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CHAPTER XIV. AMERICAN HOTELS.
I find it impossible to resist the subject of inns. As I have gone on with my journey, I have gone on with my book, and have spoken here and there of American hotels as I have encountered them. But in the States the hotels are so large an institution, having so much closer and wider a bearing on social life than they do in any other country, that I feel myself bound to treat them in a separate chapter as a great national arrangement in themselves. They are quite as much thought of in the nation as the legislature, or judicature, or literature of the country; and any falling off in them, or any improvement in the accommodation given, would strike the community as forcibly as any change in the Constitution or alteration in the franchise.
Moreover, I consider myself as qualified to write a chapter on hotels - not only on the hotels of America, but on hotels generally. I have myself been much too frequently a sojourner at hotels. I think I know what a hotel should be, and what it should not be; and am almost inclined to believe, in my pride, that I could myself fill the position of a landlord with some chance of social success, though probably with none of satisfactory pecuniary results.
Of all hotels known to me, I am inclined to think that the Swiss are the best. The things wanted at a hotel are, I fancy, mainly as follows: a clean bed-room, with a good and clean bed, and with it also plenty of water. Good food, well dressed and served at convenient hours, which hours should on occasions be allowed to stretch themselves. Wines that shall be drinkable. Quick attendance. Bills that shall not be absolutely extortionate, smiling faces, and an absence of foul smells. There are many who desire more than this - who expect exquisite cookery, choice wines, subservient domestics, distinguished consideration, and the strictest economy; but they are uneducated travelers, who are going through the apprenticeship of their hotel lives; who may probably never become free of the travelers' guild, or learn to distinguish that which they may fairly hope to attain from that which they can never accomplish.
Taking them as a whole, I think that the Swiss hotels are the best. They are perhaps a little close in the matter of cold water, but even as to this they generally give way to pressure. The pressure, however, must not be violent, but gentle rather, and well continued. Their bed-rooms are excellent. Their cookery is good, and to the outward senses is cleanly. The people are civil. The whole work of the house is carried on upon fixed rules which tend to the comfort of the establishment. They are not cheap, and not always quite honest. But the exorbitance or dishonesty of their charges rarely exceeds a certain reasonable scale, and hardly ever demands the bitter misery of a remonstrance.
The inns of the Tyrol are, I think, the cheapest I have known-affording the traveler what he requires for half the price, or less than half demanded in Switzerland. But the other half is taken out in stench and nastiness. As tourists scatter themselves more profusely, the prices of the Tyrol will no doubt rise. Let us hope that increased prices will bring with them besoms, scrubbingbrushes, and other much-needed articles of cleanliness.
The inns of the north of Italy are very good; and, indeed, the Italian inns throughout, as far as I know them, are much better than the name they bear. The Italians are a civil, kindly people, and do for you, at any rate, the best they can. Perhaps the unwary traveler may be cheated. Ignorant of the language, he may be called on to pay more than the man who speaks it and who can bargain in the Italian fashion as to price. It has often been my lot, I doubt not, to be so cheated; but then I have been cheated with a grace that has been worth all the money. The ordinary prices of Italian inns are by no means high.
I have seldom thoroughly liked the inns of Germany which I have known. They are not clean, and water is very scarce. Smiles, too, are generally wanting, and I have usually fancied myself to be regarded as a piece of goods out of which so much profit was to be made.
The dearest hotels I know are the French - and certainly not the best. In the provinces they are by no means so cleanly as those of Italy. Their wines are generally abominable, and their cookery often disgusting. In Paris grand dinners may no doubt be had, and luxuries of every description - except the luxury of comfort. Cotton-velvet sofas and ormolu clocks stand in the place of convenient furniture; and logs of wood, at a franc a log, fail to impart to you the heat which the freezing cold of a Paris winter demands. They used to make good coffee in Paris, but even that is a thing of the past. I fancy that they import their brandy from England and manufacture their own cigars. French wines you may get good at a Paris hotel; but you would drink them as good and much cheaper if you bought them in London and took them with you.
