When the congressional mess was a boarding house

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln lived in a boarding house in Washington, D.C., during his time in Congress. / Illustration from “The Boys Life of Abraham Lincoln”

Stories occasionally appear about the living arrangements of members of Congress on Capitol Hill. Apart from their families and in Washington for only part of the week, some congressmen (and the stories do focus on congressmen), share messy, overcrowded homes with fellow lawmakers. Their refrigerators, we read, are stocked with little more than beer, which they quaff while noshing on pizza and watching a football game together.

In the 1800s, congressmen also lived with their colleagues. Living not in crash pads but boarding  houses – although their reputations were not necessarily much better –lawmakers dwelled and ate together. Pizza wasn’t on the menu, but basic fare, 19th-century style, was.

Like members of Congress, many Americans in the 1800s lived in boarding houses. As a market economy developed in the 19th century, people left farms for jobs as clerks, factory workers and other urban occupations. At the same time, the old practice of apprentices or employees living with masters was waning and, in addition, urban populations were growing with the arrival of new immigrants. As a result, huge numbers of urban dwellers turned to boarding houses. As many as half of city residents were either tenants or keepers of boarding houses.

Away from home when they were attending Congress, lawmakers did what their fellow Americans did and took up residence in boarding houses. Their experience, however, differed in an important way. Congressmen typically chose which Capitol Hill boarding house they would lodge in based on their state or on their political affiliation.

Their groupings were known as “messes,” as in mess hall. Members of the Tennessee delegation, for instance, or a group of Whigs might make up a mess, though often the messes would include one or two congressmen from a different state or party. Boarding house life, therefore, played an important role in building lawmakers’ relationships both with allies and across various political lines.

Besides rooms, of course, boarding houses – for ordinary Americans and congressmen alike – provided board, that is meals. Served three meals a day by their landladies, residents ate together – and complained together. The food was bad, they said, and they didn’t get enough. The meat was dry, the cake was dry, the toast was dry. The food, many agreed, was blah. With budgets to keep in mind and a lot of work to do, landladies made basic, economical food. Beef, pies, puddings and cakes – all simple to make and sized to serve a crowd – were on tables often.

Carping about boarding house fare was something of a national pastime, but at least one boarding house resident had something positive to say.

Mary Surratt, who was convicted as a conspirator in Lincoln's assassination, ran a boarding house in Washington, D.C., in what is now Chinatown. / Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Mary Surratt, who was convicted as a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, ran a boarding house in Washington, D.C., in what is now Chinatown. / Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

The noted Connecticut abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld stayed for a time at a Capitol Hill boarding house, run by a Mrs. Sprigg, in the early 1840s, according to Kenneth Winkle in “Lincoln’s Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, D.C.” Mrs. Sprigg served the usual “puddings, pies, cakes, etc., etc.,” Weld wrote. Weld himself subscribed to the abstemious philosophy of the well-known dietary reformer Sylvester Graham – his followers gave us the Graham cracker – and wouldn’t eat those dishes, so the accommodating Mrs. Sprigg gave him the vegetables, bread and milk that Grahamites could eat. The milk, Weld thought, was “very good.”

Several years later, others lodgers were pleased with Mrs. Sprigg too, Winkle writes. She served good food, and around the dining table, the Whig party lawmakers who made up her clientele laughed and laughed at the jokes and stories of one of their messmates, the witty and affable congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. [At another Washington, D.C. boarding house — this one run by Mary Surratt — the plan to assassinate Lincoln was allegedly hatched. Surratt was hanged as a conspirator.]

Puddings and pie or pizza and beer? The food differs by era, but cheap eats then and now have helped congressmen’s shared quarters seem something like a home.

Amanda Moniz will teach a class on meals at congressional messes Nov. 1 at Hill Center in Washington, D.C.



Makes 6 to 8 servings

Pumpkin Pudding

This recipe for a simple, economical pudding typical of boarding-house fare, comes from one of the most popular cookbooks of the 19th century, Eliza Leslie’s "Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches," published first in 1837. Essentially a crustless pumpkin pie, Leslie’s recipe is flavored with wine and rosewater along with the spices more familiar today.

Leslie’s original recipe
“Take a pint of pumpkin that has been stewed soft, and pressed through a cullender. Melt in half a pint of warm milk, a quarter of a pound of butter, and the same quantity of sugar, stirring them well together. If you can conveniently procure a pint of rich cream, it will be better than the milk and butter. Beat eight eggs very light, and add them gradually to the other ingredients, alternately with the pumpkin. Then stir in a wine glass of rose water and a glass of wine mixed together; a large tea-spoonful of powdered mace and cinnamon mixed, and a grated nutmeg. Having stirred the whole very hard, put it into a buttered dish and bake it three quarters of an hour. Eat it cold.”

Amanda Moniz has adapted the recipe for contemporary cooks. Rather than start by stewing a fresh pumpkin, she used canned pumpkin. (Busy boarding house keepers would have appreciated this innovation.) She used cream, as Leslie suggested, and standardized the directions to today’s format.


  • One 15-ounce can pumpkin
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 8 large eggs
  • ½ cup rosewater
  • ½ cup wine
  • ½ teaspoon mace
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg


Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Butter a baking dish, such as a 9-by-12-inch oval dish.

In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, cream and sugar.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs together.

Add the eggs to the pumpkin mixture and whisk.

Add the remaining ingredients and whisk together well.

Pour into the buttered baking dish.

Bake for about 40 minutes, until firm on the outside, but still a little wobbly in the center.

Let cool and serve.

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7 Responses to When the congressional mess was a boarding house

  1. Helen October 29, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

    Amanda, would white or red wine be used in this yummy pudding?
    I am intrigued by the boarding house scene. It’s one thing to let a room but quite another to be a home cook offering full or half board subject to Congressional discussion.

    • Amanda Moniz October 29, 2014 at 10:04 pm #

      Thanks, Helen! The recipe just calls for wine. I made it with red wine, but I think whatever you have open would be worth trying.

  2. Margie Gibson November 16, 2014 at 3:00 am #

    I wish I could have heard some of the discussions around boarding house dinner tables!

    One hundred plus years after the boarding houses, there were a number of hole-in-the-wall dives on the Hill that continued the tradition of feeding Hill workers. In the 1970’s I worked on the House side and made frequent forays to Jimmy’s, which served meat ball subs smothered in a rich tomato sauce and big bowls of pasta-fagioli. Everyone went there, from interns to Hill staffers and Congressmen. Those were lunches of my dreams.


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