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Room for Exceptions

Anecdotes give only scattered views of the people who lived in midpriced hotels. The sociologist Day Monroe, using information from the 1920 census, left a thorough perspective of Chicago's hotel residents. Unfortunately, Monroe eliminated single people from her study, but her survey of Chicago's family groups revealed that 3.4 percent of the


families lived in rooming houses and hotels. This proportion equaled only about one in thirty families, fewer families than were living with relatives. However, Monroe's total sample had included the burgeoning immigrant populations of Chicago; few immigrants, rich or poor, lived in hotels. Thus, only when Monroe looked at particular social groups did she find hotel families comprising a more significant fraction. According to her, the three family groups with the highest proportion of hotel dwellers were those headed by professional men and women, families of executives and officials, and the families of low- to medium-salaried employees.[72] She gave the following detailed figures:


Occupation of Breadwinner

Percent Lodging



Executives and officials


Low- and medium-salaried employees


No occupation listed


Employed in an independent business


Skilled wage earners


Unskilled and semiskilled wage earners


Eight percent of the professional households, one family in twelve, lived in hotels. The unemployed and unskilled listings in the table do not reflect the massive numbers of Chicago's single casual laborers living in hotels.

Monroe found other groups with reasonably high levels of hotel living, groups that overlapped the professional and skilled strata. Prominent among these were childless couples and young parents; almost 10 percent of Chicago's childless couples lived in hotels. The data showed young parents still figuring heavily in hotel families; many of the mothers were under twenty-five years old.[73] Monroe reported that one out of six of Chicago's single fathers with only one child under fourteen years old were living in hotel housing in 1920. However, Monroe found that single women with children were much less common in hotels; she believed this was because their income levels were so much lower.[74]

The 8 percent of Chicago's professional households that lived in hotels in 1920 were a telling minority. If a family could afford hotel life, they could afford an apartment. Virtually any of those households could also have paid for a private house—a small house on expensive


land close to downtown or a larger house in more distant suburbs. We cannot precisely reconstruct why these families chose hotels. The important point is that one out of twelve of these households did choose hotel life. For at least part of their life, these households did not fit the dominant pattern for the middle-income American family, that is, living in a house or an apartment of their own. These families had made an eccentric choice of family residence; however, the one professional family in twelve living in hotels were not necessarily eccentric families. Their reasons for being downtown—waiting for a house to be built, holding nearby jobs, staying only for a year or two, caring for an elderly parent who needed some looking after during the day—were reasonable and practical. Suburban life did not work for them, at least during one part of their life cycle, and hotel life did work.

Hotel life left room for such exceptions without eliminating any other options. For a reasonable number of family people in the comfortable salaried strata, the commercialized option of cooperative housekeeping was viable and desirable. For a more complete picture of the role that midpriced hotels were playing in the metropolitan housing stock, we can only wish that we knew how many of Chicago's single professionals and single elderly were living in hotel housing in 1920.

Unfortunately, the people who gradually codified the single-family house ideal rarely allowed for exceptions or minority opinions. As early as the 1850s, one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's characters observed urban life from a hotel and objected to the "stifled element of cities," the "entangled life" of so many people together. People were "so much alike in their nature, that they grow intolerable unless varied by their circumstances." The alternatives Hawthorne's character had in mind were the individualized little farmhouses like those he had just left behind in rural New England.[75] This example is simply one among thousands of such well-meaning statements from the century of building, writing, and living that helped to confirm the monolithic ideals of the single-family American house. The rural and small town social experiences and values of opinion leaders like Hawthorne became sedimented in their actions and writing—particularly in their verbal support for the single-family home and abhorrence of any variation from that single ideal. Not all nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers excluded alternatives or exceptions in housing, but most did. In their values, neither Hawthorne nor his characters left room for those future people—


perhaps the one family in twelve in 1920—who could not or who did not want to fit into the norm of a private house or a private apartment with a private kitchen and a private dining room and a life untouched by neighbors. The repercussions of this kind of exclusion in housing would not become clear until almost a century after Hawthorne died.

If the pleasant hotel life of those with professional salaries was to some people a stifled and entangled life, then the life of the next cheaper type of hotel, the rooming house, was surely beyond the pale. Indeed, the downtown life in rooming houses that so often were only a block or two away from midpriced hotel zones frequently crossed the line from the realm of the middle and upper class to a realm of a very separate class.


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