The worst hotels I know are in the Havana. Of course I do not speak here of chance mountain huts, or small, far-off roadside hostels, in which the traveler may find himself from time to time. All such are to be counted apart, and must be judged on their merits by the circumstances which surround them. But with reference to places of wide resort, nothing can beat the hotels of the Havana in filth, discomfort, habits of abomination, and absence of everything which the traveler desires. All the world does not go to the Havana, and the subject is not therefore one of general interest. But in speaking of hotels at large, so much I find myself bound to say.
In all the countries to which I have alluded the guests of the house are expected to sit down together at one table. Conversation is at any rate possible; and there is the show, if not the reality, of society.
And now one word as to English inns. I do not think that we Englishmen have any great right to be proud of them. The worst about them is that they deteriorate from year to year, instead of becoming better. We used to hear much of the comfort of the old English wayside inn, but the old English wayside inn has gone. The railway hotel has taken its place; and the railway hotel is too frequently gloomy, desolate, comfortless, and almost suicidal. In England, too, since the old days are gone, there are wanting the landlord's bow and the kindly smile of his stout wife. Who now knows the landlord of an inn, or cares to inquire whether or no there be a landlady? The old welcome is wanting; and the cheery, warm air, which used to atone for the bad port and tough beef, has passed away - while the port is still bad and the beef too often tough.
In England, and only in England as I believe, is maintained in hotel life the theory of solitary existence. The sojourner at an English inn - unless he be a commercial traveler, and as such a member of a universal, peripatetic tradesman's club - lives alone. He has his breakfast alone, his dinner alone, his pint of wine alone, and his cup of tea alone. It is not considered practicable that two strangers should sit at the same table or cut from the same dish. Consequently his dinner is cooked for him separately, and the hotel keeper can hardly afford to give him a good dinner. He has two modes of life from which to choose. He either lives in a public room - called a coffee-room - and there occupies, during his comfortless meal, a separate small table, too frequently removed from fire and light, though generally exposed to draughts, or else he indulges in the luxury of a private sitting-room, and endeavors to find solace on an old horse-hair sofa, at the cost of seven shillings a day. His bed-room is not so arranged that he can use it as a sitting-room. Under either phase of life he can rarely find himself comfortable, and therefore he lives as little at a hotel as the circumstances of his business or of his pleasure will allow. I do not think that any of the requisites of a good inn are habitually to be found in perfection at our Kings' Heads and White Horses, though the falling off is not so lamentably distressing as it sometimes is in other countries. The bed-rooms are dingy rather than dirty. Extra payment to servants will generally produce a tub of cold water. The food is never good, but it is usually eatable, and you may have it when you please. The wines are almost always bad, but the traveler can fall back upon beer. The attendance is good, provided always that the payment for it is liberal. The cost is generally too high, and unfortunately grows larger and larger from year to year. Smiling faces are out of the question unless specially paid for; and as to that matter of foul smells, there is often room for improvement. An English inn to a solitary traveler without employment is an embodiment of dreary desolation. The excuse to be made for this is that English men and women do not live much at inns in their own country.
The American inn differs from all those of which I have made mention, and is altogether an institution apart, and a thing of itself. Hotels in America are very much larger and more numerous than in other countries. They are to be found in all towns, and I may almost say in all villages. In England and on the Continent we find them on the recognized routes of travel and in towns of commercial or social importance. On unfrequented roads and in villages there is usually some small house of public entertainment in which the unexpected traveler may obtain food and shelter, and in which the expected boon companions of the neighborhood smoke their nightly pipes and drink their nightly tipple. But in the States of America the first sign of an incipient settlement is a hotel five stories high, with an office, a bar, a cloak room, three gentlemen's parlors, two ladies' parlors, and a ladies' entrance, and two hundred bedrooms.
These of course are all built with a view to profit, and it may be presumed that in each case the originators of the speculation enter into some calculation as to their expected guests. Whence are to come the sleepers in those two hundred bed-rooms, and who is to pay for the gaudy sofas and numerous lounging chairs of the ladies' parlors? In all other countries the expectation would extend itself simply to travelers - to travelers or to strangers sojourning in the land. But this is by no means the case as to these speculations in America. When the new hotel rises up in the wilderness, it is presumed that people will come there with the express object of inhabiting it. The hotel itself will create a population, as the railways do. With us railways run to the towns; but in the States the towns run to the railways. It is the same thing with the hotels.
