On Saturday nights in mid-century Harlem, the most raucous parties were frequently happening in private apartments, with admission between 25 and 50 cents. The fee would go towards paying the often inflated rents charged to black tenants working for low wages in Manhattan, with live music, drinks, and dancing offered in exchange. From 1925 and 1960, the poet Langston Hughes amassed a large collection of these rent party cards, drawn to the rhyming lines that usually advertised the gatherings, like “Leave your troubles, wear your smile / Join this happy bunch for a while!” and “Hop Mr. Bunny, Skip Mr. Bear, / If you don’t dig this party you ain’t no where!” He later embedded some of their language in his Simple stories.
The colorful cards are featured in Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library, a building-wide exhibition at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. “Langston Hughes’s collection of rent party cards — with dozens on view — have been [a] part of the exhibition where people stop and linger and most often share on social media,” Michael Morand, the Beinecke communications director, told Hyperallergic.
None of the cards overtly label the musical bashes as rent parties, advertising instead “A Social Whist Party,” a “Mid-Summer Party,” “A Social Dance,” or “A Cocktail Sip.” The small printed cards included the address for an apartment number, with the hosts’ names (sometimes coyly titled, such as the “7 Brothers Social Club”), and promises of “tasty refreshments” and “snappy music.” The music was often live, with Hughes’s collection including cards for festivities soundtracked by Fats Waller and “Miss Lilly Harris at the Piano.”
Rebecca Onion, in a 2013 post for Slate Vault, notes that in 1957 Hughes told the Chicago Defender, “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 was not the only cultural figure influenced by the parties; Gather Out of Star-Dust also includes the 1920s tune “Rent Party Blues Dance.” The floor-shaking, neighbor-rattling rent party had its height during the Great Depression, and it was as much an informal social gathering as a fundraiser. In a 1966 article in LIFE, Hughes recalled they were “as often as not, to have a get-together of one’s own, where you could do the black bottom with no stranger behind you trying to do it, too.” He described how the parties “were usually announced by brightly colored cards stuck in the grille of apartment house elevators.” Inside, “the piano would often be augmented by a guitar or an odd cornet, or somebody with a pair of drums walking in off the street. And where awful bootleg whiskey and good fried fish or steaming chitterlings were sold at very low prices. And the dancing and singing and impromptu entertaining went on until dawn came in at the windows.”
Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library continues at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University (121 Wall Street, New Haven, Connecticut) through April 17.