A brief history of the hotel
comment 2 Written by on May 10, 2010 – 8:23 pm


Hotel receptions - now available to women too. Photo by Wahig on Flickr

I’ve just finished reading Wanderlust: a social history of travel by Laura Byrne Paquet. It’s a great read for anyone interested in how the travel industry got to where it is today, moving from the original aristocratic European ‘grand tours’ to Thomas Cook’s first package holidays and onward to today’s ‘green travel’ and the potential of space tourism.

For me, the most interesting chapter was on the history of the hotel.

Here are some things I learned:

  • In the 19th century, grand US hotels had separate entrances for men and women. Men handled the check-in at the reception while women went straight to the ladies’ parlour. Why? Because no true lady should be seen hanging around in a hotel lobby where she may be deemed a woman of ill repute.
  • At this time guests ate together at a set hour in a huge dining room. Dinner time was signalled by a huge gong.
  • In the 1850s, the New York’s Metropolitan Hotel was the first hotel in the US to let guests eat at their own times. It was known as the “European plan”. This was a big step as it allowed the dining rooms to function as restaurants which could be opened to non-hotel guests too.

And then came my favourite anecdote. It was about innkeepers in the 17th century, who treated visitors more as houseguests than paying customers. They would often eat as a family and socialise together, which could either lead to very jovial times or it could backfire tremendously.

As Laura writes: “A man who considers he is doing you a favour by sheltering you in his home, rather than providing a service, is apt to be cranky as kind.”

Here’s one review – a sort of 17th-century Tripadvisor entry – written by John Taylor, an English sailor, tavernkeeper and poet.

Mine host was very sufficiently drunk, the house most delicately decked with exquisite artificial and natural sluttery, the room besprinkled and strewed with the excrements of pigs and children: the walls and ceilings were adorned with rare spider’s tapestry, or cobweb lawn: the smoke so palpable and perspicuous that I could scare see anything else, and I could scarce see that, it so blinded me with weeping.

Well, at least it made for a good story. Next time I get bad hotel service, I’ll console myself with that.

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2 Responses to “A brief history of the hotel”

  1. Thanks so much for the lovely review, Vicky! Glad you enjoyed the book. 🙂

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