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Chapter Four— Rooming Houses and the Margins of Respectability
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Scattered Homes versus Material Correctness

Whether rooming house tenants lived in a converted single-family house, a generic loft, or a purpose-built rooming house, their home was scattered up and down the street. They slept in one building and ate in


another. The surrounding sidewalks and stores functioned as parts of each resident's home: the dining room was in a basement near the corner of the block, and the laundry was three doors over; the parlor and sitting room were at a bar, a luncheonette, a billiard hall, or a favorite corner. Residents of midpriced and palace hotels could use their neighborhood as their homes, too, but for them it was a choice; the more expensive hotels, with their full housekeeping and dining services, were self-contained like private houses.

The scattering of the home reflected the increasing social and cultural autonomy that some young men and women expected. Their work lives also encouraged them to be footloose and independent. Hotel life allowed all tenants—especially single people—to push that personal privacy and autonomy to a new limit. This was a schism between the family districts of the city and the places that embodied nonfamily life. Rooming house life plugged the individual directly into the high-voltage currents of the industrial city—liberation and independence very different from that offered by a room of one's own within a family.[93] The hotel room, even with the acoustical group life that remained in cheaper hotels, was unhinged from the social contracts, tacit supervision, and protection that went with most other types of household life. Absent were the architectural arrangements so important to the maintenance of the nuclear family concept and family proscriptions of behavior.

As Joanne Meyerowitz has observed, the people in the rooming house areas of American cities were leaders in the increasing secularism and decreasing moralism that were reactions to Victorian mores. Of all the social experimentation that rooming house areas supported (and that the urban economy had engendered), most notable were new rules for sexual and social relations between men and women. In rooming houses, men's and women's lives crossed constantly. Gendered realms were scarcely circumscribed in the way that suburban or rural standards prescribed and that the spatial arrangements of polite households reinforced. Single women in rooming houses shared hallways with single men, without any familial or community supervision. Unlike the better hotels, in rooming houses there were not even servants or clerks to observe the activity.[94]

By the 1890s, rooming house areas had earned a reputation for what we would now call a sexually integrated youth subculture. Later, taxi-


dance halls, movies, Bohemian restaurants, and cabarets opened the subculture into a wider commercialized landscape of personal desire. An emblem of this different subculture in the years before the depression was the fact that rooming house districts were areas where women could smoke and dance in public.[95] For young people in family districts, such recreations were optional excursions. For rooming house tenants, they were part of the daily walk to work, and part of their home scattered up and down the street.

Not all rooming house life constituted a culture of opposition, however. In their new social and sexual public lives, rooming house residents may have been flappers or dance hall sheikhs; they may have openly flouted a great many values of the middle and upper class. They were using rooms in new ways, but they held on to the material propriety of the middle and upper class, especially in relation to individual life in their own rooms. Their concerns about room furnishings suggest that their rooms—not their favorite café or dance hall—stood most clearly for their personal selves and their places in the world. As one social worker put it, turn-of-the-century clerks and secretaries had personal standards higher than commercial wages would justify.[96] They managed their marginal economic and cultural status by keeping one foot in rooming house culture and another in the material culture of private family life.

In 1905, Will Kortum showed his concern with family standards by his choice of building and room furnishings in San Francisco's South of Market area. On finding a place to live, he excitedly wrote home, saying that on his first day in town he had found a fine place to live:

The hotel is a new one, not entirely completed and everything is neat and clean, although not large. My room is very light, has hot and cold water, double bed, bureau, wash stand, chair, and small table. [It also has a] closet for clothes.[97]

In fact, Kortum had found a good building—a six-story hotel with an elevator and over half of its street length devoted to its own lobby and saloon.[98] However, his father expressed concern over the choice, and rightfully so: Kortum's hotel was only a hundred yards from the very center of San Francisco's hobo labor market. A few days later, the young man wrote this back to his father:

Rest assured that my present place of lodging is no low class hotel, but a clean, plastered room and that the bed is also clean and comfortable.[99]


Figure 4.27
Diagram of the Delta Hotel second-floor
plan, comparing the regularity in the
shape of the private rooms and the
snake-like public hall space.

Kortum's letters show all the material concerns we would expect of someone brought up in a respectable middle-income family house in a small California town of the 1890s. He noticed that the room was "not large" but "very light." He listed the pieces of furniture carefully; he had plainly seen less attractive rooms at this price range. Other key words were also there: "clean room," "clean bed," "not a low class hotel." He had an individual sense of the line between the propriety of the middle and upper class and the hygienic problems of some working-class life. His room was in every way proper. But he had not yet learned caution about living above a saloon or being associated with a casual laborers' neighborhood. Kortum's decent room, with its minimal pieces of furniture, was clearly his material foothold in the realm of middle and upper class culture. Furniture lists set out by people such as Will Kortum and Dorothy Richardson are practically a mantra in the literature of rooming house life.[100]

In architecture, too, owners and designers gave individual rooms the most attention. Floor plans of purpose-built rooming houses emphasized small, nearly square rooms, all of a similar size and with reasonably equal access to light wells. A diagram of the rooms at the Delta Hotel of 1906, for instance, shows this regularity and the primacy of individual space (fig. 4.27). Owners and landladies knew that rooms like these would rent. In sharp contrast, the hallways and public spaces


of rooming houses were often leftover labyrinths. The twisting hallways mirrored the convoluted social lives of rooming house residents, fashioned between the interstices of work and personal identity. Plans like those of the Delta Hotel were very much against the architectural conventions for hotels of the midpriced or palace rank, where owners and designers strove to keep hallways far more presentable and regular.

Thus, even single rooms and their furnishings were important anchors for people in a social and cultural limbo. To confirm further that they still had some claim to social and cultural propriety, rooming house residents only had to compare themselves to the denizens and material culture of the least expensive rank of hotel life, the cheap lodging houses.


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