Boarding houses have become a rare sight in the United States, but at one time they served roughly the same purpose as modern "bed and breakfast" establishments. At least one daily meal would be included in the boarders' rent, whether it be a communal breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In exchange for a bed and meals, individual tenants might also be expected to share in the maintenance chores and other tasks assigned by the landlord or homeowner.
For itinerant workers and travelers, boarding houses provide an inexpensive alternative to hotels or short-term apartment rentals. The rooms were often spacious enough for a single person's needs, even if bathroom facilities had to be shared or privacy was limited. Some boarding houses now provide private bathrooms for boarders and better insulation between rooms for a sense of privacy. The beds may have once served as the beds for the owner's family members, so they should be reasonably comfortable and clean.
Economic need quite often drives owners of large houses to consider turning them into boarding houses. In his semi-autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel, author Thomas Wolfe describes his experiences growing up in such an establishment, operated by his mother. Many of the boarders were colorful characters, making for an interesting mixture of cultures and backgrounds. During the height of their popularity, tenants tended to stay for months or even years, becoming part of an extended family of sorts. As boarders moved on to other towns, others moved in to take their place.
A general shift in the working class of American society gradually spelled the end for many boarding houses. Fewer single workers felt secure living communally with near-strangers. Those who could afford small apartments or find roommates to share expenses moved out. Many owners became disenchanted with their roles as both landlords and cooks. It became more tempting to convert their large homes into apartments or limit their use to a bed and breakfast arrangement.
Boarding houses can still be found in the United States, although many have become closer to rooming houses or youth hostels without the communal meals. The practice is more common overseas, particularly in conjunction with what Americans call private schools and Europeans call public schools. These homes provide students with a bed and complete meals throughout the school term.