Mortal Remains of Mosquitoes: Apartment Hunting – 1857 & Today

Diptic (6)This weekend was my New York-aversary. Eight years ago, I moved here, embarking upon professional and personal adventures. Needless to say, finding a roommate fell into that later category. Making lemonade from lemons, these experiences  inspired me to begin this blog,  chronicling the absurdly entertaining and strangely unique moments in time that are attributed to roommate life.  However, as I reflected on the past several years, I wondered: has it always been so whacky to find a place to live in this city?  Could searching for an apartment in, let’s say, in 1857, have been any simpler?

What I discovered is that despite more than 150 years, the process has not changed that much. It’s just that instead of roommates, most New Yorkers were seeking “a substitute for a home – boarding houses” in the 1850′s. As I read through the experience from the perspective of Thomas Butler Gunn, I found myself relating more so than I expected to his assessment of “The physiology of New York boarding-houses.” You can explore the book for yourself by clicking here.  It’s an entertaining read, but I recommend keeping a dictionary nearby to translate some of the words, it’s not your average usage of the English language.

Taking into account, then and now, I compare how strikingly similar the past and the present of the process of searching for a place to live in New York City actually was and continues to be. “Then” features quotations from Gunn’s book. “Now” draws from the cumulative experiences of random New Yorkers like myself and their often exasperated and blunt reactions to roommate living.

The Listing

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The Seeker for a Boarding House: He either inserts in the Herald, Tribune, or Times, an advertisement specifying his particular requirements, or consults those addressed to humanity in general through the medium of their columns…In possession of vast amount of correspondence from the dainty penned and delicately enveloped billets of uptowdum to the ill-spelled, pencil-scrawled uncovered notes of Greenwich and Hudson streets.


Oh hey Craigslist, let me post an ad of who and what I’m looking for in an apartment. How much do I reveal publicly to strangers? And when I start to look,  if I  hit refresh every minute, 100 more listings pop up. I’m overwhelmed just searching Hells Kitchen, let alone if I open my search  up to all of Manhattan. I’m looking in the “for rent by owner,” but when I call it’s a broker. That’s not cool. And seriously, why does this guy keep posting in all caps? Doesn’t he know that’s not proper etiquette?

Oh Brooklyn

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The writer of a stray Williamsburg eptisle is “confident that an arrangement can be made” if he will favor her with a visit.


If you walk around in a bathing suit, you won’t have to pay rent.

The Search

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He devotes a morning to the purposes of inspection and selection…He endures tedious waitings at thresholds.


You could spend all day running from open house to open house. Often, there is a line at the door, waiting to check out the best sublet. The current tenants have the upper-hand deciding whether to accept you, it is reminiscent of rushing a sorority.

The Rent

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If money be no object, he will not have to seek far, or fare badly.

But the researches of him whose aspirations are circumscribed by a shallow purse will produce different results…into sitting-rooms where the Venetian blinds are kept scrupulously closed, for the double purpose of excluding flies and preventing too close scrutiny of the upholstery.

He will have interviews with … landladies dubious and dingy, landlaides severe and suspicious (inflexible as to “references or payments in advance”), landladies calm and confiding, landladies chatty and conciliatory.


Sure, you could live in a doorman building with a roof deck and pool, if the price didn’t matter. But, realistically, if you are on a budget, those perks are going to have to wait. And yea, the couch in the apartment you consider living is likely a hand-me-down, get used to that 70′s floral motif, it might grow on you after six months.

Even if your apartment is a walk-up, you likely have to pass a credit check, put down a security deposit, pay first and last month’s rent. Oh, and sometimes, the management company will insist you earn 40x the rent or threaten you need a guarantor. Seriously?

The Decor

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How a three-feet by sixteen inch strip of threadbare carpet, a twelve and a half cents Chatham square mirror and a disjointed chair may, in the lively imagination of Boarding-House proprieteresses, be considered furniture. he will notice the mortal remains of mosquitoes (not to mention more odoriferous and objectionable insects) ornamenting ceilings and walls, where they have encountered Destiny in the shap of slippers of boot-sles of former occupants.


Yea, that bed the last roommate sold you is actually soiled, but she forgot to mention that. Oh, and when you go into clean your new room, those candy wrappers totally never made it into the garbage can and have stayed in the corner since Halloween (it’s now April).

In Conclusion

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We have foreshadowed the extremes of our subject…The existence of establishments where moderate prices may procure a fair average amount of comfort and cleanliness, Such will find honorable mention in our Physiology. But as in life they are infrequent, a proportionally small space will be here accorded to them.


Sometimes you get lucky and find an affordable, nice place with a normal roommates, but you have to weed through a lot to get there. When you finally get an awesome room and a roommate in NYC often feels like winning the lottery. But, you have to still go to work. 

Images and quotations from  Thomas Butler Gunn, “The physiology of New York boarding-houses.”

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