Skip to content

Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Spring 2001 > From Gentility to Convenience: Boarders and Lodgers at the Otis House

From Gentility to Convenience: Boarders and Lodgers at the Otis House

Above: Joseph Shoemaker Russell: Mrs. A. W. Smith's Parlor at Broad & Spruce Streets, Philadelphia. This watercolor depicts a federal-era residence in Philadelphia in 1853, when it was a boardinghouse, with fashionable wallpaper and carpeting and boarders engaged in polite conversation. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with funds contributed by the Barra Foundation, Inc. Below: In 1916, the "Room to Let" sign in front of the Otis House clearly marked it as a working-class lodging house.

A naval officer, a law student, a newspaper editor, a carriage manufacturer, a bank clerk, a seamstress, a brick mason, and a teamster: what did these people have in common? At one time or another between 1854 and 1916, each was a resident of the Harrison Gray Otis House during its year as a boarding or lodging house.

In the mid nineteenth century, industrial growth created vast numbers of new jobs in Boston, putting pressure on the city's housing by people who needed to live close to places of work. Many older single-family homes in Boston's West End were converted to boardinghouses, which at that time represented a respectable alternative to maintaining a private home. These establishments offered affordable temporary housing with a pleasant, home-like environment for middle-class families, married couples, and upwardly mobile young men. Family-style meals were served three times a day, and boarders could socialize just as they would at home in a well-furnished parlor.

According to Miss Emily Leavitt, whose uncle lived at the Otis House, the Otis boardinghouse was a genteel "'home' for some of the finest people." From 1854 to 1868, the Misses Williams, four unmarried sisters, managed the house and boarded "cultivated" people, including Admiral Thatcher and his young family, and George Punchard, editor of the Boston Evening Traveler, and his wife. Larger rooms like the first-floor dining room and the upstairs drawing room were divided into well-decorated bedroom suites; boarders took their meals in the basement dining room and could entertain guests in the "stately" parlor.

Through the 1890s, the Otis House continued as a boardinghouse catering to prosperous married families and single young men in white-collar occupations. Although immigrants were moving into the West End at this time, census records show that nearly all the Otis House boarders in 1870 and 1880 were white native-born Americans from New England. They included a retired merchant and his wife, a college professor, business owners, clerks, and salesmen. The presence of several servants in the household shows that boarders continued to live a middle-class lifestyle.

By 1900, however, the Otis House boarders listed in the census reflected the immigrant and working-class character of the neighborhood. A few residents were foreign-born, and several were the children of Irish immigrants. Many of the men were skilled manual workers, including a brick mason, a painter, and a plumber, while the female boarders included a dress-maker and a waitress. Mrs. King, the boardinghouse keeper in 1900, employed only one cook/servant to provide meals and housekeeping for twenty-one boarders, suggesting that the quality of life could barely meet middle-class standards.

In 1910, the Otis House changed from a boardinghouse to a lodging house, in which lodgers rented single furnished rooms with no meals included. After 1870, lodging houses became increasingly common in Boston as boardinghouse keepers found they could save money by not providing meals and as lodgers began to prefer eating and socializing in bars, cafés, and restaurants. Middle-class reformers expressed nostalgia for old-fashioned boardinghouses, where the keepers could supervise their boarders, and criticized the lack of social controls over young, single lodgers, fearing the "moral complications of city life." Nonetheless, as middle-class families vacated the downtown for the newer streetcar suburbs, many houses all over the city were changed into lodging houses. Thus the evolution of the Otis House, from its origin in post-Revolutionary prosperity through industrialization and immigration, traces a dramatic cycle of social and economic change in Boston's history.

- Kelly H. L'Ecuyer

Ms. L'Ecuyer is pursuing a Ph. D. in Boston University's American and New England Studies Program.

From Gentility to Convenience: Boarders and Lodgers at the Otis House