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The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses

The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses

Thomas Butler Gunn
Edited and with an Introduction by David Faflik
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 236
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses
    Book Description:

    Thomas Butler Gunn's classic 1857 account of urban habitation, The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, explores the process by which boardinghouse life was translated into a lively urban vernacular.Physiology is at once an essential introduction to a "lost" world of boarding, even as it comprises an early, engaging, and sophisticated analysis of America's "urban turn" during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4621-6
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xxxii)

    In the early spring of 1842, a twenty-two-year-old New York journalist named Walt Whitman pronounced “the universal Yankee nation” a “boarding people.” Resorting to comic elaboration rather than sober explanation, the young newspaper editor would go on to amplify a point for readers that well may have needed none. He writes, “Married men and single men, old women and pretty girls; milliners and masons; cobblers, colonels, and counter-jumpers; tailors and teachers; lieutenants, loafers, ladies, lackbrains, and lawyers; printers and parsons—‘black spirits and white, blue spirits and gay’—all ‘go out to board’” (“New York Boardinghouses,” 22–23).¹

    Whitman was...

    (pp. xxxiii-xxxiv)
  6. The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses

    • Preface
      (pp. 5-6)
      T. B. G.
    • Contents
      (pp. 7-8)
    • CHAPTER I Introductory, Metropolitan, and Anticipatory
      (pp. 9-10)

      Individually, we haven’t the slightest doubt of the necessity for this work; but being very much alive to the responsibility of emulating Le Sage’sDiable Boiteuxin unroofing houses, and unveiling to our readers the peculiarities of the Establishments whose generic title we have assumed, we shall offer a preliminary word or so in justification of our task.

      More than half a million of human beings are said to be resident in this capital of the Western World. Now each individual of them has, is, or may become subject to Boarding-House domiciliation. Like death, no class is exempt from it...

    • CHAPTER II Of Looking Out for a Boarding-House
      (pp. 11-13)

      The Establishments of which we purpose to speak are many and multifarious, possessing their own idiocracies, and but seldom amenable to other rules and regulations than those of their proprietors. AsGow Chrom, in Scott’s novel, fought “for his own hand,”¹ so each tenement may be described assui generis, irrespective of others. They have some general characteristics, but not enough of particular ones to suggest order in their enumeration. Classification, therefore, becomes impossible. We shall only endeavor to place them under appropriate titles.

      Where, now, to begin? As one who for the first time enters upon Boarding-House existence is...

    • CHAPTER III Of Boarding with a Private Family
      (pp. 14-18)

      Very often, when circumstances compel an individual to find eating, drinking, and sleeping accommodation among strangers, he compromises the Boarding-House question by securing lodgings with a private family. Probably he entertains a wholesome distrust of the Establishments to which our book is devoted, perhaps hopes for a nearer approach to domestic felicity for eschewing them. If prudent, however, he will religiously avoid such tenements as put forth advertisements offering “all the comforts of a home” at low, or indeed any prices. For, as few persons receive boarders from inclination, it logically follows that the resources of those who are unable...

    • CHAPTER IV The Cheap Boarding-House on a Large Scale
      (pp. 19-23)

      Private Boarding-Houses, in which limited numbers of persons are accommodated, will rate in a work of this kind; and to them our prefatory remarks on the impossibility of classification, are especially applicable. Like their proprietors and occupants they are of all stations, and comprise every variety of social characteristic. We shall present such samples as have the greatest diversity, and afford scope for displaying our subject in its strongest lights.

      Having emancipated our imaginary Boarder from the “Private Family,” we at once turn him loose into the metropolitan world, nor shall we cramp our sphere of action by following individual...

    • CHAPTER V The Fashionable Boarding-House Where You Don’t Get Enough to Eat
      (pp. 24-28)

      This is a stylish mansion of free stone, in a patrician neighborhood, not far from the pleasant vicinity of Washington-square. Its interior decorations are of that peculiar French-New-York order which displays more of gilding than good taste, and more of plate-glass than either; its furniture is showy but fragile, and its domestic conveniences include, of course, “all the modern improvements.”

      Madame, the proprietress—she prefers being addressed by that title (and if you can do it withoutréFrench accent so much the better)—has been a handsome woman in her day, and unwilling to relinquish pretensions to the character,...

