OUR BOARDING HOUSE

Our Boarding House comic strip

For most of American history up until World War II, single men in towns and cities moved out of their parents' houses when they got jobs. Not only did most of them never learn to cook, most apartments had no cooking facilities at all. To make do, men (and to a lesser extent women, especially after World War I) lived in boardinghouses. These mostly were literally houses rather than apartment buildings. A couple, or a single woman, needing extra money rented out individual rooms. In return for rent, the dwellers got room and board, with board meaning communal meals at set times of the day.

Boarding houses were notoriously dependent on the skills and attitudes of the women running the kitchen. Good cooks were prized beyond measure. So were tables which provided generous servings. Conversely, many proprietors skimped on quality, quantity, and service, begrudging every penny spent. Of course, the boarders themselves were seldom prizes. They were eccentric, smelly, shifty, and notoriously late in their payments and vocal in their demands. The famed boardinghouse reach beloved by cartoonists depicts a melee as each diner around the table seeks to grab as much grub as possible the instant the go signal was given.

The boardinghouse reach

With both sides potential horrors, the comic possibilities were obvious. A number of comic strips set in boarding houses flourished in the early part of the 20th century. The forthrightly-named Our Boarding House lasted 60 years starting in 1921. Eugene Ahern, always known as Gene, had been drawing comics for the Newspaper Enterprise Association since the apprentice age of 19 seven years earlier when he stumbled upon - i.e. blatantly imitated - this idea. In his hands it worked, so much so that the King Features Syndicate stole him for more money in 1936, whereupon he drew for them the identically-themed Room and Board.

Though the comics, one large daily panel and later a Sunday color strip, are bizarrely wordy and abstruse by modern standards, Ahern resonated with contemporary audiences by creating caricatures of thoroughly familiar types. The boarding house was run by battle-ax Martha Hoople, eventually rejoined after a long absence in parts unknown by her  husband the Major, "perhaps the greatest windbag, stuffed shirt and blowhard ever to 'hrumph' his way across the funnies page" wrote comics historian Don Markham. Such was the strip's popularity that people with great ideas and tiny brains became known as Hoopleheads. If that word sounds familiar it's probably because David Milch borrowed it to use as a pejorative in his show Deadwood. The long-winded Major dominated the daily panels with hair-brained ideas for inventions that would make him a quick fortune. And one of these was food pills.

The impetus might have been the much publicized food conference in 1926 I wrote about in That Synthetic Food of the Future. For six days, the Major expounds on the wonders of his pills only to be met by the utter skepticism of the lounging boarders who are forced to listen and the thud of Martha's foot being put down on the notion.

We know Ahern did his homework because in one panel his dialogue references the German army trying out food pills during the war, i.e. WWI. That certainly happened. A small article was syndicated in newspapers in 1914, datelined Brunswick, Germany.

Tests made here  with food pills for the German army have resulted so satisfactorily that there is a strong possibility of their being adopted permanently.

The pills cost but a third of a cent each and for a 12 hours' march six pills were found to contain sufficient nourishment for one man. Army officials predict a great future for this form of concentrated food.

Not only can the men be supplied with the chemical substances necessary to keep them in good condition, but valuable time is gained by the elimination of the cooking of food and the time consumed in eating it.

Needless to say, the soldiers themselves are not in favor of the change.

The pills couldn't have worked in 1914, of course. And they didn't. A very short report can be found from the next year, after the actual war started, announcing the company formed to manufacture the pills "has become bankrupt after spending millions of Government money."

The series ran eight panels in all, with two preliminary panels doing nothing much except killing time, from Saturday, February 19 through Monday, February 28, 1927 (although some papers printed it on their own schedules well into March) skipping the separate Sunday strip. Here are all eight in their original glory.

Our Boarding House, February 19, 1927
Our Boarding House, February 21, 1927
Our Boarding House, February 22, 1927
Our Boarding House, February 23, 1927
Our Boarding House, February 24, 1927
Our Boarding House, February 25, 1927
Our Boarding House, February 26, 1927
Our Boarding House, February 28, 1927

EK

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