The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses

The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses

The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses

The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses

Synopsis

The American boardinghouse once provided basic domestic shelter and constituted a uniquely modern world view for the first true generation of U.S. city-dwellers. 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. Intimate in its confessional tone, comprehensive in its detail, disarmingly penetrating despite (or perhaps because of) its self-deprecating wit, 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.

In his introduction, David Faflik considers what made Gunn's book a compelling read in the past and how today it can elucidate our understanding of the formation and evolution of urban American life and letters.

Excerpt

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).

Whitman was right to assume that his contemporaries already were familiar with “boarding out,” as the domestic practice to which he refers then was known. An unprecedented urban turn during the middle decades of the nineteenth century had seen tens of thousands of Americans migrate to or toward the nearest metropolis in search of work and leisure. Meeting them there were an equal number of foreign immigrants arriving mostly from northern and western Europe. and attending them all were the rising real estate prices and severe housing shortages that constituted the commercial, communal logic behind boarding. Formerly a sporadic pastime practiced among sailors, settlers, and apprentices in both the colonial Old and New Worlds, boarding out had emerged in America in the 1830s and 1840s as a widespread ritual that saw masses of men and (to a lesser extent) women, in most instances strangers, come together under a common roof to partake of food, shelter, and upkeep for an agreed-upon weekly or monthly fee. Practically, those commodities otherwise would have been hard to find or afford under rapidly urbanizing circumstances, all the more so along the country’s crowded Atlantic seaboard. Symbolically, in the pitch from which Whitman writes, it thus should come as no surprise that he proposes boarding as a behavior by which U.S. citizens everywhere might be identified. From the vantage point . . .

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