Residential Hotels and Boarding Houses
Working Victorians had little use for kitchens
Residential hotels and boarding houses were important housing options throughout the 1800s and many still persisted into the early 1900s. In fact, hotels as residences were so common that the Victorians probably didn’t call them residential hotels to set them apart.
Residential hotels and boarding houses preceded apartments as housing options. The reason is simple. What we call an apartment is presumed to include a bathroom and a kitchen. Victorian workers typically could not afford the space required for a kitchen, nor did they have the capital required to purchase kitchen equipment. Victorian workers could not afford a kitchen, nor did they have use for them.
Cooking in Victorian times required a great amount of skill and time. Someone working ten to twelve hour days had neither the time nor the energy. So workers who could not afford to cook for themselves essentially hired other people to cook for them. Historically, we can postulate what I call the Social Inversion of Eating Out; that is, that eating at home is a luxury and eating out is what common folks often did. For example, Mary Beard has observed a similar phenomenon in ancient Pompeii, where common freepersons lived in tiny apartments lacking cooking facilities or even the space for them. Also lacking running water, Pompeians took to the streets as urban foragers. They accessed street fountains for water and purchased food from street vendors and taverns. Many Pompeians found their sustenance in the streets.
By the nineteenth-century, common workers (almost always male) were in a similar situation. Often lacking their own households and lacking their own kitchens, they often lived in multi-family residences such as hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, and saloons. Kitchens remained fire hazards when fire-fighting technology was still relatively primitive, they required large spaces, and the infrastructure was expensive. By paying a boarding fee, a worker contracted with someone else to provision groceries, prepare food, and serve them at a common table. In some cases they even lodged and boarded in houses that did not advertise themselves as commercial lodging houses. Socially, this has some striking implications.
Bachelor Victorian workers sometimes shared rooms with other lodgers, and other times maintained private rooms. The “inmates,” as they sometimes called themselves, took their meals at appointed times, eating whatever was served at the table of the host. We might call this “family style” in present-day terms. However, this had also been custom in public houses of the western world, called the table d’hote. This custom weakened throughout the nineteenth century and was gradually replaced by customs more familiar to us. In short, bachelor Victorian workers dined with their host and their fellow lodgers. These living arrangements made privacy a great challenge. Yet in some sense just about everyone had access to a family: a group of familiar people with whom to live and eat. Contrast this with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when there is an increasing number of single person households.
Having eliminated residential hotels and boarding houses as legal or affordable living arrangements, single Americans often live alone in apartments. They achieve a great level of privacy with private bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. Present-day apartment dwellers have great advantages over Victorian lodgers in terms of infrastructure providing sanitation and the spaces to maintain privacy. Yet this sanitation and cooking infrastructure is costly. What percentage of the construction cost of an apartment is kichen infrastructure? It is easy to imagine that rent keeps many present-day workers trapped in their own apartments. Many apartment dwellers having a large amount of their wages sunk into the cost of rent. So they economize by putting their kitchen infrastructure to use in the form of preparing their own meals and dining at home. In this scenario, many people live alone and eat alone.
Mary Jones ran a boarding house in Houston at the corner of Main and Rusk in 1884. This is the house as it was depicted on the 1885 Sanborn Fire Map. Virginia Gearing was the boarding house keeper in 1886.
In present-day terms, hotels and boarding rooms would not meet the needs of privacy of most single Americans. On the other hand, apartment life can be both expensive and lonely. Not everyone has the same level of social competence. Yet the lack of social competence does not imply a lack of need for social contact. Shared housing arrangements should be options for single Americans.