- Hotel: An American History, and: Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels, and: Hotel Theory
Open a history book and you might find a hotel mentioned somewhere in its pages, perhaps the site of an important temperance speech, a place of escape or capture for a fugitive slave, or host to men in the smoke-filled rooms of a political convention. These references are usually made in passing, with no thought to the hotel itself as an object of study. Aside from the work of antiquarians, nineteenth-and twentieth-century American historians had little to say about the hotel industry; a book here, a dissertation there, some chapters and articles, but no sustained interest in the topic. This was true in other disciplines as well. Aside from occasional references like Siegfried Kracauer’s essay on the hotel lobby and Frederic Jameson’s analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel, most scholarship on hotels has been industry-directed literature by architects and professors in hotel and hospitality schools.
This has all changed in the last decade or two, as new interest in tourism and the service sector brought scholars around to the subject of hotels. Since the 1990s, a spate of work on hotels has been produced, most often addressing the themes of urbanization, tourism, and architectural design. See, for example, the work of Myra B. Young Armstead, Cindy S. Aron, Carol Berens, Molly Berger, Susan R. Braden, Carolyn Brucken, Barbara Carson, Susan Chandler, Catherine Cocks, Theodore Corbett, Lisa Pfueller Davidson, Andrew S. Dolkart, Alice T. Friedman, Paul Groth, Yvonne Guerrier, Reiko Hillyer, Paul L. Ingram, Bernard L. Jim, Jill Jones, Charlene M. Boyer Lewis, Sandra D. Lynn, Susan Nigra Snyder, John Sterngass, George E. Thompson, Mitchell Owens, Dorian T. Warren, Paul Watt, Annabel Wharton, Dan Zuberi, myself, and many others.
This growing field of work came to a turning point in 2007, with the publication of three books on hotels by A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Rachel Sherman, and Wayne Koestenbaum. (Full disclosure—I have collaborated on an article, a conference paper, and a conference panel with Sandoval-Strausz, and hosted a gathering to celebrate the publication of his book. I have also participated on a panel with Sherman.) These books offer new directions for the study of hotels that will [End Page 873] hopefully be taken up by many other scholars. Taken together, they suggest that we will not understand the condition of modernity until we grapple with the importance of the hotel in American life.
The importance of the hotel to understanding the big developments of the past two centuries (capitalism, democracy, emancipation, nationalism, urbanization, imperialism, etc.) is twofold. First, the hotel played major roles in each of these developments, often as a pioneer or “patterning device” (Sandoval-Strausz 3) for many areas of modern life. Second, the example of the hotel offers scholars perspectives on old questions about modern life that lead to new answers. Each of the books reviewed here comes at these two points from a different angle—indeed, from a different discipline—but they converge in their insistence that hotels are central to understanding who we modern people are, and how we got that way.
Sandoval-Strausz’s Hotel: An American History is the most panoramic, and in some ways, the most ambitious of the three books. It tells the history of American hotels from the first failed attempts to build them in the 1790s to their maturation as modern business corporations in the early twentieth century (plus a brief leap ahead to the 1960s, to follow the story of hotels’ roles in civil rights legislation). While telling this story, Sandoval-Strausz, a historian at the University of New Mexico, gives evidence of historical changes large and small...