Boarding Houses, Fodder for Popular Culture

Boarding House After Dinner, Palmetto, California

Boarding houses, a slice of the folkloric American food story …

American food icon James Beard grew up in an Oregon boarding house operated by his mother.  And New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne cut his teeth in his mother’s Mississippi boarding house kitchen.

In a way, we’re still feeling the impact of those women’s pots and pans through the culinary legacies of their sons.

Other citizens of these United States (and elsewhere) contributed to boarding house lore, too.

Boarding House Mary Surratt Lincoln
Mary Suratt’s Boarding House

Feeding travelers, businessmen, workers, and other groups, boarding houses played a huge role in the transformation of America from a rural, provincial nation to an industrial power.

Although we don’t often think of it, Mary Suratt’s boarding house provided a haven for the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, too. Talk about changing history …

It’s no wonder that authors and artists, cartoonists and critics took on the archetypal boarding house and used it for creative fodder.

Yes, he wasn’t an American, but British author Rudyard Kipling wrote the long (and bawdy) “The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House” , because boarding houses also appeared in England and elsewhere:

’TWAS Fultah Fisher’s boarding-house,
Where sailor-men reside,
And there were men of all the ports
From Mississip to Clyde,
And regally they spat and smoked,
And fearsomely they lied.

They lied about the purple Sea
That gave them scanty bread,
They lied about the Earth beneath,
The Heavens overhead,
For they had looked too often on
Black rum when that was red.

They told their tales of wreck and wrong,
Of shame and lust and fraud,
They backed their toughest statements with
The Brimstone of the Lord,
And crackling oaths went to and fro
Across the fist-banged board.

Another oft-quoted little ditty appeared on this side of the great pond:

At the boarding house where I lived,
Things were getting green with mold
The landlord’s hair was in the butter,
Silver threads among the gold.
When the dog died, we had hotdogs
When the cat died, catnip tea,
When the landlord died, I left there,
Spare ribs were too much for me.

There were, apparently,  several versions of this little gem.

Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel mimics life in his mother Julia’s boarding house, while Eudora Welty took the boarding house as a setting for her work, The Ponder Heart, with the memorable character of Edna Earle Ponder and her Beulah Hotel reigning among the pages. Of course, no discussion of boarding houses in literature could fail to mention Irishman James Joyce and his story, “The Boarding House,” in The Dubliners.

And so what did people eat in these homes away from home?

A fairly straightforward and common American  menu pattern might be the following, very similar to the lumberjack diet:


Stews, Meat Pies, Dumplings, Roast Beef or Game, Corned beef and Cabbage, Rice Dishes, Gravy

Puddings, Pies

Coffee, Tea

In spite of this, and not surprisingly, some boarders crabbed about the food. A story published January 17, 1902 in The New York Times tells of a young woman from Pennsylvania who complained that she didn’t get enough to eat in her lodgings even though she paid her rent. So she sued the boarding house owner:

NEW CASTLE, Penn,. Jan. 16 — May Ewing, a young woman, entered suit against her boarding house mistress, Mrs. A. M. Cook to-day, claiming that she paid her board bill regularly, but did not get enough to eat. She said she believed Mrs. Cook should be punished just as anyone else who did not give value received for legal tender

The defendant was released on her own recognizance, and the girl was advised by the police to change her boarding house or open bachelor quarters.

Of course, Miss Ewing needed to move afterward, because Mrs. Cook would likely have served her something unpleasant, the least of which might have been a wad of spit in her tea!

By the 1930s, boarding houses  permeated the collective memory so strongly that cartoonist Gene Ahern created a comic strip called “Our Boarding House,” portraying the ups and downs of life lived among a group of strangers.

Boarding House Comic 2
A sample of the “Our Boarding House” comic

See The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America, by Wendy Gamber (2007), for more on boarding houses. Turn to the following for food:

Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from Her Savannah Table, by Sema Wilkes (2004) and Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House Cookbook: A Celebration of Traditional Southern Dishes that Made Miss Mary Bobo’s–An American Legend, by Pat Mitchamore and Lynne Tolley (1994).

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “Boarding Houses, Fodder for Popular Culture

  1. Another song, going back to the late 1920’s, was “Tanner’s Boarding House” by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers. It was from the point of view of the owner –

    “Eat corn bread and taters, too, and drink out of a gourd –
    My boardin’ house, my boardin’ house, where folks don’t pay no board.”

  2. Yes, I think that’s right, the 1950s. People became more affluent after WWII and private lodging/apartments seemed more affordable, not to mention the gradual increase in economic opportunities for women, etc.

  3. I remember reading that comic strip when I was a kid — and never understanding it at all. I think my father lived in various boarding houses in the 1920s and 1930s. He talked about the food a little, and I think my mother got a few recipes from the woman who rented out the rooms. Although he lived in the midwest, I always thought of it as more New York than midwestern. It definitely ended in the fifties as an institution with all the cultural baggage, I think.

  4. I stayed in a pension when I first started out in Peace Corps. But the one I stayed in wasn’t really where long-termers stayed. The American boarding house was a little bit different, I think. One of my great-aunts appeared in the 1930 census in a boarding house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one where mostly actors stayed, apparently.

  5. Nice entry. Boarding houses seem to be the American version of pensions in Europe and elsewhere. Cairo has some wonderful pensions, most run by Italians and Greeks. I loved staying in them.

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