Hotel Living: Majesty or Mayhem?

Creators
Janet Burka, Carl Kranz, Seth Persons, and Walter Schlect

Transcript
A “caldron of social and cultural evil.” “The most dangerous enemy American domesticity has yet to encounter.” What a Brooklyn pastor calls: “One of the great evils of this day!” A scourge is spreading through New York that will “encourage sexual immorality” and destroy the family unit. What is this destructive force? This great enemy to family values and propriety? You would be forgiven if you thought these statements were contemporary, something you might have heard on talk radio, but in fact this language comes from scores of moralists and commentators denouncing the “social evil” of hotel living in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

How did this all come about? How did the practice of living in hotels turn into such a controversial subject? And why were people living in hotels anyway?

Our story starts in the mid 19th century with an influx of immigrants from across Europe resulting in a housing crunch that affected everyone of all classes. As the wealthier citizens of New York move uptown, the single-family homes they leave behind are converted in to multi-family residences. Tenements are built to house the poorest of the poor, with sometimes an entire family confined to one room. As more and more people flocked to New York City both to visit and to live, the housing situation became even more dire.

Enter the hotel. The American hotel initially emerged in the 1820s as a resting place for travellers and transients, but was uniquely positioned as a solution for a city bursting at the seams. For those who could afford it, the hotel emerged in the 1860s and 70s as a viable residential option. Hotel living provided many citizens of the middle and upper class the ability to live in a private, often multi-room, residence with the benefits of servants and cooks but without the cost of the upkeep of a household. This allowed the residents to sustain the lifestyle to which they were accustomed at a lower cost. It also guaranteed the hotels consistent income, despite the yearly discount residents enjoyed, as the industry was no longer completely dependent on the whims of the traveler.

The domestic shakeup introduced by hotel living resulted in a shift in women’s roles within the household and society. Women no longer had to spend their days purchasing and preparing food, cleaning or overseeing servants. Feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman celebrated this new arrangement and saw it as a beginning to women’s emancipation from the “drudgery and humiliation of unpaid and undervalued” work.

But not everyone saw this as a benefit to society. From religious groups to the editorial staff of Architectural Record, a large contingent of conservative commentators decried what they saw as the decline of the family unit. Articles and editorials of the time criticized this “so-called freedom” that women were beginning to enjoy and warned that this would lead to parental neglect and cause women to slide into sexual immorality and debauchery. These commentators saw hotel life as beneficial only to “masculine celebates” and feared that what they saw as the purity of women would be tainted by the introduction of “loneliness, leisure, need of society, interesting companions, abundance of opportunity and potent temptation.”

But these views, as widespread as they were at the turn of the century, eventually gave way as the advent of the New York apartment building bridged the gap between hotels and single-family homes, solving the space issue while also creating more privacy for families. Apartment buildings functioned as a replacement for traditional neighborhoods, leading to more permanence than was found in a hotel. The hotel dwellers of New York in the early 1900s were more often young, single men and women who embraced the social autonomy that they saw as exciting and vital. They were satisfied with small rooms in hotels as they began to see the city as their home. A vibrant urban life developed that scholars mark as the beginning of the active New York lifestyle enjoyed today.

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