Dive Into New York’s Historic Rental Ads, From The 1830s On | Chappaqua Real Estate

As the world has transformed over time, so, too, has the courtship between the owners of empty rooms and potential tenants. The Roman burden of donning your toga and trekking to the agora to find your next rental in one centralized marketplace has given way to virtual tours. (Which you can also do in a toga, should you so desire, although no one needs to know.) But because of various changes to the way letted spaces move, the past century has seen a full circuit in the evolution of rental ads.

18641014%20BDE.png [Want to check out this tony Clinton Hill residence on your own time? You know where to find it! (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 14, 1865)]

In the 1800s, such ads were usually posted by the owner. Unencumbered by character-limits, spots for rentals were filled with prose and description. The landlord wanted to fill his vacancy. Nothing else mattered. If your space came equipped with rosewood furniture and a piano—to some, the 19th-century equivalent to Carrara marble and a private gym—all the better to pitch. The newspaper, of course, was a common resort (or the only resort) for those who couldn’t fill their spaces by word of mouth or through their own networks.

18370624%20Wburg%20Gazette.jpg [Really pitching to the perfect “respectable genteel family.” The ad (click for big!) sells the lots’ proximity to the Peck Slip Ferry, which connected the Williamsburg waterfront with downtown Manhattan, or the base of today’s Brooklyn Bridge. (Williamsburg Gazette, June 24, 1837)]

Then, in the early 20th century, brokers began to flood the market. Although the oldest of today’s largest firms, Brown Harris Stevens, traces its roots to 1874, what is now the National Association of Realtors was founded in 1908. But perhaps most importantly, a ten-year moratorium on taxes for new housing (warning: PDF!) led to a building boom starting in 1920. Those units needed people to live inside them… and fast.

Crafted by hired hands, ads began to take on a sense of urgency—and offered much less description. Mentions of specific addresses gave way to pitches for streets or neighborhoods; vowels became the victims of cost-cutting measures when every word cost cash.

19750825%20Post.jpg [KITCH PRIVLS BMT EXP? I’ll take two! Translated: furnished room somewhere in the five miles(!) between Prospect Park and Sheepshead Bay, with kitchen access, and close to the express BMT, which is today’s B train. (New York Post, August 25, 1975)]

This modern format—concise, with no frills—remained the standard for generations, and is still in occasional use today. Such a listing published in the last few decades usually lays out the specifics of the apartment’s interior (“2 BR, 1.5 BA, southern light”) while giving a vague idea of its location (“3 blocks from the R”).

19850406%20BP.jpg [In some cases, no location is given at all. Given the broker’s coordinates, we assume they are in northwest Brooklyn, but… (Brooklyn Paper, April 6, 1985)]

The intentional omission of a street address was actually a matter of self-preservation—not for the landlord, who just wanted a steady stream of income, but for the broker, who risked losing his fee if others got wind that an owner was actively seeking a tenant and moved the apartment before she herself did.





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