    • CHAPTER VI The Dirty Boarding-House
      (pp. 29-33)

      Were we simply guided by our own inclinations, it is more than probable that we should blink the responsibility of writing this Chapter. We don’t affect to despise that respectable proverb which asserts that nobody can touch pitch without being defiled. But in our capacity of pen-and-ink photographist, we can not afford to ignore the existence of the Dirty Boarding-House. Our book would be incomplete without it. Having no choice, then, but to proceed, we do so—premising that the reader shall not be detained longer than is necessary within the uncleanly Establishment we select as an extreme type of...

    • CHAPTER VII The “Hand-to-Mouth” Boarding-House
      (pp. 34-37)

      This Establishment stands in one of those shabby thoroughfares which the extension of Canal-street is rapidly improving off the face of New York.¹ It is a frame house, and like its mistress, of forlorn and pinched-up aspect, both having seen better days. Like her, too, it has sometimes made attempts to brighten up a little, and show a cheery face to the world—and looked more dismal for the failure.

      Miss — is a maiden lady, so palpably past the meridian of life, that she does not attempt to deny it. Her face is thin and withered, and two long, hay-colored...

    • CHAPTER VIII The “Serious” Boarding-House
      (pp. 38-44)

      Is, though not within what were once considered the limits of upper-tendom—being south of Bleecker-street¹—just on its ancient confines. A plain house of somber color, on the shady side of the way in the afternoon, the door bearing its mistress’ name in black letters upon a square and brightly-polished brass plate. The steps are, even in winter, kept scrupulously clean, and the area-gate locked; tradesfolks being expected to ring a bell especially devoted to them. You will not, in general, hear of this Establishment through the medium of advertisements, neither does the landlady reply to any. “She is...

    • CHAPTER IX The Theatrical Boarding-House
      (pp. 45-50)

      To the best of our belief, this Establishment—the details and domestic economy of which were unique in their way—is extinct, we therefore speak of it in the past tense.

      Like the Cheap Boarding-House on a large scale, described in Chapter Four, it consisted of two tenements, which, in this case, formed brick-and-mortar units in a street diverging eastward from Broadway, not far from the theater of that name. Whether influenced by the location, a predilection on the part of the landlady for the profession, the gregarious habits of the class, or the three reasons combined, the majority of...

    • CHAPTER X The Boarding-House Wherein “Spiritualism” Becomes Predominant
      (pp. 51-53)

      A handsome up-town edifice within five minutes’ walk of Fifth Avenue, and of such height that scaling its staircase (midway up which a foggy aroma of dinners always hovers) is involuntarily suggestive of Jacob’s ladder.¹ In outward appearance it is aristocratic, in inner arrangements unexceptionable, its dinner-hour fashionably late. In no particular, therefore, would it differ from many similar Establishments, but for the peculiarities of its inmates, which fairly entitle it to a place in our Physiology.

      The reader, if a New Yorker, has doubtless often noticed in Broadway the tall, spare figure of an elderly gentleman attired in a...

    • CHAPTER XI The Mean Boarding-House
      (pp. 54-59)

      Mean Boarding-Houses, like mean people, are, unfortunately, not uncommon or peculiar to any rank or locality. We have already had occasion to speak of one Establishment in which a stratum of aristocratic pretense overlays this characteristic, we now turn to another in humbler life.

      It is a clean-looking frame building, in a quietish street, some twenty minutes’ walk from Chatham Square,¹ and midway between East Broadway and the river.² If the broken and puddley sidewalks of the vicinity had been especially sown with an intention of producing a crop of old barrels, boxes, disabled kettles and contused saucepans, they could...

    • CHAPTER XII The Boarding-House Where There Are Marriageable Daughters
      (pp. 60-63)

      This Establishment has some few characteristics akin to those detailed in connection with the aristocratic one described in Chapter Five, yet as it is every way a broader and stronger type of a very numerous class, we at once recognize its claims to a place in our Physiology.

      It is situate in a street north of Canal (no matter for its name)—one of those which intersect Broadway, the blocks adjacent to which are more stylishly built than those farther on, where they degenerate into very common-place and mean-looking tenements. Our present Boarding-House stands on debatable ground, between the junction...

