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The Rich American Legacy of Shared Housing

A visual journalist remembers a time when "housing was more flexible, fluid and communal than it is today.”
In the late 10th and early 20th centuries, housing was much more flexible, fluid and communal than it is today -- especially in America's booming cities. The rapidly growing downtowns needed people, so many people, to fuel them: Day laborers, seafarers, migrant workers, factory workers, newly minted women workers. And every worker, no matter how industrious, had to sleep somewhere.

The bed was the most basic unit of housing, and workers had the ability to rent one in any way they needed. There were hot beds rented in shifts, beds in shared rooms, beds in private rooms with shared bathrooms, beds with private bathrooms and shared kitchens. Workers in lived in hotels, boarded in private homes, rented beds by the night, the week, the month, the season.

At the turn of the century, San Francisco was known as Hotel City because vast numbers of people lived in hotels and ate only in restaurants. In New York, an 1892 guide to the city claimed that when it came to housing, every individual caprice and purse can find something to suit. Boston's South End rooming houses were known to shelter everyone fro clerks to painters, shop girls to electricians, Black railroad porters to policemen, nurses to carpenters. Chicago had districts known for different types of residential hotels: rooming houses on the north side, and cheap lodging houses near the main stem.

Shared living was so pervasive, it's estimated that anywhere from one-third to one-half of all urban Americans either boarded or took boarders at some point in their lives.