The most hated professionals today might be the used car salesman, the telemarketer, or the politician. But back in the nineteenth century, historians A. K. Sandoval-Strausz and Daniel Levinson Wilk write, people really, really couldn’t stand hotel clerks.
In 1874, popular writer Henry Hooper called the hotel clerk “the supercilious embodiment of Philistinism.” Mark Twain described a supposedly typical clerk who “didn’t know anything about the time tables, or the railroad routes—or—anything—and was proud of it.” In Harper’s Weekly, another writer found that “the hotel clerk devotes his life to trying to look as if he was in the office entirely by accident.”
But Sandoval-Strausz and Wilk note that it’s hard to take these writers at their word. Hotel-keeping was a tough, competitive business. A common nineteenth-century phrase to describe someone as talented and resourceful was “he can keep a hotel.” Owners knew the importance of pleasing their guests. And, given the growth of an etiquette-conscious middle class in the cities of the time, it presumably would have been easy to fire surly clerks and find better-mannered replacements.
The authors argue that the key to the American antipathy to clerks was probably not their actual behavior but rather a shift in American society. Before the nineteenth century, they write, American travelers stayed in private homes, or in taverns that were small enough to function much like homes. Following customs that go back to the Medieval Europe, they operated like patriarchal households: innkeepers were responsible for sheltering the visitor but also for monitoring them and keeping order.
As taverns gave way to hotels with hundreds of rooms, this personal attention became impossible. Instead, hotel owners employed large staffs of wage workers. Much as the growing factory system moved manufacturing out of the house, hotels systematized and rationalized the hospitality industry.
In this context, taunts directed at hotel clerks conveyed guests’ horror at “the discrepancy between their level of authority and their social standing as traditionally defined,” Sandoval-Strausz and Wilk write. Clerks were mocked for dressing and behaving more aristocratically than their economic status should allow. The authors note that, at the time, white people often directed similar language at black Americans who they saw as excessively aspirational. Hotel maids, meanwhile, faced very different stereotypes. Common narratives portrayed them as thieves, and as unclean—spitting, reusing dirty dishes, or using towels as cleaning rags.
In both cases, Sandoval-Strausz and Wilk write, these popular portrayals reflect a shift away from personal, familial relationships. Nineteenth-century travelers might have had servants at home, but they were “like family,” and therefore trustworthy. They might also have been willing to defer to the authority of a patriarchal tavern-keeper, but not to a wage-worker usurping authority he shouldn’t possess.
In the early twentieth century, these attitudes changed. Travelers became accustomed to large, impersonal hotels, while hotel owners introduced modern training and supervision, along with employee benefits. Just like in the industrial sector, managerial capitalism became standard.