Only a Boarder

This is the second article in September of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on September 12, 1909, and is an article bringing to light the experiences of women in boarding houses.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

Only a Boarder

I DROVE her to the station this morning, thus ending a visit beginning with “a week-end.” That is the twentieth century form of invitation to those we delight to honor in our country houses. We used to say, “Come out and spend a Sunday with us.”

I asked Miss Matilda Faden for a week end, then, and when Saturday’s mail brought me a message to the effect that the friends I had expected on the following Wednesday were detained by a case of scarlet fever in the family, I asked Miss Matilda to protract her visit.

She is a spinster of 48 or thereabouts, and I have known her 28 out of the two score and eight years. She was a prettyish girl when I first met her, the darling and only child of well-to-do parents, and engaged to be married to a naval officer. He died in South America the next year of ship fever and Matilda (we had not fallen into the way of saying “Miss” then) lived at home with her father and mother for five years longer.

Then Mr. Faden died after a lingering illness, and it was found that his property was much less than had been generally supposed. The widow and daughter sold the homestead and went into a boarding house. The old lady left the daughter alone 10 years later.

Dubious Comfort.

“And I have been boarding, first in one house, then in another,” said the patient soul to me yesterday, as we sat out the Sunday sunset and twilight on the lakeward veranda. “I shall be only a boarder to the end of the chapter. I cannot afford to keep house, you know. If I could, there is nobody to help me to make a Home.”

She dwelt with a sort of pensive fondness upon the monosyllable.

“You’ll maybe think me foolishly sentimental, when I tell you that I have been homesick for over 20 years.”

“You had your mother after the old home was broken up,” I ventured to remind her.

“Yes; but we were strangers and sojourners, less lonely of heart because we were together, but homeless all the same. The best hotel can never be a home. And we were not able to live in hotels, or even in an expensive boarding house. They may be a trifle more comfortable than those in which I have stayed (I can’t say ‘lived!’). I fancy that the trail of the boarding house is over them all.”

“Do you mean”—in genuine bewilderment I pushed the question further—“that you have not material comforts? Would you mind telling me in what the hardships of the boarder consist?”

Miss Matilda is a good talker and no grumbler. I have never heard her complain of her lot until now, and compassion was mingled with curiosity.

“Haven’t you a comfortable room? Don’t you get enough to eat? Are the people who keep the house unkind to you?” I continued.

She pulled up her light shawl closer about her neck. I had not felt that the evening was growing chill, but she appeared conscious of it. Hers is a comely presence. Her abundant hair is silver gray, her black silk gown and old laces become her well. And she is a gentlewoman ingrain. If there be aught degrading in the monotony of boarding house life, it has never touched her.

“My room is as comfortable in winter as one small register that is ‘well-regulated’ by the landlady can make it. The furnace is ‘banked up’ at 10 o’clock every night, and there is no heat to speak of next morning until half-past 8. When the wind is on that side of the house I am chilled to the bone by the time I am dressed. I heat water over a spirit lamp. I proposed an oil stove once to Mrs. Sharpe. She said it would affect her insurance and could not be allowed. I make a surreptitious cup of tea over my lamp now and then. I used to boil an egg for breakfast. When she found the shell in the waste basket she reminded me that no first-class landlady allows cooking in the rooms. ‘It increases the risks of fire and makes no end of dirt for the chambermaid to clean up.’ She raised the same objection to my reading lamp. I take all the care of it myself, but I offered to give it up if she would let me have an argand burner or a good drop light. You see, the gas is very poor in our part of the town at the best—or so she says when we complain of the low light in the dining room and parlors. I needed no explanation of the dimness in my room after I unscrewed the burner one day and pulled out a wad of raw cotton from the pipe. I had a clean, strong light for two nights. Then she must have found the wad in the waste basket, or maybe the maid reported the increased radiance. For when I came in one evening from a walk and lighted the gas it was as low as ever and the burner was fastened on so tight that I could not move it.

“My eyes are not as strong as they would be if I had not had to write and sew and read by boarding-house gas for so many years, and I did make a stand upon my reading lamp. I use it under protest, and the warning that I would be responsible for any fire that might occur from spill or explosion is drummed periodically into my years.

