A closer look at (taking in) boarders

[Contributor: Elise Viola]

Today it is common for young people who are beginning their lives to occupy an apartment, maybe with another person as a roommate. This was not the case for the people of Weld County in the 1920s. People who were not part of big families, such as single individuals, or those there for work, lived as boarders. This is when a person who today would live alone in an apartment would instead pay for a room in a house, usually with a family. These boarders were not related to the people already living in the house, but in paying for the room were able to live (and usually be served meals) in these homes.

Hosting boarders

Out of the 39,272 households in Weld County in the 1920s about 774 people hosted boarders. This means that about 1 percent of the houses had these boarders living with them. Peter Baskerville, a historian of Canada at the University of Alberta, notes that researchers have offered many explanations for why people would rent rooms to relative strangers. Obviously, hosting these boarders was a way for people to utilize extra space in a home and to make extra money. But what exactly was the goal, and were there other motives?

Taking in boarders could be a necessity, but it could also be a means of upward mobility: Baskerville notes that many people hosting boarders were themselves renters rather than owners, but used the money gained from hosting boarders to purchase a property. The 1920 census shows that in Weld County, 46 percent of the people housing boarders were renting their house, and the other 50 percent owned their home but were still paying off their mortgage. The extra income from the boarders helped with both.

Baskerville also notes that in addition to saving for a home purchase, boarding is often associated with later stages of life when children have moved out and there is extra space in the home. The family could  then use those rooms to receive some supplemental income from the new person living in their home. The 1920 census lends some support to this theory: the average age for women who hosted boarders was 45 while the average age for men was 48, i.e., not young newlyweds. On the other hand, families of all sizes had boarders, and the distribution of family size is not much different from average family sizes in Weld County. There were also more women than men who had boarders (488 to 397, or 55 percent), meaning that widowed or unmarried women heading their own households used keeping boarders as a means to make ends meet. And in fact, while 85 percent of the people who hosted boarders in Weld County were married, the other 15 percent consisted of widows, divorcees, and single people.

Bar graph showing ages of male and female hosts of boarders

For most households with boarders, the boarder was clearly a supplement to the family income – keeping a boardinghouse was not the main source of income. Of the 533 households that hosted boarders, only 28 householders or spouses reported their occupation as boardinghouse keeper. Also the majority had one or two people staying with them. There were only 15 households that hosted more than ten people and one house that hosted as many as 52 people. It can be inferred that most people who were living in a household as the only boarder or with one other person the living situation were much like a typical family dynamic at the time.

The most common occupations among those who hosted boarders were farmer (49), manager/official/proprietor (52) and mine operative or laborer (49).  Farmers probably had hired help living with them; whether boarders fit into the working lives of the managers or mine operatives is less clear.  3

number of boarders bar graph

Being a boarder

What about who paid for room and board in somebody else’s house? In the 553 households that hosted boarders, there lived 845 boarders. Of those boarders, 79 percent were male. The average age of the male boarders was 32, and the average age for the females was 27. Most likely, these relatively young people were in Weld County for work.

The majority (71 percent) of the boarders were single. Only 4 percent were married and were lodging at someone else’s house together with their spouse, while 14 percent were married, but the spouse was not present. One might guess that the people who were married but did not have their spouse with them were either doing seasonal labor such as on a farm and would go back to their spouse or would have moved without their family in hopes of finding work. The last nine percent accounts for people that had either been widowed or divorced.

The most common occupation by far among boarders in Weld County was mine operatives and laborers, while  other fairly common categories were laborers and farm laborers – but also teachers, salesmen, and nurses. This seems to indicate that different classes of people lived as boarders, and it might be interesting to look into who boarded with who – what kinds of families hosted teachers versus laborers?

Overall, the practice of boarding in private families is a fascinating aspect of early-twentieth-century life, as it is something that has become quite unfamiliar to us in the 21st century.