Huzza for Commerce!

The emancipatory power of the American hotel


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.

One measure of a society's openness to newcomers is the quality of the space it creates for them. Public houses, the inns of the day, offered a rather tepid welcome. They offered an abundance of alcohol and few rooms; when they were crowded, wayfarers might find themselves sharing a bed with a drunken stranger. One traveling Englishman complained of being "sadly tormented with bugs" while in bed. Yet, standards being what they were, he deemed the place "a good inn."

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.

All three ventures were considerable financial risks, and the Union Public House was an abject failure. Nearly all early hotels went bankrupt. But the men who financed these palaces shared an ideology and vocation; every one of them had made a fortune in overseas trade. In a country still 90 percent agrarian, hotels were monuments to the still suspect concepts of commerce and travel and the scions of trade who drove both forward. "In the same way that church architecture emphasized the divine with vertical lines that guided people's gaze skyward and sunlit stained glass that dazzled the eye," writes Sandoval-Strausz, "hotels focused public attention on the benefits of trade and pointed toward a commercial future for the nation."

The men who invested fortunes in these displays of hospitality were not just seeking to edify their fellow Americans. They were bringing symbolic heft to the political debate then raging between Hamiltonian Federalists, who favored commercial expansion, and Jeffersonian Republicans, who favored agricultural self-sufficiency. Hotel builders were almost uniformly Federalists. You could read the towering Exchange Coffee House as a structural middle finger gesturing in the direction of Thomas Jefferson. In case anyone missed the point, one Coffee House Fourth of July celebration featured a play called Huzza for Commerce.

This political maneuvering left hotels vulnerable to charges of elitism, not a popular character trait in the aggressively egalitarian era of Andrew Jackson. But as the national enthusiasm for temporary housing began to mount, these extravagant structures served as engines of social progress. The hotel lobby was a public space that brought together men and women of varied status and purpose; even if you couldn't afford to stay in New York's North American Hotel, you might take a drink at the bar or a meal in the common dining room. By 1830, they had lost their reputation for elitism, and labor newspapers otherwise busy skewering the rich rarely mentioned the commerce-driven habitats in their midst. Indeed, labor groups found their halls to be convenient meeting places.

Which is not to say they went without criticism. Hotels were a new institutional form that upset expectations about the arrangement of daily life and alarmed defenders of domesticity. They were full of beds and liquor, associated with sex, theft, and violence. Guests interacted with no patriarch—only a relatively egalitarian ecosystem of managers, porters, and bellboys. As people began to take longer and longer hotel stays in the mid-19th century, sometimes even living in them, "an entire genre of screeds against hotel living" was born, mourning the decline of traditional gender roles in a world where cooks and maids left women hopelessly idle.

None of this did much to dampen Americans' collective zeal for travel and the institutions that would house them along the way. By the end of the 19th century, the American stranger had a new role in the social order: He was a guest.

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.

Kerry Howley
is a senior editor at Reason.