Early Boarding Houses


Boarding houses have played an fundamental role in Philadelphia's history, especially after the Revolutionary War.

One notable boarding house in post-revolutionary Philadelphia was the appropriately named Mrs. Mary House's boarding house. Located at the south-west corner of Fifth and Market Streets in 1787, the large brick house was kept by Mrs. House and boarded several Constitutional Convention delegates. This particular boarding house was selected by George Washington himself as his place of lodging for the event, but that was before he was compelled to stay in Robert Morris' mansion, which was only a few doors down. James Dunn became proprietor of the house by 1795 and the house was renovated into a store by 1801. This information was found in an old newspaper article entitled "Smith's Brewery," dated September 28, 1887, which can be found in the Jane Campbell Collection at the Historic Society of Pennsylvania.

The Literary History of Philadelphia also references how "nearly all of the Revolutionary Fathers lived in lodging or boarding houses" during the Constitution Convention in 1787. This book identifies several of the boarding houses as being located east of the State House and between Arch and Pine streets.

Our Revolutionary fathers were not the only ones occupying the boarding houses in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Well-known Elfreth's Alley was home to several women who ran boarding houses within their very own residences according to a lesson plan entitled Elfreth's Alley: From Colonial Times to Today300 Years of Philadelphia History. The houses on Elfreth's Alley are very small and narrow and therefore could not have accommodated very many boarders simultaneously. In addition, these boarding houses most likely catered to a less-notable crowd.

Going into the early 19th century, the economy was thriving and growing at tremendous pace as described in "Food service lease and exclusive clauses," a 1997 article from Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal:

"As the economy grew, merchants prospered, and entrepreneurs established factories in urban areas. Factory owners needed workers; therefore, they recruited previously home-based farmhands and craftsmen to move to the urban settings where the factories were located. These people needed a place to stay and eat. That need accelerated the growth of America's lodging and food service industries. Boarding houses helped fill both of these needs early on."

The article goes on to say that even though boarding houses were operating in stride with taverns of the day, they were just as popular as their competitors. Boarding houses were also nearly just as plentiful in the city in 1799, with 203 boarding houses recorded, as opposed to 248 taverns.



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Website by Ashley C. Aiken

University of Pennsylvania

HSPV 600: Documentation

Professor Jeffrey A. Cohen

Fall 2005