    • CHAPTER XIII The Cheap Hotel Boarding-House
      (pp. 64-67)

      In one of those business-like thoroughfares which are peculiarly characteristic of the lower part of New York—whose dusky red stores have iron shutters, and the names of their occupants painted up in black letters upon a white ground—whose sidewalks are perpetually blockaded by bales, barrels, and boxes—where the pedestrian’s progress is rendered perilous by the transit, onskids, of unwieldy merchandise from cart to store, orvice versa—where, throughout the week, wholesale traffic reigns, and which, on Sundays, has a very funereal and dead-wall aspect—is a huge, seven-story, corner building, bearing its designation in proportionate...

    • CHAPTER XIV The Boarding-House Where the Landlady Drinks
      (pp. 68-72)

      We once had had three weeks’ experience of an Establishment which can only be rightly discriminated by the above title.

      It happened in consequence of a change of dynasty in our, then, Boarding-House. We were made over, in company with a house-full of fellow-victims, to a new landlady; the former—a handsome Kentuckian—relinquishing the business for private life. The tenement was a spacious, old-fashioned one, in a street south of Canal, running west-ward from Broadway. It had been admirably ruled under the former proprietorship. How we fared with the new, we shall proceed to relate.

      Mrs. — was a woman...

    • CHAPTER XV The Boarding-House Whose Landlady Likes to Be Ill-Used
      (pp. 73-78)

      This is a smallish, four-storied edifice in a wide street, destined ere long to form a thoroughfare only second in business importance to Broadway—we don’t care to particularize it more closely. Like its neighbors, it has a plain front of brown cement, and displays modest green blinds at each of its eight windows. A small oval brass plate on the door bears the simple inscription “Mrs. —.” She is the landlady.

      A small woman with lightish hair and not too much of it, its abnormal color being by no means improved by so indiscriminate an application of dye that...

    • CHAPTER XVI Of a Tip-Top Boarding-House
      (pp. 79-85)

      If at any time during the perusal of the foregoing Chapters we have sunk in our reader’s estimation, as manifesting a suspicious familiarity with the dirty side of human nature, we confidently expect that the present one will redeem our character. There can be nothing vulgar to chronicle of the Establishment now claiming attention. We especially plume ourself on having lived in it. Whenever inclined to depreciate, and to think small-beer of ourself, we turn to that page of memory’s volume upon which the details are recorded, glance admiringly over them, and hold up our head elate with the consciousness...

    • CHAPTER XVII The Boarding-House Where You’re Expected to Make Love to the Landlady
      (pp. 86-90)

      We had known more than one Establishment which possessed this characteristic in an imperfectly developed degree, but until Destiny, foreseeing our present task, guided us to the abode we are about to describe, never had we beheld it in full completeness. As it was the dominant peculiarity, we so entitle the Chapter.

      The landlady in question was a large widow, her house a moderately-sized, timber-framed one, some distance up-town, in a side street, leading off from one of the avenues. Close by were handsome mansions of free-stone and granite, presenting a genuine New York contrast to the unpretending tenement, which,...

    • CHAPTER XVIII Of Another Mean Boarding-House
      (pp. 91-96)

      This Establishment—which, in point of pretensions, might rank between those described in Chapters the Fifth and Eleventh—is now happily extinct; we therefore, as usual, speak of it in the past tense.

      It was located in a dozy, shady street, particularly affected by hand-organs and children, and not far from St. John’s Square.¹ Exteriorly, a plain, substantial, redbrick edifice—interiorly, a decent, though meagerly-furnished one—gastronomically, ameanone. And as its meanness developed itself after a peculiar fashion and led to singular results, we devote this chapter to particulars.

      The landlady—familiarly known as “the Ogress,” or “Meat-ax,”...

    • CHAPTER XIX The Family Hotel on Broadway
      (pp. 97-100)

      A white marble or free-stone front, one to two hundred feet on the fashionable side of our principal thoroughfare, and six or seven stories high—a main entrance over twenty feet wide, and a hundred deep, with private ones in proportion—offices, saloons, parlors, ladies’ and gentlemen’s reception-rooms, dining-rooms, reading-rooms, bath-rooms, bar-rooms, ordinaries and tea-rooms—apartments of all sizes and degrees of luxury; rosewood furniture, velvet tapestry, gorgeous chandeliers, huge mirrors, fresco paintings, high ceilings, a stair-case twelve feet wide, with landing-places over twenty, on each floor—accommodations for four or five hundred guests, armies of waiters, a heating apparatus...

