Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Hotel: An American History"

Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz is assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, Hotel: An American History, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Hotel: An American History is totally unrepresentative of the overall work in one respect: it’s a solid field of text with no visual material, whereas the book contains almost 140 illustrations. Telling the story of the hotel is in large part about architecture, and so the images are essential to really showing my readers what this distinctive institution was all about.

In other respects, though, page 69 is indeed representative of the book because it deals with one of its basic themes — how hotels went from being elite, exclusionary establishments to places that were sufficiently open to the public for one newspaper writer to call them “palaces of the public.”

In the first chapter of the book, I explain that the first generation of hotels of the 1790s were built by wealthy entrepreneurs and were specifically intended to exclude workingmen and artisans. These common people understood this perfectly well, and criticized hotels as the haunts of would-be aristocrats, undemocratic supporters of the “ancient colony system of servility and adulation.”

In this chapter, I describe how despite these origins, hotels managed to avoid criticism in the heyday of President Andrew Jackson, who rose to power by criticizing the high, mighty, and well connected — and thereby gaining the support of the common man.

I take up similar themes throughout the book as I explore the meaning of hospitality. One question that arises again and again is, Who is welcome and who is not? I write about struggles for inclusion by women, Jews, and especially black people, whose successful campaign to integrate hotels forms the climactic chapter of the book.

From page 69:

[H]otels escaped the condemnation of Jacksonian Democrats because very few enjoyed state-sponsored privileges. Incorporated banks or steamboat lines might fairly be criticized as private monopolies that barred the common people from fair economic competition, and railway corporations could be accused of seizing land, but there was little about unchartered hotel partnerships that could be attributed to special favors from corrupt legislators.

Furthermore, hotel projects enjoyed little in the way of public subsidies. Historians have long recognized that state governments were heavily involved in promoting economic development in the early nineteenth century ... [y]et there is scant evidence of direct public support of hotels, and with rare exceptions, states and municipalities avoided investing in hotel construction. An 1828 controversy over the financing of the Tremont House suggests that this was the case even in Boston, a redoubt of Federalists and Whigs who believed in economically active governance. A week before construction was to begin, the hotel’s lead investor, William Havard Eliot, petitioned the city for an allocation of five hundred dollars per year for ten years, a sum that would offset the property taxes on the project. When the measure came up before the Common Council, one member protested against the using public funds to aid a project that would benefit only the rich, citing the “danger of the precedent” that would be set by such a subsidy. If the city agreed to aid the wealthy men behind the hotel company, he asked, “Who shall defend the treasury from the assaults of the middling, the poorer, and the numerous classes of society, all of whom abound in projects that promise to increase both the capital and population of the city?” Local newspapers reported on the council proceedings, setting off weeks of arguments in which claims of the hotel’s benefit to the community were answered by remonstrances against the favoritism inherent in publicly funding some private projects and not others. Ultimately, the disagreement was decided by the city solicitor, who concluded that Boston could not spend taxpayer dollars on the hotel without specific authorization from the Massachusetts legislature.

The Tremont House investors’ failure to secure a public subsidy suggests an emergent consensus on state support of hotels…
Read an excerpt and learn more about Hotel: An American History at the Yale University Press website.

Check out a slide-show essay about the history of the hotel at Slate.

--Marshal Zeringue