Reflection on “The Boarding House in Nineteenth Century America” by Wendy Gamber

Gamber paints the portrait of the struggle between the early American ideal of home and the natural development of the boarding as an issue that presents justifiable arguments on both sides. While she gives credit due for each argument, her slant is obviously pro-boarding house and told from the perspective of those who would seek to create a new definition of home for the American landscape. Starting with the presentation of the early opponents to this lifestyle, Gamber mentions that boarding houses were considered to be hotbeds of immorality that was inseparable from the world outside making it a place where the sanctity of the home ideal could not exist. These opponents believed that domestic activities (i.e. laundry, dishes, cooking, etc.) were not commodities to be sold to strangers and in fact were not considered to be honest work at all. This stems from the early notions of gender role presented by the early settlers of America, many of them being Protestant Christians. Boarding houses were yet another obvious development of the rapid urbanization of the American settlements. Many citizens were not going to be able to afford homes or even desire to live in them when they were only in the city to pursue economic or academic opportunities. The boarding house provided home comforts at a more affordable cost without the hassle of ownership, chore, or permanence. While some citizens railed against such housing, the factors emerging from urbanization couldn’t be overcome any other way. Using an individual case as an example of just how a boarding house could be transformed into a home, Gamber states the story of Susan Parsons Brown, who regularly refers to her residence and fellow boarders as “our family at 34” (Boehm 179). The relationships developed between Brown and the inhabitants shows the development of a quasi family through bonds of shared experience and common purpose. In fact, she even meets her husband this way and would later start a boarding house of her own. What shines through in Gamber’s work is a definite appeal to personal account and emotional appeal coupled with the facts of the period’s culture. While this sort of argument is, often times, incomplete and indefinite, in the case of defining home, this presentation is brilliant. Only in making the connections to sentiment can it be seen that boarding houses had the capacity to be homes and not merely dwellings. Gamber’s piece hits the mark and drives home the old adage, “home is where the heart is”.

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