Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Impressions of American Hotels


Max O’Rell was the pen name of Léon Paul Blouet, a well-known French author and journalist in the late nineteenth century. Beginning in the fall of 1887,  O'Rell visited the United States for six months, traveling as far west as Chicago. After a second tour in 1890, he published A Frenchman in America in which he humorously described American manners and customs with acerbity. Chapter IV, titled “Impressions of American Hotels,” is reproduced below with some of the original illustrations and relevant menus from the period.

Boston, January 6
ARRIVED here this afternoon, and resumed acquaintance with American hotels.

American hotels are all alike.

Some are worse. 

Describe one and you have described them all.

On the ground floor, a large entrance hall strewed with cuspidors for the men, and a side entrance provided with a triumphal arch for the ladies. On this floor the sexes are separated as at the public baths. In the large hall, a counter behind which solemn clerks, whose business faces relax not a muscle, are ready with their book to enter your name and assign you a number. A small army of colored porters ready to take you in charge. Not a salute, not a word, not a smile of welcome. The negro takes your bag and makes a sign that your case is settled. You follow him. For the time being you lose your personality and become No. 375, as you would in jail. Don’t ask questions; theirs not to answer; don’t ring the bell to ask for a favor, if you set any value on your time. All the rules of the establishment are printed and posted in your bedroom; you have to submit to them. No question to ask—you know everything. Henceforth you will have to be hungry from 7 to 9 A.M.; from 1 to 3 P.M.; from 6 to 8 P.M. The slightest infringement of the routine would stop the wheel, so don’t ask if you could have a meal at four o’clock; you would be taken for a lunatic, or a crank (as they call it in America).

Between meals you will be supplied with ice-water ad libitum

No privacy. No coffee-room, no smoking-room. No place where you can go and quietly sip a cup of coffee or drink a glass of beer with a cigar. You can have a drink at the bar, and then go and sit down in the hall among the crowd. 

Life in an American hotel is an alternation of the cellular system during the night and of the gregarious system during the day, an alternation of the penitentiary systems carried out at Philadelphia and at Auburn. 

It is not in the bedroom, either, that you must seek anything to cheer you. The bed is good, but only for the night. The room is perfectly nude. Not even ‘Napoleon’s Farewell to his Soldiers at Fontainebleau’ as in France, or ‘Strafford walking to the Scaffold’ as in England. Not that these pictures are particularly cheerful, still they break the monotony of the wall paper. Here the only oases in the brown or gray desert are cautions. 

First of all, a notice that, in a cupboard near the window, you will find some twenty yards of coiled rope which, in case of fire, you are to fix to a hook outside the window. The rest is guessed. You fix the rope, and—you let yourself go. From a sixth, seventh, or eighth story, the prospect is lively. 

Another caution informs you of all that you must not do, such as your own washing in the bedroom. Another warns you that if, on retiring, you put your boots outside the door, you do so at your own risk and peril. Another is posted near the door, close to an electric bell. With a little care and practice, you will be able to carry out the instructions printed thereon. The only thing wonderful about the contrivance is that the servants never make mistakes. 

Press once for ice water 
Press twice for hall boy 
Press three times for fireman 
Press four times for chambermaid 
Press five times for hot water 
Press six times for ink and writing materials 
Press seven times for baggage 
Press eight times for messenger 

In some hotels I have seen the list carried to number twelve. 

Another notice tells you what the proprietor’s responsibilities are, and at what time the meals take place. Now this last notice is the most important of all. Woe to you if you forget it! For if you should present yourself one minute after the dining-room door is closed, no human consideration would get it open for you. Supplications, arguments would be of no avail. Not even money. 

‘What do you mean?’ some old-fashioned European will exclaim. ‘When the table d’hôte is over, of course you cannot expect the menu to be served to you; but surely you can order a steak or a chop.’ 

No, you cannot, not even an omelet or a piece of cold meat. If you arrive at one minute past three (in small towns, at one minute past two) you find the dining-room closed, and you must wait till six o’clock to see its hospitable doors open again. 
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When you enter the dining-room, you must not believe that you can go and sit where you like. The chief waiter assigns you a seat, and you must take it. With a superb wave of the hand, he signs to you to follow him. He does not even turn round to see if you are behind him, following him in all the meanders he describes, amid the sixty, eighty, sometimes hundred tables that are in the room. He takes it for granted you are an obedient, submissive traveler who knows his duty. Altogether I traveled in the United States for about ten months, and I never came across an American so daring, so independent, as to actually take any other seat than the one assigned to him by that tremendous potentate, the head waiter. Occasionally, just to try him, I would sit down in a chair I took a fancy to. But he would come and fetch me, and tell me that I could not stay there. In Europe, the waiter asks you where you would like to sit. In America, you ask him where you may sit. He is a paid servant, therefore a master in America. He is in command, not of the other waiters, but of the guests. Several times, recognizing friends in the dining-room, I asked the man to take me to their tables (I should not have dared go by myself), and the permission was granted with a patronizing sign of the head. I have constantly seen Americans stop on the threshold of the dining-room door, and wait until the chief waiter had returned from placing a guest to come and fetch them in their turn. I never saw them venture alone, and take an empty seat, without the sanction of the waiter. 