    • CHAPTER XX The Artists’ Boarding-House
      (pp. 101-105)

      Artists do not, in general, affect Boarding-Houses. Whether their profession—which in some cases appears to have a tendency to the development of eccentricities of costume and character—renders them averse to any routine existence, or whether an untrammeled life better accords with the necessities of their position, we do not venture to decide, simply stating the fact. Some prefer taking their meals at restaurants, bivouacking at night in their studios or offices amid the heterogeneous medley of articles only to be seen in such places—as plastercasts, boxing-gloves, easels, squares of canvas, skulls, fencing-foils, portfolios, pipes, armor, weapons, and...

    • CHAPTER XXI The Vegetarian Boarding-House (As It Was)
      (pp. 106-111)

      In commencing the present Chapter we would especially disclaim any intention of describing a certain Establishment yet extant among us. Of that we know no more than that it is said to be conducted on an approach to—though not strictly—Vegetarian principles; and that its proprietor has the reputation of a gentleman and a man of science. Our Vegetarian Boarding-House is an entirely different affair; and, to the best of our knowledge, ceased to exist upwards of four years ago. Yet its peculiarities are worthy of preservation. The tenement was one of those old-fashioned, comfortable-looking, red-brick ones margining the...

    • CHAPTER XXII The Medical Students’ Boarding-House
      (pp. 112-117)

      How many of our readers can recollect the ideas generally entertained with regard to Medical Students before the existence of Dickens’Pickwick Papers?¹ Were they not supposed to be pale, studious, intellectual, interesting young men?—often figuring as heroes in Annuals,Forget-Me-Not’s,² and the like feeble-minded literature? Such is the testimony of our memory on the point. But theReal—in the shape of Mr. Bob Sawyer, and Mr. Ben Allen—ousted theIdealas effectually as did Cervantes’ knight the paladins of fictitious chivalry.³ Albert Smith’s livelyPunchpapers only deepened the Pickwickian impression,⁴ and a sentimental Medical Student...

    • CHAPTER XXIII The Boarding-House Frequented by Bostonians
      (pp. 118-123)

      Is a trim, sober-colored edifice of moderate dimensions, in an unfinished street on the North river side of the Sixth Avenue. It has trees in front of it, and is within five minutes’ walk of the cars, of which convenience, however, the boarders avail themselves much less frequently than similarly-located New Yorkers would do—in fact, only when necessitated by haste or foul weather. Bostonians have faith in exercise, and, unlike our faster population, don’t rush into a vehicle when they want to get from one block’s end to the other.

      Its mistress claims Massachusetts as her birth-State, amésalliance...

    • CHAPTER XXIV The Boarding-House Whose Landlady Is a Southerner
      (pp. 124-130)

      Only rich Southerners travel; and such as are induced by business or pleasure to seek northern cities naturally prefer the accommodation of Hotels rather than Boarding-Houses—the St. Nicodemus, as every body knows, being especially favored by their patronage. Yet, as, among our list of Establishments, we have cognizance of one whose general characteristics savored of the sunny South; whose landlady prided herself on being “no Yankee,” and whose boarders hailed mainly from the other side of Mason and Dixon’s line,¹ we accord it a Chapter.

      The house—a Union Square one—was, like its mistress, handsome, and of imposing...

    • CHAPTER XXV The Boarding-House Whose Landlady Is from “Down East”
      (pp. 131-136)

      A dingy-looking, four-story, framehouse in the east-Chatham district standing all askew, and of such narrow frontage that it appears to have been squeezed into undue longitudinal development by the neighboring tenements, one of which is a recently erected manufactory. The street itself is a very up-and-down-hill thoroughfare, boasting a Presidential name; the bad smells, children in gutters, tumble-down old houses, and new ones of bright red brick.

      Exteriorly the particular Establishment we write of is unpromising; on entering you snuff an atmosphere suggestive of cooking-stoves, confined air and mice. Yet the rooms are clean, for the landlady prides herself on...

    • CHAPTER XXVI The Boarding-House in Which Englishmen Predominate
      (pp. 137-142)

      Englishmen—being constitutional grumblers (which we consider a respectable quality, inasmuch as it indicates dissatisfaction with every thingthat may be made better), are prone to indulge in this national characteristic to considerable extent when necessitated to become inmates of Boarding-Houses. The system militates against their inherent exclusiveness, inducing involuntary apprehensions that they may be brought into contact with persons whom they won’t be able to get along with, and—what is worse—who will be slow in admitting their inevitable inferiority. (For every Briton, whether consciously or not, has a thorough conviction that he is the natural superior of...

