Friday, March 2, 2018

Charlie Gibson, Lodger

This blog post is part of an occasional series about the Gibson House Museum Archives, a repository of personal documents and photographs from the Gibson family. The archives are accessible by appointment; contact to make arrangements.

In  1940, Margaret MacDonald came to work as a cook at 137 Beacon Street. Charlie Gibson, Jr. had been living at the house, largely alone, for the previous six years and from a statement Ms. MacDonald signed, it sounds like things were not going all that well.
Ms. Mary MacDonald’s signed statement, April 18, 1940. This was likely written by Charlie and signed by Ms. MacDonald in response to a dispute with a previous employee at 137 Beacon Street.

“I arrived at 137 Beacon Street, on April 9, 1940, to work as cook and house-maid, and found the condition of the kitchen dirty and uncleanly, dishes shelves and utensils not properly cleaned or kept. They showed signs of gross neglect by the cook who had last been in charge of them.”

Charlie had officially moved back to 137 Beacon Street in 1935, after his mother Rosamond died. He likely needed some help keeping the house in clean and working order, so he would have hired a cook or a chambermaid. Why did things look so shoddy in 1940 when Margaret MacDonald arrived? Was there a cook at the house at all between 1935 and 1940? Where was Charlie eating?

Let’s back up a bit. Before Charlie returned to 137 Beacon Street, he “took rooms” at a number of different addresses in Boston. He spent twenty-five years at 121 Beacon Street, just down the street from his childhood home; that property had become a lodging house in the 1880s. In nineteenth-century cities like Boston, boarding houses were an important housing option for all manner of people–young and old, rich and poor–who weren’t able to, or chose not to, live at home. Boarding houses provided meals and other domestic services, like laundry and housekeeping. This was a great option for an unmarried gentleman like Charlie.

By 1900, however, many boardinghouses were in fact lodging houses–basically, the rooms without the meals. So, Charlie Gibson, a long-time lodger, would have been used to eating his meals elsewhere than in his home. It may be that when he moved back to 137 Beacon Street, he chose not to employ a cook, and the kitchen went largely unused.

If that’s the case, where did he eat? Some lodgers might return home or take meals with friends. It seems likely that Charlie did that, since he was around the corner from his childhood home and had many friends and relatives in Back Bay.
A page from Charlie’s daily journal, November 19, 1934. Courtesy of the Gibson House Museum Archives.    

His daily journals also contain clues about his eating habits. Monday, November 19, 1934: “Dinner, Trinity Club, 6:30.” Monday, December 10: “Dinner, Episcopalian Club, 6.” Private clubs abounded in Boston, and many Boston elites preferred eating at clubs to restaurants, as they were exclusive and membership afforded diners another opportunity to declare their social status. But restaurants were increasingly popular, too, and hotels like the Fairmont Copley served a daily dinner that became a prestigious social event for Back Bay residents.

Restaurants “were secure, predictable places of association, where people could stake out social space in the city,” writes culinary historian James O’Connell. Maybe the state of the kitchen at the Gibson House in 1940 was due to Charlie’s preference to dine out in Boston.

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

To learn more:

·      Wendy Gamber. The Boarding House in 19th Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
·      James C. O’Connell. Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2017.
·      “Rooming Houses: History’s Affordable Quarters.” Sightline Institute, November 14, 2012.
·      “Boardinghouses: Where the City Was Born.” The Boston Globe, January 13, 2013.