Caleb Crain — a contributor to our forthcoming Cambridge Companion, whose bookish blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, we’ve long and consistently enjoyed — had a piece in the NY Times Book Review last Sunday on nineteenth-century New York boardinghouses. Taking as its departure point a nineteenth-century book on boarding life, Caleb wonders whether past housing habits may return in the current economic crisis:
[O]nce upon a time, the boardinghouse thrived in America, especially in New York. In 1856, Walt Whitman
claimed that almost three-quarters of Manhattanites lived in one. He
may have been exaggerating slightly, but the historian Wendy Gamber has
estimated that “up to 30 percent of all 19th-century households took in
boarders,” and the 1860 census counted 2,651 boardinghouse keepers in
New York State alone. In 1857, foreseeing that the phenomenon might not
last forever, Thomas Butler Gunn undertook to record it for posterity
in The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, which is available in an opportunely reprinted edition from Rutgers University Press ($23.95) as well as a facsimile edition from Cornell University Library ($23.99).
“I wonder what they were!” Gunn imagines a future researcher asking,
and for an answer, he provides chapters on the Hand-to-Mouth
Boardinghouse, the Fashionable Boardinghouse Where You Don’t Get Enough
to Eat and the Boardinghouse Where the Landlady Drinks, among other
representative types. New Yorkers of the 21st century will probably
recognize the 8-by-6-foot rooms and the walls soiled where mosquitoes
“have encountered Destiny in the shape of the slippers or boot-soles of
former occupants.” But the unceasing drama of boardinghouse life — the
flirtations, drunkenness, mutual irritation, backbiting, whining,
eccentricity, conspiracy, chiseling and deceit — may come as a
surprise. The closest modern parallel may be the comments section of a
[Read the rest of the piece here.]
Tempted to rent out your sofa? If the past’s prologue, you may want to get your hands on Gunn’s book — which is also available on Cornell’s Making of America website — to see what you may be in for.
One thing appears not to have changed from then until now: the persistent plague of bedbugs, which were thoroughly blogged about on New York sites last week and even mentioned in New York magazine’s week-in-review. Don’t miss the argument in the comments section of NYC The Blog, where readers debate the likelihood that the 2 Train Bedbug Man actually had bedbugs crawling on him when he was removed from the train by police. Oh, and over here you’ll find bedbug photography, too.