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A Stay in a Victorian Hotel
by Bob Brooke


The 1829 opening of the Tremont House in Boston was celebrated with an elaborate dinner. The hotel had 170 rooms, each with the exclusive temporary property of the renter unlike old-fashioned inns where a traveler could expect to share even his bed with a stranger. For $2 a day the Tremont furnished guests with four substantial meals, a wash bowl, pitcher and cake of soap as well as gas lighting and a good supply of running water in the basement "bathing rooms." It was a revelation. It was also the first American hotel to be recognized as modern and first class.

Fifty years later a first class hotel charged as much as $4 to $10 a day for a stay that was more than worth the outlandish price. "An American hotel is a city within a city," said Hal per's Monthly in 1868. "Almost every-thing necessary for enjoying life may be found within its walls." It was an experience that began when the traveler arrived at thetrain station and chose from the coaches representing each of the city's major hotels.

Once at the hotel eager porters took charge of the visitor's luggage while polite clerks waited at the desk to sign him in on the "American plan," which provided every-thing except wine at no additional cost — a bewilderment to Europeans accustomed to an extra charge for every item and service. A modest fee reserved a room with a plain but good carpet, a bed "equal to the best," a call bell and every substantial comfort. But for those with a better budget there was a suite worthy of a mansion, with Brussels carpet, draperies of brocatelle, satin and finest lace, huge mirrors of French plate, fine chandeliers, hot and cold water, and gas burning comfortably in a fireplace to decoratively supplement the steam heat.

In the morning each guest found his mail slipped under the door and the boots he'd set out the night before polished. Downstairs the daily papers were on sale at a newsstand near the breakfast room where a waiter handed him a menu of about 50 choices. After eating, male guests would retire to the gentleman's reading room with its easy chairs and well supplied writing desks, or perhaps a stop at the adjacent cigar stand and bar.

For the woman traveler there was the ladies' parlor, where she could relax and properly receive the male visitors she wouldn't dare invite to her room. While travelers of the 1850s described these parlors as gilded and gaudy, the European influence made those of the 1870s into a decorator's dream of gloss and grace adorned with laces, damask carved wood, and marble. Graceful desks, whatnots, book stands, and tasteful pictures made the wayfarer feel at home.

The best of the hotels provided "salons” for hairdressing, saloons for billiards, ticket offices for theater or railway, a telegraph office complete with news bulletins and stock reports, a livery office for hiring transportation, and bathrooms for ever floor. A detective dressed like the guests watched out for their safety while a number of watchman patrolled the nighttime corridors always on the lookout for signs of fire.

The main event of each day at these hotels was dinner. Sumptuous refinement became de regur in the dining rooms of fine hotels. Though electricity had become a feature of the major houses in the 1870s, hotels usually served dinner in the soft ambience of gas light. Perfectly folded napkins lay alongside shining glassware and glowing silver on spotless linen tablecloths. The menu was long and varied, the service fast and faultless and the food excellent, fresh and unlimited, inviting guests to linger. It was a miracle of dignified elegance and quiet efficiency. But behind the scenes the atmosphere was very different.

In a large, brilliantly lighted kitchen vegetable preparers mashed potatoes by the tubfull while cooks shouted in French at the black-suited waiters scurrying in and out. Across the room a "rabble of scullions” rattled silver and scraped plates, plunging them into boiling whirlpools and lifting them out again by derrick. Meanwhile, bundled up butchers in a massive refrigerator cut steaks to an exact weight of 13 ounces, the bake shop prepared rolls for breakfast, and "below the pavement" the sommelier carefully locked the door to the wine cellar in which the hotel stored thousands of bottles kept at a year-round temperature of 28 degrees.

To keep an establishment of this size smoothly functioning required an enormous number of people. Legend has it that the Hotel Windsor in New York had more servants than guests, even when the house was full, and 400 to 500 employees weren't uncommon at any of the large city hotels. Crews of decorators, upholsterers, seamstresses, silversmiths, painters, window cleaners and floor scrubbers kept up appearances, while a shop staff of tinsmiths, electricians, gas and steam fitters and engineers made the machinery run. Electricity might have been the miracle of the age but steam did the washing and drying of thousands of sheets and tablecloths each day plus a great deal more. Steam helped to peel and grate vegetables and fruit, shell peas and corn shelled, pit cherries, whisk eggs, chop meat, turn roasts, and freeze ice cream.

Steam pipes, water pipes, drain pipes and gas pipes ran like arteries through Victorian hotels, their extent figured by contractors in miles, not feet. Builders constructed the latest and largest establishments with solid brick partition walls from ground to floor to deaden room noise and reduce the dangers of fire. Like the Astor House of New York, they could be described as massive piles of marble, slate and iron. They could also cost as much as $2 million to build and furnish in a style to suit the gilded tastes of their customers of the Gilded Age

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