Boardinghouse Women

How Southern Keepers, Cooks, Nurses, Widows, and Runaways Shaped Modern America

By Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt

312 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7640-1
    Published: November 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7639-5
    Published: November 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7641-8
    Published: November 2023

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In this innovative and insightful book, Elizabeth Engelhardt argues that modern American food, business, caretaking, politics, sex, travel, writing, and restaurants all owe a debt to boardinghouse women in the South. From the eighteenth century well into the twentieth, entrepreneurial women ran boardinghouses throughout the South; some also carried the institution to far-flung places like California, New York, and London. Owned and operated by Black, Jewish, Native American, and white women, rich and poor, immigrant and native-born, these lodgings were often hubs of business innovation and engines of financial independence for their owners. Within their walls, boardinghouse residents and owners developed the region's earliest printed cookbooks, created space for making music and writing literary works, formed ad hoc communities of support, tested boundaries of race and sexuality, and more.

Engelhardt draws on a vast archive to recover boardinghouse women's stories, revealing what happened in the kitchens, bedrooms, hallways, back stairs, and front porches as well as behind closed doors—legacies still with us today.

About the Author

Elizabeth Engelhardt is Kenan Eminent Professor of Southern Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For more information about Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt, visit the Author Page.


“Wonderfully readable. . . . For those interested in an overlooked aspect of history and how it reacts with and shapes the times, Boardinghouse Women might just whet your appetite.”—Mississippi Clarion-Ledger

“Fascinating [and] well-researched. . . . Engelhardt expertly invokes the spirit of boardinghouse keepers in modern cultural phenomena, such as pop-up kitchens and assisted living facilities. Highly recommended for all history and women’s studies collections.”—Library Journal

Boardinghouse Women is thick with historical details, re-creating a lost world. One, Engelhardt argues, that may return as increasing numbers of Americans require assisted living.”—Wilmington StarNews

“Engelhardt has assembled scores of . . . examples where ambitious or desperate women struggled to make their boardinghouse business successful [and] how the boardinghouse experiences of women had an impact on the typical foods that we today call southern.”—D.G. Martin,

"Elizabeth Engelhardt vividly establishes how southern boardinghouses were crucibles and the women who kept them were agents of improvisation, ingenuity, grit, and grits. Her trenchant research and reframing allow us to see these ventures, so often born from a moment of acute personal loss and economic necessity, as the loci not only of tragedy and exigency but also of bodily autonomy, self-expression, financial stability, and even freedom."--Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt, Bitter in the Mouth, and The Sweetest Fruits

"Carefully researched, beautifully written, and thought provoking. The heretofore unknown stories that Engelhardt narrates will propel readers to learn more about the everyday lives of boardinghouse keepers and those to whom they opened their homes. This book especially allows readers to see Black women and men as property owners, entrepreneurs, and integral to this nation's culinary evolution."--Psyche Williams-Forson, author of Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America