“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.” How did these tenants cope? By sending out these invitations and charging for parties that would help them make rent.
In early 20th century Harlem, New York, these cards would have been your ticket to a good weekend. Advertised as “Harlem Rent Parties”, African American tenants in Harlem would raise money to pay rent by throwing parties. These parties, always held on saturdays, would run well into sunday early morning with hosts charging .25 cents for admission. Here is an old documentary that imagines what it would have been like to attend one.
These parties played a major role in the development of jazz and blues music. The popular phrase “cutting a rug”, is thought to have come from the Harlem rent parties, as they were often the location of so-called “cutting contests”, which involved jazz pianists taking turns at the piano, attempting to outplay one another.
These cards are part of a collection of personal items held at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, that belonged to Langston Hughes, a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance.