross at the site The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles.
Boardinghouses - from the Encylopedia of Chicago.
Historic Hotels of America - from the National Trust of Historical Preservation. At this site you can search by location or alphabetically to view overviews of the, at last count, 208 hotels or resorts recognized for having historical significance.


Note:  It might not be very "American" of me, but I found this site and need to put it somewhere! :)

Victorian London - Houses and Housing

Print Resources:
Scherzer, Kenneth. The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City, 1830-1975. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).


Melissa said...

This was helpful. I wish you'd offer more follow options on your blog.

Jenna said...

Sure makes you wonder what the hotels in NYC were like back then!

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