The guests feel struck with awe in that dining-room, and solemnly bolt their food as quickly as they can. You hear less noise in an American hotel dining-room containing five hundred people, than you do at a French table d’hôte accommodating fifty people, at a German one containing a dozen guests, or at a table where two Italians are dining tête-à-tête

The head waiter, at large Northern and Western hotels, is a white man. In the Southern ones, he is a mulatto or a black; but white or black, he is always a magnificent specimen of his race. There is not a ghost of a savor of the serving man about him; no whiskers and shaven upper lips reminding you of the waiters of the Old World; but always a fine mustache, the twirling of which helps to give an air of nonchalant superiority to its wearer. The mulatto head-waiters in the South really look like dusky princes. Many of them are so handsome and carry themselves so superbly that you find them very impressive at first and would fain apologize to them. You feel as if you wanted to thank them for kindly condescending to concern themselves about anything so commonplace as your seat at table.

In smaller hotels, the waiters are all waitresses. The ‘waiting’ is done by damsels entirely—or rather by the guests of the hotel. 

If the Southern head waiter looks like a prince, what shall we say of the head-waitress in the East, the North, and the West? No term short of queenly will describe her stately bearing as she moves about among her bevy of reduced duchesses. She is evidently chosen for her appearance. She is ‘divinely tall,’ as well as ‘most ‘divinely fair,’ and, as if to add to her importance, she is crowned with a gigantic mass of frizzled hair. All the waitresses have this coiffure. It is a livery, as caps are in the Old World; but instead of being a badge of servitude it looks, and is, alarmingly emancipated—so much so that, before making close acquaintance with my dishes, I always examine them with great care. A beautiful mass of hair looks lovely on the head of a woman, but one in your soup, even if it had strayed from the tresses of your beloved one, would make the corners of your mouth go down, and the tip of your nose go up. 

A regally handsome woman always ‘goes well in the landscape,’ as the French say, and I have seen specimens of these waitresses so handsome and so commanding-looking that, if they cared to come over to Europe and play the queens in London pantomimes, I feel sure they would command quite exceptional prices, and draw big salaries and crowded houses.
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The thing which strikes me most disagreeably, in the American hotel dining-room, is the sight of the tremendous waste of food that goes on at every meal. No European, I suppose, can fail to be struck with this; but to a Frenchman it would naturally be most remarkable. In France, where, I venture to say, people live as well as anywhere else, if not better, there is a horror of anything like waste of good food. It is to me, therefore, a repulsive thing to see the wanton manner in which some Americans will waste at one meal enough to feed several hungry fellow-creatures. 

In the large hotels conducted on the American plan, [in which room and board are included in the daily rate], there are rarely fewer than fifty different dishes on the menu at dinner-time.

Every day, and at every meal, you may see people order three times as much of this food as they could under any circumstances eat, and, after picking it and spoiling one dish after another, send the bulk away uneaten. I am bound to say that this practice is not only to be observed in hotels where the charge is so much per day, but in those conducted on the European plan, that is, where you pay for every item you order. There I notice that people proceed in much the same wasteful fashion. It is evidently not a desire to have more than is paid for, but simply a bad and ugly habit. I hold that about five hundred hungry people could be fed out of the waste that is going on at such large hotels as the Palmer House...

or the Grand Pacific Hotel of Chicago—and I have no doubt that such five hundred hungry people could easily be found in Chicago every day.

I think that many Europeans are prevented from going to America by an idea that the expense of traveling and living there is very great. This is quite a delusion. For my part I find that hotels are as cheap in America as in England at any rate, and railway traveling in Pullman cars is certainly cheaper than in European first-class carriages, and incomparably more comfortable. Put aside in America such hotels as Delmonico’s, the Brunswick in New York...

the Richelieu in Chicago...

and in England such hotels as the Metropôle, the Victoria, the Savoy; and take the good hotels of the country, such as the Grand Pacific at Chicago; the West Hotel at Minneapolis...

the Windsor at Montreal; and the Cadillac at Detroit.

I only mention those I remember as the very best. In these hotels, you are comfortably lodged and magnificently fed for from three to five dollars a day. In no good hotel of England, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, would you get the same amount of comfort, or even luxury, at the same price, and those who require a sitting-room get it for a little less than they would have to pay in a European hotel. 

The only very dear hotels I have come across in the United States are those of Virginia. There I have been charged as much as two dollars a day, but never in my life did I pay so dear for what I had, never in my life did I see so many dirty rooms or so many messes that were unfit for human food. 

But I will just say this much for the American refinement of feeling to be met with, even in the hotels of Virginia, even in the 'lunch' rooms in small stations, you are supplied, at the end of each meal, with a bowl of water—to rinse your mouth.”

 1. Max O’Rell. A Frenchman in America. New York: Cassell Publishing Co., 1891.


Jan Whitaker said...

Henry, fabulous post! I love the warnings, such clever writing overall. Quite a find!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Henry, If a Time Machine is ever invented, remind me not to go backward…. All fascinating. Thanks for being a sharing collector!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous a.k.a. Jeanne Schinto

Anonymous said...

Happen to be sitting in an American hotel as i read this and can confirm the bedroom decor is still a brown or gray desert.