Hotel: An American History (Yale University Press)

By A.K. Sandoval-Strausz

In his exhaustively researched Hotel: An American History, A.K. Sandoval-Strausz associates the creation of the American hotel with our first president's tours to the 13 states in 1789-1791. To avoid the appearance of political favoritism, Washington chose not to stay in private homes during his tours, instead using the sparsely available and highly variable inns then on offer. In due course, such ad hoc inns were uprooted by purpose-built hotels. Moreover, as modes of transportation expanded, the American hotel emerged as "architecturally, socially, and politically distinct from travel accommodation elsewhere in the modern world," ultimately emulated worldwide.

That the research included here does not fully support such a claim of distinction—a shortcoming the author concedes—is forgivable and perhaps beside the point only because there's so much other interesting detail. Up-market hotel menus, for example, which in mid-19th-century Boston read like koans: "beef," "chicken," "veal," and "tongue," hold the adjectives, adverbs, red-wine reduction, confit, and watercress. Of greater significance is Sandoval-Strausz's chapter on innkeeper common law, which established the legal aspects of hotel hospitality and formed a significant hurdle to racial integration.

The chapter entitled "Unruly Guests and Anxious Hosts: Sex, Theft, and Violence," offers a distracting helping of the prurient. Suffice to say that nothing has changed since the hotel's inception—the crimes, drama, and characters could all be drawn from today's headlines. In that respect, the hotel has served as a model of American urban life, what Sandoval-Strausz calls a "patterning device, an institution in which people developed expectations and behaviors appropriate to new modes of city living."