Hosts of these gatherings opened up their apartments for a night, charging a fee to guests in return for live music, dancing, and socializing. Food was extra, and the accumulated cash went to help the hosts pay their rent. Sandra L. West points out that black tenants in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s faced discriminatory rental rates. That, along with the generally lower salaries for black workers, created a situation in which many people were short of rent money. These parties were originally meant to bridge that gap.
As advertisements for the parties, the cards name the kind of musical entertainment attendees could expect using lyrics from popular songs or made-up rhyming verse as slogans. Kathleen Drowne writes that the cards always used euphemisms to name the parties’ purpose. You can see the use of the names “Social Whist Party” and “Social Party” here, but Drowne also mentions cards from the 1920s that advertised shindigs under the names “Too Terrible Party,” “Boogie,” or “Tea Cup Party.”
How did Hughes come to collect these cards? The poet wrote about rent parties and rent party cards in the Chicago Defender in 1957, explaining, “When I first came to Harlem, as a poet I was intrigued by the little rhymes at the top of most House Rent Party cards, so I saved them. Now I have quite a collection.”
Hughes noted that rent parties seemed to disappear after the Depression but had returned in the postwar era: “Maybe it is inflation today and the high cost of living that is causing the return of the pay-at-the-door and buy-your-refreshments parties.” He argued that these new parties weren’t as fun as the older ones had been, since live music had been superseded by recorded entertainment. The new cards, however, “are just as amusing as the old ones.”
Article from Slate. Photos courtesy of Courtesy the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.