Monday, April 2, 2012

Mrs. May's Boarding House

17 - 19 10th Street, Erie (1940s)
Mrs. May's Boarding House

Location: 428 West 11th Street, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA

Opened: June 1948

Closed: No evidence yet of when it closed, but former site now parking lot

The idea of single mothers living cooperatively and sharing child care and other chores seems like something vaguely out of the 1970s. Wrong.  Back in June 1948, the newly widowed Mrs. Christine May--after surveying the post-war housing shortage in her hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania--decided to form a kind of coop boarding house for divorced and widowed moms. Though the following newspaper article doesn't pinpoint the exact location of Mrs. May's Boarding House, the street address--428 West 11th Street--does show up in the 1949 Erie City Directory. Other than uncovering that her deceased husband was named Henry, I have not been able to find out much more about the remarkable Mrs. May. However, it appears that the former site of this home is now a parking lot in a light industrial area.

Overall, I find this boarding house an inspiring reminder. Contrary to popular stereotype, the (white) middle-class nuclear family firmly ensconsed in a new suburban home was not everyone's aspiration in the late 1940s. Some women and mothers had other visions--of living together and supporting each other. Realize too, that this was no idle utopian experiment. With no male support, Mrs. May herself had been forced to "board out" her sons and work two jobs to make ends meet--until she hit upon her boarding house idea. But this kind of dream--of working-class women helping each other--has largely been scrubbed from our pop culture image of this time period.

As throughly erased as Mrs. May's house has been from West 11th Street....

From the Nashua Telegraph, September 23, 1948:

Boarding House Happy Home for Divorced Women, Children

(Elaine Kahn)

Erie, Pa, Sept 23 (AP) -- House on West 11th St is bulging with 21 children, and eight mothers--all divorced except the pretty widow who runs the unusual boarding house.

"Not a man on the premises and everybody's happy," chuckles the widow, Mrs. Christine May, 30.

Mrs. May, the mother of two sons aged 10 and 3, opened the boarding house for divorced women three months ago.
Mass demonstration against GE layoffs, Erie (May 1952)
"I'd like to see this idea of creating homes for divorce-wrecked families spread," she said. "Maybe there should be some for husbands left with children. But it seems to me the wives are most in need of aid when our younger men run away from the responsibilities of a family."

After her husband's death in New England, Mrs. May returned from Holyoke, Mass. to Erie, her home town. Like just about everywhere else, she found the housing problem bad. 

"I had to board the boys out in two homes," she explained. "It cost me $186 a month and I had to take two jobs to make ends meet. So I decided to try a boarding house where I could solve my problem and help other women."

The first step was to rent the 14-room house on West Eleventh Street. Two days after the opening her "home" was filled.
Sisters at St. Vincent Hospital, Erie (March 1949)

Two of the mothers are waitresses, three work in offices and two in factories. A mother with two children pays $25 a week for her room and breakfast, the children's meals and the washing.

During the day, Mrs. May is mother and nurse to the children, preparing their meals and supervising their play. The children are subject to her discipline.

Things were a bit complicated when eight cases of measles broke out, but the crisis was taken in stride. Eight of the kids started to school this fall, four for the first time.

Mrs. May has a definite philosophy about aiding broken families and insists that mothers take their children to their rooms around 7:30 each evening so they may have time to become better acquainted.

"The background of any child begins with the mental peace of mind of the mother," she said. "That is the only way that a child gets to feel security and self-expression. Riches never make a child happy but a loving parent does."

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