Everyone knows how hard it is to find housing in New York. However, locating safe housing for young women in New York City in the mid-nineteenth century was particularly difficult.
In 1858, a prayer group known as the “Ladies’ Christian Association” recognized this as a common problem and decided to provide housing for young women who were “dependent upon their own exertions for support.” Led by Mrs. Marshall O. Roberts, the group, now known as the Ladies Christian Union (LCU), bought and rented houses where women could stay when they moved into the city. Their original home, the Amity House, was the first of its kind. Although the specific rules for each house differed, generally the homes were meant for young, unmarried, Christian women moving to the city to work or study. The organization quickly grew and by 1958 it owned as many as six houses for women, most with waiting lists to get in.
The records of the Ladies’ Christian Union in the N-YHS library document 140 years of efforts to provide safe and affordable housing for young women. The LCU tried to provide an alternative to the unsanitary and unsavory rooming houses of the nineteenth century and to offer Christian guidance. They worked to make their homes safe and clean and created a homelike environment for boarders with cooked meals, a library, and eventually sewing machines, and laundry. A relief fund was set up to pay for hospital beds in private hospitals for sick boarders and to help girls who could not pay their boarding fees due to illness or tragedy. The collection contains many thank you letters from these young women for the organization’s financial help during times of duress.
The materials in the archive also provide an overview of “career girls” working and studying in New York City from 1858-2001. The collection documents the changes in young women’s professions, fields of study, recreational interests, and political concerns. For instance, early occupations of boarders included teachers, seamstresses, governesses, telegraph operators, and milliners while professions in the twentieth century began to include drama students, secretaries, dancers, librarians, and eventually business and engineering students. Similarly, the patriotic eagerness of women living in the houses during World War II contrasts with accounts from the 1968 Annual Report describing the difficulty of providing housing for young women, “while they are loudly rejecting everything current, including both the domestic and foreign policies of this country.”
Although rules regarding male suitors remained strict, the homes of the LCU did eventually become more modern and allowed for women of all religions and nationalities. However, the last LCU homes, the Katharine House and the Roberts House, closed to the public in 2000-2001. Continuing its mission, the Ladies Christian Union is now the LCU Foundation, a private, secular foundation that awards grants for housing costs to female students in New York City preparing for careers to serve the community.
If you are an LCU alumnae, feel free to share your memories of living in housing provided by the Ladies Christian Union.