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has been an important income-producing occupation for women who did not wish to or could not work outside the home. It became particularly significant in the period between 1840 and 1940 in industrializing nations. In this period, when married and widowed women found working outside the home both difficult and distasteful, boardinghouse keeping permitted them to make money by the production of household goods and services (cooking, cleaning, washing, etc.) for nonfamily members within the confines of their own homes.
Although women had traditionally cared for nonfamily members in their households (indentured servants, apprentices and journeymen, orphans and the aged of the community, etc.), before the early nineteenth century this work had seldom been paid. As the importance of boarding rose with urbanization and industrialization, the opportunities for women to make money doing this job rose as well. Because nineteenth-century boardinghouse keeping actually generated income, albeit through traditional female activities done within a family context and for the family good, this occupation represented an important transitional stage for women between a preindustrial household economy and modern wage labor. Women's willingness to engage in this occupation was of crucial importance in ameliorating a number of negative effects of rapid population growth and urbanization (such as housing shortages, high rents, and the large number of young people living away from parental discipline) that accompanied industrialization in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Studies show that by the mid-1880s, in most industrializing cities in the United States around 20 percent of families took in boarders or lodgers, and in most of these households either the wife of the household head or a widowed woman cared for them. Mining boom towns, industrial cities that attracted a large percentage of young single men or women, and the port cities through which most European immigrants passed offered even greater opportunities for boardinghouse keeping. Boardinghouse keepers presided over residences that ranged in size from very large hotel-like enterprises, where the husband and wife might both be engaged in running the business, and several servants would help with the domestic tasks, to small private households where one or two boarders would occupy spare bedrooms. In Portland, Oregon, a rapidly growing western town in 1880, the average number of boarders and lodgers served by female boardinghouse keepers was seven.
Although census reports consistently undercounted this form of employment for women, the importance of boarding- and lodginghouse keeping for married women can be seen in the fact that in 1855 in a working-class ward of New York City, 22 percent of all Irish married women kept one or more boarders, and 84 percent of the Irish married women who worked were boardinghouse keepers. In addition, a study of major West Coast cities found that in 1880 between 53 percent and 60 percent of all married working women were boarding- or lodginghouse keepers. The income that women could bring into the family by taking in boarders was equivalent to the income they could make in the jobs that were available outside the home to women in this period. Moreover, strong evidence from one study indicates that the income produced by women who took in boarders made up nearly one-third of their gross family incomes.
Boardinghouse keeping began to decline in importance as an occupation for women in the 1930s as the migration to cities began to slow, new residential alternatives like apartment buildings appeared, and housing construction began to catch up to population growth. Perhaps more important, middle-class reformers' strong belief in the importance of family privacy and the detrimental effects of permitting "strangers" into the household had gained acceptance throughout American society. The decreasing demand for the sort of service that >>boarding house keepers<< had provided and the growing unwillingness of families to take in boarders were accompanied by the expansion of other job opportunities for women during and after World War II. As a result, married and widowed women increasingly started to contribute to the family income by working outside the home.
J.M. Jensen, "Cloth, Butter and Boarders: Women's Household Production for the Market," The Review of Radical Political Economics 12 (1980): 14-24; J. Modell and T.K. Hareven, "Urbanization and the Malleable Household: An Examination of Boarding and Lodging in American Families," Journal of Marriage and the Family 35 (1973): 467-479.
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