Room and Board

During the 19th century, developers, railroad magnates, and other enterprising businessmen peppered Florida with hotels to house the state’s growing number of visitors. These establishments ranged from modest inns to palatial resorts built by the likes of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. But where could you stay if you couldn’t afford a room in one of these hotels? Or, what if you were traveling for work and just needed a place to crash rather than to be entertained? The answer for many visitors was to stay in a boarding house.

A boarding house in Crescent City, Putnam County (circa 1870s).

A boarding house in Crescent City, Putnam County (circa 1870s).

Boarding houses were the go-to low-cost accommodations for locals and visitors traveling around Florida in the 1800s. They could be standalone businesses, or they might be combined with a post office, a general store, or some other business. Some Floridians even operated boarding houses out of extra rooms in their private homes.

North Miami Avenue in Miami (1896). The building second from the left contained a store owned by T.N. Gautier on the ground floor and a boarding house on the second floor run by Gautier's wife.

North Miami Avenue in Miami (1896). The building second from the left contained a store owned by T.N. Gautier on the ground floor and a boarding house on the second floor run by Gautier’s wife.

McCord family home in Tallahassee, circa 1910. The McCords took in boarders at this time.

McCord family home in Tallahassee, circa 1910. The McCords took in boarders at this time.

Boarding houses were advertised just as widely as hotels, but they had a few differences. The furnishings in the rooms were usually simpler, and there were generally fewer amenities and services. Proprietors often served meals family style, with boarders eating together at a single table rather than in their own private groups. That’s not to say the food was dull – far from it. While Florida’s boarding houses might not have been serving four-course meals with all the trimmings, guidebooks and advertisements reveal that the quality of the food was a critical component of a house’s reputation. Advertisements often referenced the house’s “excellent table,” or listed the fresh foods served daily.

Mrs. Crook's Boardinghouse in Winter Haven (1912).

Mrs. Crook’s Boardinghouse in Winter Haven (1912).

The trade-off for offering limited services, of course, was the lower price tag for a stay at the boarding house. At Fernandina in 1884, for example, a night at the Egmont Hotel cost $4, while a night at most of the town’s boarding houses was only $2. On top of that, many proprietors would cut boarders a deal if they committed to a week’s stay. A $2 difference may seem negligible today, but keep in mind we’re talking about 19th century dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that $2 jump in price for a night at the Egmont represents about a $50 price difference! No wonder so many folks were staying at Florida’s boarding houses when they traveled.

Advertisement for the Hernandez House in St. Augustine, printed on page 104 of H.D. Bicaise, A Guide to the Land of Flowers (Charleston: Parry, Cook & Co., 1878). A copy of this guidebook is available in the State Library's Florida Collection.

Advertisement for the Hernandez House in St. Augustine, printed on page 104 of H.D. Bicaise, A Guide to the Land of Flowers (Charleston: Parry, Cook & Co., 1878). A copy of this guidebook is available in the State Library’s Florida Collection.

Boarding houses remained popular into the 20th century, although new establishments eventually superseded them as the primary low-cost lodging options. Motels and campgrounds became especially popular with automobile owners, who were looking for cheap and convenient options along the roadways.

The Miller family of Toledo, Ohio at a tourist camp in Sarasota (1929).

The Miller family of Toledo, Ohio at a tourist camp in Sarasota (1929).

Do you know of any boarding houses that once existed in your community? When were they in operation? Get in the conversation by commenting below and sharing this post with your friends and family on Facebook and Twitter.

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6 thoughts on “Room and Board

  1. I will never forget when my Mom died in Honolulu in 1946 my Dad
    was in the Air force and could not take care of us so he brought
    my sister and I to Terre Haute Indiana where my Grandmother had
    a boarding house just like described above. The only thing she could do with us while she took care of everyone else was to tie
    us to the clothes line all day. It really was not cruel it was
    just a necessity. They were remembered as happy times. Jan Knowles

  2. My grandmother ran a boarding house in front of the train station in Greenville Florida. She and a black maid named Nora provided food for the guests. Every bedroom had a fireplace and it was my fathers responsibility to stock them with wood before school. He said the center hall was wide enough to drive a jeep through. It burned down in 1940.

  3. There wasn’t life insurance like now. So if your husband passed away and you had a large home. It did not have the means to keep it up you took in boarders to pay your bills and feed your children. Woman didn’t have a lot of options back then. Susan

  4. My dad used to stay at a boarding house in Miami called Mammy Do’s (or Dew’s) in the early 1940’s. He was an airline navigator and all the “fly-boys” used to stay there on overnights. My mom was a stewardess for another airline (Eastern) and they met there. Anyone have a picture of the place or any other info?

  5. Looking for any information on boarding houses in Pensacola during the 1920’s and later until about 1940. Thank you for your help …

    • Hi Frank,

      We recommend starting with a search in local newspapers for information about boarding houses in Pensacola. The Library of Congress has digitized the Pensacola News Journal from 1905 through 1922 which contains advertisements for boarding houses or rooms for rent. Here are the results for a search we did for ‘boarding house.’

      Additionally, the University of West Florida in Pensacola has copies of the Pensacola Herald from 1928 through 1938 and some scattered issues of the Colored Citizen from 1939-1958. Their website implies that they may have more newspapers than appear in the Florida Newspaper Project.

      If you have more questions, UWF Special Collections should be able to help. Their phone number is 850-474-2213.

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