Housekeeping is not popular with young married people in America, and there are various reasons why this should be so. Men there are not fixed in their employment as they are with us. If a young Benedict cannot get along as a lawyer at Salem, perhaps he may thrive as a shoemaker at Thermopylae. Jefferson B. Johnson fails in the lumber line at Eleutheria, but hearing of an opening for a Baptist preacher at Big Mud Creek moves himself off with his wife and three children at a week's notice. Aminadab Wiggs takes an engagement as a clerk at a steamboat office on the Pongowonga River, but he goes to his employment with an inward conviction that six months will see him earning his bread elsewhere. Under such circumstances even a large wardrobe is a nuisance, and a collection of furniture would be as appropriate as a drove of elephants. Then again young men and women marry without any means already collected on which to commence their life. They are content to look forward and to hope that such means will come. In so doing they are guilty of no imprudence. It is the way of the country, and, if the man be useful for anything, employment will certainly come to him. But he must live on the fruits of that employment, and can only pay his way from week to week and from day to day. And as a third reason, I think I may allege that the mode of life found in these hotels is liked by the people who frequent them. It is to their taste. They are happy, or at any rate contented, at these hotels, and do not wish for household cares. As to the two first reasons which I have given, I can agree as to the necessity of the case, and quite concur as to the expediency of marriage under such circumstances. But as to that matter of taste, I cannot concur at all. Anything more forlorn than a young married woman at an American hotel, it is impossible to conceive.
Such are the guests expected for those two hundred bedrooms. The chance travelers are but chance additions to these, and are not generally the mainstay of the house. As a matter of course the accommodation for travelers which these hotels afford increases and creates traveling. Men come because they know they will be fed and bedded at a moderate cost, and in an easy way, suited to their tastes. With us, and throughout Europe, inquiry is made before an unaccustomed journey is commenced, on that serious question of wayside food and shelter. But in the States no such question is needed. A big hotel is a matter of course, and therefore men travel. Everybody travels in the States. The railways and the hotels between them have so churned up the people that an untraveled man or woman is a rare animal. We are apt to suppose that travelers make roads, and that guests create hotels; but the cause and effect run exactly in the other way. I am almost disposed to think that we should become cannibals if gentlemen's legs and ladies arms were hung up for sale in purveyors' shops.
After this fashion and with these intentions hotels are built. Size and an imposing exterior are the first requisitions. Everything about them must be on a large scale. A commanding exterior, and a certain interior dignity of demeanor, is more essential than comfort or civility. Whatever a hotel may be it must not be "mean." In the American vernacular the word mean is very significant. A mean white in the South is a man who owns no slaves. Men are often mean, but actions are seldom so called. A man feels mean when the bluster is taken out of him. A mean hotel, conducted in a quiet unostentatious manner, in which the only endeavor made had reference to the comfort of a few guests, would find no favor in the States. These hotels are not called by the name of any sign, as with us in our provinces. There are no "Presidents' Heads" or "General Scotts." Nor by the name of the landlord, or of some former landlord, as with us in London, and in many cities of the Continent. Nor are they called from some country or city which may have been presumed at some time to have had special patronage for the establishment. In the nomenclature of American hotels the specialty of American hero worship is shown, as in the nomenclature of their children. Every inn is a house, and these houses are generally named after some hero, little known probably in the world at large, but highly estimated in that locality at the moment of the christening.
