What is a Boarding House?

An example of a high-end boarding house (likely near oceanfront) in 1870. Location unknown
Print Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a boarding house is defined as

"A house where paying guests are provided with meals and lodging."

The U.S. Census Bureau provides a more descriptive definition for rooming and boarding houses:

"This industry comprises establishments primarily engaged in operating rooming and boarding houses and similar facilities, such as fraternity houses, sorority houses, off-campus dormitories, residential clubs, and workers' camps. These establishments provide temporary or longer-term accommodations which, for the period of occupancy, may serve as a principal residence. These establishments also may provide complementary services, such as housekeeping, meals, and laundry services."

Boarding-house meals were traditionally served on a schedule appointed by the boarding-house keeper, according to "Food service lease and exclusive clauses", a 1997 article from Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal. The rule of the boarding-house was that you were on time or you were hungry, no exceptions. A bell was rung when the food was ready to let the lodgers know. But the lodgers had to get to the dining room quickly, because the meals were most likely served family style and first come, first served, so they naturally didn't last very long.

Boarding Houses by Alice Ross is an excellent online resource that describes the characteristics and daily operations of early American boarding houses. Ross describes the boarding house as "a relic of the first stages in the growth of large cities." According to the article, typical boarders were young men who were migrating from the farm and looking for new jobs in the city. Boarding houses provided these men with shelter, food and sometimes laundry services at an affordable price. Occasionally boarding-house keepers would take it upon themselves to introduce young boarders to the inner workings of the city, invite them to church with the rest of the family and instill high morals and political ideas into them.

According to Ross, the typical boarding-house keepers were unmarried, middle-class, urban women who relied on an indispensable income. This occupation was looked down upon in the early days because social statutes maintained that women were not supposed to assume the traditional male position of financially providing for the family. Yet if a woman was left widowed and facing financial woes, her best option might be to take in lodgers temporarily. At least she would still be working in a domestic setting and not in a factory, office or shop, which was seen as an even more scandalous occupation.

As cities grew, boarding-houses began catering to the needs of specific special interest groups. Some boarding houses boarded only young women, members of a particular religious or racial sect, or the poor. Other boarding houses accommodated only wealthy or high-class boarders and the boarding-house keepers who ran these privileged residences were generally women who had previously held a higher position, but still had an extensive knowledge of fashionable decor and proper elite demeanor. As in this case, boarding houses still maintained association with the Philadelphia elite and high class of America.

Mrs. Griffith's boarding house, built in the mid-1880's, is a good example of a high class Philadelphian boarding house. An article entitled An Era Ends on Broad St.: Mrs. Griffith's Boarding House is Coming Down in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin describes the boarding house, on south Broad and Walnut Streets, as fashionable and "boasting a clientele of the city's oldest and wealthiest families. The guests enjoyed rooms, enormous handsomely furnished, and three superlative meals a day for prices ranging from $12 to $15 a week. Unfortunately, the building had only one bathroom, but the genteel boarders made an arrangement that the men would use it in the morning and the women, with more leisure in those days, would wait until later in the day." Mrs. Griffith hosted several residents of local fame, including Charles Godfrey Leland and George Henry Boker, two of her most distinguished boarders, who founded the Art Club within the boarding house and hired architect Frank Miles Day to transform the building into a six-story structure.

A less extravagant example of a boarding house operated around the same period was the The Friends Boarding House. This boarding house was established by the Friends Boarding House Association in 1877 in Philadelphia with the purpose of providing a place of boarding for Quakers and others. The boarding house began its venture at 1623 Filbert Street, but moved to 1708 Race Street in 1894. The Friends Boarding House was replaced by another boarding house built for the same service managed by the Quarterly Meeting when the Association dissolved in 1913.

The following photographs were found in the Library Company of Philadelphia. The photographs share the objective of showing a building that contained a boarding house at some period in time, which may or may not match up with the date the photograph was taken. Regardless, these photographs are useful in displaying the variety of buildings that were used as boarding houses.

Congrefs Hall, Germantown, PA. Taken 1859.
From the Collection: "Pictorial Views of Houses and Places in Germantown."
Photograph Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.


Photograph of 422 Walnut Street - The James A. Freeman Auction House - by Richards.
Boarding House located on this site around the time of photograph (1959.)
Part of Collection: "Illustrations of Philadelphia" volume 3, p. 103.
Photograph Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.


8 Letitia Street: The "Letitia Penn" house. Taken circa 1880.
Photograph Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.


Photograph of northwest corner of Chestnut and 8th Streets: The Butler Mansion House. Photograph by James E. McClees. Taken 1856.
Photograph Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.


Photograph of the 200 Block Water Street by Henry Odiorne. Taken 1860.
Part of Collection: "Boarding & Lodging."
Photograph Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.




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Website by Ashley C. Aiken

University of Pennsylvania

HSPV 600: Documentation

Professor Jeffrey A. Cohen

Fall 2005