Importantly, Harlem rent 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 out-do each other. Hosts would provide homemade fried chicken, pork chops, pigs feet and potato salad for sale, piled up high on tables set up in the kitchen or at a makeshift bar in the hallway.
Soon enough, they began advertising their rent parties on business cards that would have poetic jingles on them to entice guests. The Prohibition however was still in effect at this time and so handing out these cards was a risk if they weren’t given to the “right” people. These particular examples 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.
The origins behind the Harlem rent parties are a little more sobering however. During the early nineteen twenties when cheap industrial labor was in high demand, it’s estimated that more than 200,000 African Americans migrated to Harlem, mostly fresh from the cotton-picking fields of the Deep South. They were segregated in a small section of Manhattan where as many as five to seven thousand people would have been known to live in a single block.