They are always built on a plan which to a European seems to be most unnecessarily extravagant in space. It is not unfrequently the case that the greater portion of the ground floor is occupied by rooms and halls which make no return to the house whatever. The visitor enters a great hall by the front door, and almost invariably finds it full of men who are idling about, sitting round on stationary seats, talking in a listless manner, and getting through their time as though the place were a public lounging-room. And so it is. The chances are that not half the crowd are guests at the hotel. I will now follow the visitor as he makes his way up to the office. Every hotel has an office. To call this place the bar, as I have done too frequently, is a lamentable error. The bar is held in a separate room appropriated solely to drinking. To the office, which is in fact a long open bar, the guest walks up, and there inscribes his name in a book. This inscription was to me a moment of misery which I could never go through with equanimity. As the name is written, and as the request for accommodation is made, half a dozen loungers look over your name and listen to what you say. They listen attentively, and spell your name carefully, but the great man behind the bar does not seem to listen or to heed you; your destiny is never imparted to you on the instant. If your wife or any other woman be with you - the word "lady" is made so absolutely distasteful in American hotels that I cannot bring myself to use it in writing of them - she has been carried off to a lady's waiting room, and there remains in august wretchedness till the great man at the bar shall have decided on her fate. I have never been quite able to fathom the mystery of these delays. I think they must have originated in the necessity of waiting to see what might be the influx of travelers at the moment, and then have become exaggerated and brought to their present normal state by the gratified feeling of almost divine power with which for the time it invests that despotic arbiter. I have found it always the same, though arriving with no crowd, by a conveyance of my own, when no other expectant guests were following me. The great man has listened to my request in silence, with an imperturbable face, and has usually continued his conversation with some loafing friend, who at the time is probably scrutinizing my name in the book. I have often suffered in patience, but patience is not specially the badge of my tribe, and I have sometimes spoken out rather freely. If I may presume to give advice to my traveling countrymen how to act under such circumstances, I should recommend to them freedom of speech rather than patience. The great man, when freely addressed, generally opens his eyes, and selects the key of your room without further delay. I am inclined to think that the selection will not be made in any way to your detriment by reason of that freedom of speech. The lady in the ballad who spoke out her own mind to Lord Bateman, was sent to her home honorably in a coach and three. Had she held her tongue, we are justified in presuming that she would have been returned on a pillion behind a servant.
I have been greatly annoyed by that want of speech. I have repeatedly asked for room, and received no syllable in return. I have persisted in my request, and the clerk has nodded his head at me. Until a traveler is known, these gentlemen are singularly sparing of speech, especially in the West. The same economy of words runs down from the great man at the office all through the servants of the establishment. It arises, I believe, entirely from that want of courtesy which democratic institutions create. The man whom you address has to make a battle against the state of subservience presumed to be indicated by his position, and he does so by declaring his indifference to the person on whose wants he is paid to attend. I have been honored on one or two occasions by the subsequent intimacy of these great men at the hotel offices, and have then found them ready enough at conversation.
That necessity of making your request for room before a public audience is not in itself agreeable, and sometimes entails a conversation which might be more comfortably made in private. "What do you mean by a dressing-room, and why do you want one?" Now that is a question which an Englishman feels awkward at answering before five and twenty Americans, with open mouths and eager eyes; but it has to be answered. When I left England, I was assured that I should not find any need for a separate sitting-room, seeing that drawing-rooms more or less sumptuous were prepared for the accommodation of "ladies." At first we attempted to follow the advice given to us, but we broke down. A man and his wife traveling from town to town, and making no sojourn on his way, may eat and sleep at a hotel without a private parlor. But an English woman cannot live in comfort for a week, or even in comfort for a day, at any of these houses, without a sitting-room for herself. The ladies' drawing-room is a desolate wilderness. The American women themselves do not use it. It is generally empty, or occupied by some forlorn spinster, eliciting harsh sounds from the wretched piano which it contains.
