Saturday, April 26, 2008

Inns in 18th century America

In Reason, Kerry Howley talks about the American Hotel in the 18th century:

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.
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.

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