    • CHAPTER XXVII The “Pension Française”
      (pp. 143-147)

      Frenchmen, and especially Parisians, possess but little of that desire for domestic privacy characterizing Englishmen and Germans. They are an out-o’-door population, the streets, shops,cafés, theaters, and places of public promenade being necessary component parts of their existence, andhomeonly represented by a furnished chamber in which to pass the night. Bachelor life in the French capital is almost exclusively of this order, and any one who has resided in that most attractive and mercurial of cities will at once call to mind how common a spectacle is that of a whole family—father, mother, and children—dining...

    • CHAPTER XXVIII The German “Gasthaus”
      (pp. 148-152)

      Your German is not, in general, a Boarding-House animal. He prefers renting a single room for two-fold reasons—firstly, from motives of economy. (As he can subsist, exclusively, onsour-krout, tobacco, andlager-bier, he finds the practice of this virtue comparatively easy.) In the second place, he invariably plays upon some musical instrument—usually a noisy one—which practice landladies of Boarding-Houses ordinarily object to. Therefore if obliged to make a contract for the supply of his daily necessities, he does it, as it were, under protest, and only temporarily. Yet there are German Boarding-Houses, and were many more before...

    • CHAPTER XXIX The Irish Immigrant Boarding-House (As It Was)
      (pp. 153-156)

      The charge of a perverse conservatism of character which renders its possessors very slow in doing away with open and acknowledged evils is often brought, and with some show of justice, by Americans, against Englishmen. Yet if the conduct of New Yorkers may be taken as a sample of national feeling, we are equally liable to the same reproach. Abuses worthy of the rottenest despotism that ever produced barricades in the streets of a European city have flourished (and do yet flourish) in gloriously diabolic vigor in our metropolis; every body knowing of, but few caring to do aught but...

    • CHAPTER XXX The Chinese Boarding-House
      (pp. 157-160)

      Few, if any of our readers, whose daily peregrinations have not made them familiar with the slim figures, the yellow-soap-colored complexions, the pig-eyes sloping angularly into the low, flat foreheads of such inhabitants of the Flowery Country as we have among us.¹ Behind little stalls, or holding trays containing bad cigars and cheap confectionery, they haunt our public places; or squat despondently under some authorized covert, relying on charity as stimulated by a printed or written placard, worn tabard-wise on the breast.² Few New Yorkers, we say, but have observed them. Yet how many of us have cast a stray...

    • CHAPTER XXXI The Sailors’ Boarding-House
      (pp. 161-163)

      In that quarter of the town containing the two preceding Establishments, and within five minutes’ walk of the latter, stands the tenement now claiming our notice. Like the Irish Immigrant Boarding-House, its exterior is that of a low tavern, and of equally repulsive aspect. A fancy marine title over the door, and an American flag stuck out of an upper window—as attractions for sea-faring men—indicate the purpose to which it is devoted.

      The landlord claims a Portuguese origin, but his fleshy, aquiline nose, protuberant lips, and small eyes, are unmistakably Hebraical—to say nothing of the remorseless wrinkles...

    • CHAPTER XXXII The Boarding-House Which Gives Satisfaction to Every Body
      (pp. 164-164)
    • CHAPTER XXXIII Of Different Sorts of Boarders
      (pp. 165-171)

      At length, Reader, our Physiology draws towards its conclusion. Not that we have exhausted the subject—to do that would necessitate the devotion of a particular chapter to every Boarding-House in the city of New York; for not one of them, as has been already intimated, but possesses its own peculiarities. Such a task might be achieved only by a Briareus or Alexandre Dumas.¹ It suffices us to have selected types of the more prominent, and, to the best of our judgment, noteworthy Establishments.

      Yet there are particulars remaining which should form part of our subject, though not conveniently admissible,...

    • CHAPTER XXXIV Retrospective and Valedictory
      (pp. 172-174)

      There is an old story of a certain painter, who having depicted a man in the act of overcoming a lion in single combat, submitted his performance to one of the latter species for Criticism, which was accorded in the simple remark, that had the artist been a lion, the relative positions of the parties represented might have been different. We apprehend a somewhat similar judgment will be passed upon our volume by the proprietors and proprietresses of New York Boarding-Houses. If the writer, they will say, had experience ofkeeping, instead ofboarding, at our Establishments, this “Physiology” would...

    (pp. 175-198)
    (pp. 199-200)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-202)