The price at these hotels throughout the union is nearly always the same, viz., two and a half dollars a day, for which a bed-room is given and as many meals as the guest can contrive to eat. This is the price for chance guests. The cost to monthly boarders is, I believe, not more than the half of this. Ten shillings a day, therefore, covers everything that is absolutely necessary, servants included; and this must be said in praise of these inns - that the traveler can compute his expenses accurately, and can absolutely bring them within that daily sum of ten shillings. This includes a great deal of eating, a great deal of attendance, the use of reading-room and smoking-room - which, however, always seem to be open to the public as well as to the guests - and a bed-room, with accommodation which is at any rate as good as the average accommodation of hotels in Europe. In the large Eastern towns baths are attached to many of the rooms. I always carry my own, and have never failed in getting water. It must be acknowledged that the price is very cheap. It is so cheap that I believe it affords, as a rule, no profit whatsoever. The profit is made upon extra charges, and they are higher than in any other country that I have visited. They are so high that I consider traveling in America, for an Englishman with his wife or family, to be more expensive than traveling in any part of Europe. First in the list of extras comes that matter of the sitting-room, and by that for a man and his wife the whole first expense is at once doubled. The ordinary charge is five dollars, or one pound a day! A guest intending to stay for two or three weeks at a hotel, or perhaps for one week, may, by agreement, have this charge reduced. At one inn I stayed a fortnight, and having made no such agreement, was charged the full sum. I felt myself stirred up to complain, and did in that case remonstrate. I was asked how much I wished to have returned - for the bill had been paid - and the sum I suggested was at once handed to me. But even with such reduction, the price is very high, and at once makes the American hotel expensive. Wine also at these houses is very costly, and very bad. The usual price is two dollars (or eight shillings) a bottle. The people of the country rarely drink wine at dinner in the hotels. When they do so, they drink champagne; but their normal drinking is done separately, at the bar, chiefly before dinner, and at a cheap rate. "A drink," let it be what it may, invariably costs a dime, or five pence. But if you must have a glass of sherry with your dinner, it costs two dollars; for sherry does not grow into pint bottles in the States. But the guest who remains for two days can have his wine kept for him. Washing also is an expensive luxury. The price of this is invariable, being always four pence for everything washed. A cambric handkerchief or muslin dress all come out at the same price. For those who are cunning in the matter this may do very well; but for men and women whose cuffs and collars are numerous it becomes expensive. The craft of those who are cunning is shown, I think, in little internal washings, by which the cambric handkerchiefs are kept out of the list, while the muslin dresses are placed upon it. I am led to this surmise by the energetic measures taken by the hotelkeepers to prevent such domestic washings, and by the denunciations which in every hotel are pasted up in every room against the practice. I could not at first understand why I was always warned against washing my own clothes in my own bed-room, and told that no foreign laundress could on any account be admitted into the house. The injunctions given on this head are almost frantic in their energy, and therefore I conceive that hotel-keepers find themselves exposed to much suffering in the matter. At these hotels they wash with great rapidity, sending you back your clothes in four or five hours if you desire it.
Another very stringent order is placed before the face of all visitors at American hotels, desiring them on no account to have valuable property in their rooms. I presume that there must have been some difficulty in this matter in bygone years; for in every State a law has been passed declaring that hotel-keepers shall not be held responsible for money or jewels stolen out of rooms in their houses, provided that they are furnished with safes for keeping such money and give due caution to their guests on the subject. The due caution is always given, but I have seldom myself taken any notice of it. I have always left my portmanteau open, and have kept my money usually in a traveling-desk in my room; but I never to my knowledge lost anything. The world, I think, gives itself credit for more thieves than it possesses. As to the female servants at American inns, they are generally all that is disagreeable. They are uncivil, impudent, dirty, slow - provoking to a degree. But I believe that they keep their hands from picking and stealing.
I never yet made a single comfortable meal at an American hotel, or rose from my breakfast or dinner with that feeling of satisfaction which should, I think, be felt at such moments in a civilized land in which cookery prevails as an art. I have had enough, and have been healthy, and am thankful. But that thankfulness is altogether a matter apart, and does not bear upon the question. If need be, I can eat food that is disagreeable to my palate and make no complaint. But I hold it to be compatible with the principles of an advanced Christianity to prefer food that is palatable. I never could get any of that kind at an American hotel. All meal-times at such houses were to me periods of disagreeable duty; and at this moment, as I write these lines at the hotel in which I am still staying, I pine for an English leg of mutton. But I do not wish it to be supposed that the fault of which I complain - for it is a grievous fault - is incidental to America as a nation. I have stayed in private houses, and have daily sat down to dinners quite as good as any my own kitchen could afford me. Their dinner parties are generally well done, and as a people they are by no means indifferent to the nature of their comestibles. It is of the hotels that I speak; and of them I again say that eating in them is a disagreeable task - a painful labor. It is as a schoolboy's lesson, or the six hours' confinement of a clerk at his desk.
