Monday, April 28, 2008

BOOKSHELF: HOTEL: AN AMERICAN HISTORY

KERRY HOWLEY, REASON For the women of the mid-19th century, a fine hotel was a perilous place to be. Not only did respectable gentlewomen run the risk of consorting with prostitutes (a popular book of etiquette advised female travelers to keep a safe distance from any broad with "a meretricious expression of eye"), but extended time away from the joys of cooking and cleaning might ruin them for life. One defender of home and hearth described the lady hotel dweller this way: "Idle and lazy, and dyspeptic from the want of exercise, she becomes such a mere puppet and machine that she loses all sense of individual responsibility."

Even if she managed to avoid the whores and dyspepsia, she ran great risk of seduction, possibly by a traveling salesman. And if she contrived to keep her virginity intact, there was always luggage to lose. The detective Allan Pinkerton declared that there was "no more prevalent or more popular branch of dishonesty" than the robbery of inns.

Did hotels really merit such expansive social anxieties? In Hotel: An American History (Yale University Press), the University of New Mexico historian A.K. Sandoval-Strausz responds with an emphatic yes. Hotels, he argues, were "a significant episode in the modern idea of a pluralistic, cosmopolitan society," and conservatives invested in the status quo were right to fear them. Transportation advances granted people a new mobility, and traveling Americans suddenly required social mores not predicated on years of shared community bonds.

Consider the condition of the stranger in mid-18th-century America. "Public authority," writes Sandoval-Strausz, "was deeply invested in policing people's comings and goings." Innkeepers were often required to notify officials when strangers rolled into town, and transients needed official permission to stay for any length of time. In 1765 Boston hired a municipal bouncer of sorts to hunt down unauthorized visitors and send them packing. . .

In contrast to the humble taverns they replaced, early hotels were sweeping architectural statements. As plans for the country's first hotel were revealed in 1793, one journalist declared that D.C.'s Union Public House would be "the most magnificent building in America, perhaps in any other country." A year later, construction began on New York's City Hotel, which would feature a ballroom, stores, and the largest circulating library in the nation. Not to be outdone, Boston responded with the Exchange Coffee House, a 200-room building that may have been the nation's largest structure at the time. Alas, the Exchange was not to last: When a fire broke out in the building's attic in 1818, there were no ladders in the city tall enough to reach the flames.

Hotels, then and now, are a material manifestation of a world that prizes free mobility and peaceful exchange. "The built environment expresses the values of the people that created it," writes Sandoval-Strausz. In a time when America is spending billions to build a wall along its southern border, this brilliant history is a reminder that the fear of the traveling stranger is something we have overcome before.

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