Hotels first started popping up in the U.S. during the 18th century, but a combination of affordable automobiles and a comprehensive Interstate system helped the lodging industry to explode beginning in the 1950s. In the decades since, hotels and motels have evolved a great deal. And while some changes are for the better, some items make us nostalgic for those clichéd “good old days.”
1. Postage Paid Key Fobs
When hotels and motels still used metal keys, they regularly came attached to large plastic key tags that listed not only the hotel’s name and address, but also the room number of the key holder. They also included a “Guaranteed Postage Paid” stamp, so that guests who absentmindedly walked away with the key could drop it into any mailbox the next time they emptied their pockets. Today's computerized key cards provide guests with an extra safety measure: they are re-keyed after every check-out, making it impossible for any random person (or former guest who held onto a key) to enter the room.
2. Magic Fingers
Before they became a standard cliché involving “adult” motels, vibrating beds (originally operated by a staff member, who manually shook the bed) were often prescribed as a remedy for a variety of health ailments by doctors in the early part of the 20th century. The Englander Mattress Company came out with a mechanical vibrating mattress in 1958, and salesman John Houghtaling was working hard trying to sell their new contraption to hotels and motels. He hit a stumbling block, though; while hoteliers liked the product, they didn’t want to dispose of hundreds of perfectly good mattresses to replace them with vibrating models, which cost $200 apiece. Houghtaling went to work in his basement, and eventually devised what he called the "Magic Fingers" system. It consisted of a small electric motor, about half the size of a coffee can, with an off-center weight on the shaft. The device could be connected to four coil springs inside of an existing mattress and it would (after a quarter was dropped into the attached coin box) shake just like the Englander mattress.
He eventually set up a factory and sold the Magic Fingers units for $25 to franchised distributors, who in turn re-sold them to hotels and motels across the country. During the heyday of Magic Fingers (the 1960s to mid-1970s), his sales were about $2 million per month. The tide first began to turn in 1967, when the Best Western chain announced that it was removing all coin-operated devices from their rooms as they felt they “cheapened” the company’s image. Eventually other chains followed suit, particularly when vibrating beds became a common joke in movies and on TV when making reference to a sleazy truck stop or den of iniquity.
3. Pay As You Exit
As recently as the mid-1970s it was common practice to check into a hotel by simply filling out a brief registration form (no identification or credit card required). Your room key was handed over and you were trusted to pay for your stay when you checked out and returned the key. Folks who sneaked out without paying were known as “skippers” in the industry lingo, and even back in the 1950s hotel bellmen kept a wary eye on patrons who checked in with a minimal amount of luggage. Folks planning on scamming the hotel would arrive with one bag with the barest of necessities packed inside. Instead of checking out at the end of their stay, they’d leave their suitcase in the room and casually waltz out through the lobby, never to return. Most lodging establishments today require either a swipe of your credit card or a cash payment in advance before they’ll hand over a room key.
4. Googie Signage
One of the most welcome sights after a long day of driving was a colorful, twinkling, blinking sign offering a comfy bed (along with other amenities) for the night. Googie architecture, a futuristic style inspired by the Space Race, was popular in the 1950s and '60s. Buildings had bold, curving, geometric shapes and their signs were bursting with mutlicolored neon parabolas, boomerangs, and starbursts. Holiday Inn was famous for its dazzling Great Sign, which the chain sadly retired in 1982. Much like the old Best Western signs, it was a bit of Las Vegas perched on a signpost, but most chains have since eschewed glitz in favor of more subdued, “sophisticated” signage.
5. Tile Showers as a Selling Point
Oddly enough, a common bragging bullet point listed on many motel postcards from the mid-20th century is “tiled baths (or showers)”. Which sort of begs the question: what were other hostelries using to floor their bathrooms? Wood? Concrete?
6. Steam Heat
You might still find steam heat in some of New York City’s older apartment buildings, but very few commercial lodging establishments utilize that method of climate control these days. Hissing radiators and clanking pipes aren’t a huge draw for customers, especially when you’re selling slumber.
7. Guest Register
Sure, it looked elegant and oh-so-civilized to have one giant sign-in book on a Lazy Susan equipped with a penholder for guests to jot down their personal information while the desk clerk checked availability and summoned a bellhop. But there’s a reason this was regularly used as a plot device in many films noirs: it was hardly secure and any old mob hitman or skip tracer could easily glance at the page and see who was in the house. Luckily hotels now make more effort to guard their customers’ privacy.
8. Key Cubbies
Another previously common feature of yesteryear that has since been recognized as a possible security hazard is the large key cubby that used to hang on the wall behind every hotel front desk. Whenever a patron left the building, it was customary for him or her to leave the room key with the desk clerk. That way the front desk staff could tell at a glance who was in their room and who wasn’t so that they could take messages (which were also left in the cubbies) or, in case of a general emergency, know how many patrons to evacuate. Again, nefarious types were able to use this obvious visual clue to rifle through unoccupied rooms (hey, they were nefarious, that’s why they could easily break into a hotel room unnoticed), so it’s probably best that this type of red flag is no longer publicly posted.
9. Checking In Under an Alias
It used to be a running gag to register as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” or some other alias whenever a sitcom plot needed to emphasize that an unmarried couple was checking into a motel for some quick afternoon delight. But thanks to decades of customers increasingly stealing from and vandalizing their rooms, most hotels and motels require a photo I.D. upon check-in, even if you are paying cash for your room and no credit card is involved.
10. Mutual Trust
The behavior of guests has apparently been deteriorating over the years—either that or hoteliers have simply developed more elaborate ways to ensure that great memories are the only thing a guest brings back home. It began when hotels started bolting down the lamps and television sets as a response to theft. Then warning signs began appearing in rooms, alerting guests that they would be charged for any missing towels, etc. Mini-bar security came next, with many hotels equipping their in-room minibars with sensors so that the customer is automatically charged any time an item is removed or even moved (which means that if you open the fridge to store your own beverages and happen to bump a can of their soda, you might be charged for it). Yet, with all these safeguards in place to protect the hotel from pilferage, customers’ belongings are not equally secure. Most hotels have policies (if not signs in the rooms) that state they cannot guarantee that anything left unattended in their guest rooms will still be there if the room is left unattended for any length of time.
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