The mode of eating is as follows: Certain feeding hours are named, which generally include nearly all the day. Breakfast from six till ten. Dinner from one till five. Tea from six till nine. Supper from nine till twelve. When the guest presents himself at any of these hours, he is marshaled to a seat, and a bill is put into his hand containing the names of all the eatables then offered for his choice. The list is incredibly and most unnecessarily long. Then it is that you will see care written on the face of the American hotel liver, as he studies the programme of the coming performance. With men this passes off unnoticed, but with young girls the appearance of the thing is not attractive. The anxious study, the elaborate reading of the daily book, and then the choice proclaimed with clear articulation: "Boiled mutton and caper sauce, roast duck, hashed venison, mashed potatoes, poached eggs and spinach, stewed tomatoes. Yes - and, waiter, some squash!" There is no false delicacy in the voice by which this order is given, no desire for a gentle whisper. The dinner is ordered with the firm determination of an American heroine; and in some five minutes' time all the little dishes appear at once, and the lady is surrounded by her banquet.
How I did learn to hate those little dishes and their greasy contents! At a London eating-house things are often not very nice, but your meat is put on a plate and comes before you in an edible shape. At these hotels it is brought to you in horrid little oval dishes, and swims in grease; gravy is not an institution in American hotels, but grease has taken its place. It is palpable, undisguised grease, floating in rivers - not grease caused by accidental bad cookery, but grease on purpose. A beef-steak is not a beef-steak unless a quarter of a pound of butter be added to it. Those horrid little dishes! If one thinks of it, how could they have been made to contain Christian food? Every article in that long list is liable to the call of any number of guests for four hours. Under such circumstances how can food be made eatable? Your roast mutton is brought to you raw; if you object to that, you are supplied with meat that has been four times brought before the public. At hotels on the Continent of Europe different dinners are cooked at different hours; but here the same dinner is kept always going. The house breakfast is maintained on a similar footing. Huge boilers of tea and coffee are stewed down and kept hot. To me those meals were odious. It is of course open to any one to have separate dinners and separate breakfasts in his own rooms; but by this little is gained and much is lost. He or she who is so exclusive pays twice over for such meals - as they are charged as extras on the bill - and, after all, receives the advantage of no exclusive cooking. Particles from the public dinners are brought to the private room, and the same odious little dishes make their appearance.
But the most striking peculiarity of the American hotels is in their public rooms. Of the ladies' drawing-room I have spoken. There are two, and sometimes three, in one hotel, and they are generally furnished at any rate expensively. It seems to me that the space and the furniture are almost thrown away. At watering-places and sea-side summer hotels they are, I presume, used; but at ordinary hotels they are empty deserts. The intention is good, for they are established with the view of giving to ladies at hotels the comforts of ordinary domestic life; but they fail in their effect. Ladies will not make themselves happy in any room, or with ever so much gilded furniture, unless some means of happiness are provided for them. Into these rooms no book is ever brought, no needle-work is introduced; from them no clatter of many tongues is ever heard. On a marble table in the middle of the room always stands a large pitcher of iced water; and from this a cold, damp, uninviting air is spread through the atmosphere of the ladies' drawing-room.
Below, on the ground floor, there is, in the first place, the huge entrance hall, at the back of which, behind a bar, the great man of the place keeps the keys and holds his court. There are generally seats around it, in which smokers sit - or men not smoking but ruminating. Opening off from this are reading-rooms, smoking-rooms, shaving-rooms, drinking-rooms, parlors for gentlemen in which smoking is prohibited and which are generally as desolate as ladies' sitting-rooms above. In those other more congenial chambers is always gathered together a crowd apparently belonging in no way to the hotel. It would seem that a great portion of an American Inn is as open to the public as an Exchange or as the wayside of the street. In the West, during the early months of this war, the traveler would always see many soldiers among the crowd - not only officers, but privates. They sit in public seats, silent but apparently contented, sometimes for an hour together. All Americans are given to gatherings such as these. It is the much-loved institution to which the name of "loafing" has been given.
I do not like the mode of life which prevails in the American hotels. I have come across exceptions, and know one or two that are very comfortable - always excepting that matter of eating and drinking. Taking them as a whole, I do not like their mode of life; but I feel bound to add that the hotels of Canada, which are kept I think always after the same fashion, are infinitely worse than those of the United States. I do not like the American hotels; but I must say in their favor that they afford an immense amount of accommodation. The traveler is rarely told that a hotel is full, so that traveling in America is without one of those great perils to which it is subject in Europe.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XV. LITERATURE.