Circulating ice water and other things to look for in a hotel
Some friends recently gave us an old book they came across that they thought would be of interest.
The Hotel Red Book 1949-50, the American Hotel Association's annual directory, is 1,140 pages of fascinating browsing.
In the days - remember them? - before Travelocity and hotels.com, and even in the days before Arthur Frommer, travelers could count on the Red Book to provide what must have been a nearly exhaustive list of hotels in the U.S.
I realize that 60 years is a long time - tell me about it - but it really is fascinating to see what we now take for granted that was, back in the day, a novelty.
Some of the hotels advertise tub and shower; radios in all rooms; outside exposure. Fire proof was a biggy, as were something called "sample rooms." Were these samples of rooms, or room where a traveling salesman could lay out his samples?
A few hotels were starting to introduce televisions. Sure, they had Uncle Miltie and Howdy Doody, but talk about nothing on...
Many of the hotels do have air conditioning (or air cooled rooms, whatever that difference might be), sometimes in all the rooms, sometimes just in the public areas. But for those that didn't, it sure must have been fun sweltering on the 20th floor of a non-air conditioned hotel in Chicago in the middle of July, no? Let alone in the hotel that bragged about having "the best ventilated rooms in the South."
Perhaps patrons used that circulating ice water - which I'm guessing is something that comes out of a tap - to soak their towels in, and sleep with them wrapped around their necks. Which is what I did, many years ago, when I lived into a sun-baked, top floor apartment. I moved there in December, so the sun-baking was ultra-nice. That was until the April heat wave, when I slept with the wet towel. For one night. Then I went out and got an air conditioner.
I love the ads that some of the hotels took out, like the one from the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, which boasts of its "internationally famous cocktail rendezvous," where I have actually rendezvoused for a cocktail.
Or the ad for the Boone Hotel Company, which specialized in $1.50 per night lodging in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, and had a nifty tagline: "You'll get your money's worth."
The Caswell Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama was "radiant with newness." One hotel mentioned "pre-Pearl Harbor service." (Ah, things were always better back when.)
My sister Trish used to live opposite the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn, which claimed to be "New York's Largest and Most Interesting Hotel." Guests staying in one of its 2,632 rooms could "enjoy free: use of world-famous salt water swimming pool, gay social activities, 15 minutes form Times Square..." (2,632 rooms? Can that possibly be right? I don't remember it being such a colossus? Perhaps the rooms were all 6'x8' with shared bath. Maybe guests bathed in the salt water swimming pool. And free use of being 15 minutes from Times Square? What, precisely, does that mean?)
Beyond the rack rates, almost all of which, save for a few resort hotels, were less than $4a night, a few of things struck me in paging through this directory.
One, how back in the day, even smaller, B-C-and-D list cities and towns all seemed to have a hotel in the town center.
Case in point, Akron, Ohio. In 1949-1950, Akron had quite a few hotels in the center of "Rubber City", including the Hotel Portage ("home of the world famous Rubber Room"). I just tried to find a hotel in Akron on hotels.com. Only one was in the downtown area , and that was a good 1.5 mile bounce from the city center. (Alas, the Portage was torn down in 1969.)
Another thing that struck me was how some places that were barely on the map 60 years ago are now, well, all over the map. Phoenix. Houston.
Most notably, Las Vegas had a handful of hotels in 1949, including the Flamingo ("the pride of 'lucky' Las Vegas", and here's to you, Bugsy Siegel), which is around. It looks like Donny and Marie are the entertainment. Does their luck never run out?
Across the boards, the ad copy tended towards the sweetly quaint ("the nicest hotel in Times Square"),or to wording that is completely formal and stilted to the modern ear. ("In convenience, accommodations and in the scope of its facilities, the 27-story Henry Hudson appeals to men and women who see the utmost in real hotel value." )
By the way, the hotel's cable address: was HALFMOONER, New York. Gotta love that sense of history!
And if you were going to send a cable to HALFMOONER, New York, to take advantage of the utmost in real hotel value, you would have used "The Standard Code of the American Hotel Association for use in making room reservations by telegraph."
A single bed room for one was an ABABU. "If room without bath is desired" - and who wouldn't desire a room without bath - you cabled for an EPOVO. Arriving Sunday afternoon? That would be POLYP.
MEDUL ABABU RAZEM ELLIOTT may look like a sleeper cell communiqué, but it translates into "Rserve Medium-Priced Single-Bed Room with Bath Tonight Late for Mr. Elliott."
The Hudson, by the way, is still around, but it's been unstuffed a bit - it's now "the ultimate lifestyle hotel for the 21st century." (I don't believe that lifestyles even existed in 1949-1950.)
What also struck me going through the book was what wasn't said: that all those hotels in the South (a goodly number of which seemed to be called The Jefferson Davis) would have been whites-only.
People who want to get weepily nostalgic for the good old days of circulated ice water and I'm arriving POLYP ought to keep this in mind.