“Do I get enough to eat? Yes, and no! On Sunday morning we have fruit for breakfast. For the rest of the week there is oatmeal or cornmeal porridge, usually lukewarm. Boarding-house cream is, always and everywhere, skim milk. That goes without saying. If I fancy that ours is thinner and bluer than the average article, it may be that I have not seen that served in cheaper houses. On three days of the week we have salt fish for breakfast. One of these is Sunday, when codfish is worked into balls that are hard, fibrous and briny. On the other three days we have thick slices of bacon, or tough steak and chops. All the tough cuts of the market are sold to boarding houses. You surely know this? The coffee is weak and muddy; the tea is stewed! I could breakfast cheerily upon a saucer of cracked wheat and real cream, a fresh boiled egg, a slice of crisp toast, and a cup of clear, hot coffee. I would not ask for variety in this menu, except perhaps to have fresh berries or a pear or melon—when these are cheapest—substituted for the cereal, and a thin slice of bacon for the egg.

“Now that I mentioned eggs, let me remind you how often you have wondered who buys the second quality. I heard you laughing yesterday over the classification of eggs you overheard a grocer repeat to a customer.”

I laughed now. “Yes, they were ‘Guaranteed eggs, 35 cents a dozen; strictly fresh eggs, 32 cents; fresh eggs, 28 cents; eggs, 25 cents.’ I would not have believed it if I had not heard it.”

“He might have added, ‘Cracked eggs, 15 for a quarter.’ I have seen that advertisement in grocers’ windows. Well, the boarding-house keeper never rises about ‘eggs’! They take no qualifying adverb or adjective before or after them. She buys them by the half-bushel basket. That is why we never have them boiled plain. You must have heard the reply of the colored waiter to an inquiry as to the freshness of the eggs served in his restaurant: ‘Well, suh, I won’t deceive you; but while they is fine for ormerlet and scramble, I can’t consciously recommend them neither for plain boiled nor yet for poached’! Our boarding-house mistress may not say it, but she acts upon his system of grading.

“All these drawbacks to comfortable living the woman (or man) who is a Chronic Boarder knows from experience that she or he must expect and bear with what philosophy may be mustered for the occasion. You may ask why I do not change my quarters? The experience of nearly 30 years has told me that the chances are dead against the possibility that I would improve my condition by the attempt. The stamp of the second and third rate boarding-house is unmistakable. All buy inferior cuts of meat, superannuated fowls, plain EGGS, tub butter, wilted lettuce and cabbage, stale fruits and vegetables and chicory coffee.

“Don’t be hypercritical or overnice! These things must be got off the hands of butcher, greengrocer and huckster. You wouldn’t have them starve? If I were altruistic, I would not grumble because to me is assigned an humble part in the system of domestic and business economics.

The Star Boarder.

“All the same”—dropping the bantering tone suddenly, the pale face flushing under the rush of emotion—“it cuts one to the heart to think how many thousands of women and hundreds of men in the big cities and suburban towns are as homesick as I am!

“Maybe you imagine that landladies (it isn’t often a landlord! They fly at bigger game!)—maybe you believe that they feed their families upon the same fare that we pay for? Not a bit of it! There are choice tidbits for them and for their invited guests—and often for the ‘star board.’ He—it is oftener a ‘he’ than a ‘she’—is pampered privily upon food the hostess reckons inconvenient for those who pay fair prices regularly and get half their money’s worth.

“Did you read that anecdote in the papers the other day of a man who inquired of the aster of a house from the door of which a hearse and a couple of carriages had just rolled away—‘Who is dead?’

“‘Only a boarder!’ was the careless rejoiner.

“That’s what will be said when my turn comes!”

I repeat that my old friend is no pessimist or grumbler. I believe that her experience is that of many, many more than can be imagined by us who dwell in our own sheltered homes, with the privilege of selecting our own food and shaping our environment.

When I was a mere girl I was shocked and saddened by hearing an old spinster say that she had been “homesick for 40 years!” The plaint recurred to me with force in hearkening to the tale of the Chronic Boarder.

There must be another side to this matter. Admitting that what I listened to last evening is true in every particular, the Landlady should have her say.

In conclusion, I throw the subject open for free debate. I shall publish the Landlady’s story as cheerfully as I have written down that of the Boarder. Who will send it in?

Marion Harland

Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange