Throughout history hotels have served as important public forums. They have played a vital role in local community life, as business exchanges, and as decorative showcases. During times of war, they have often been attacked or raided. However, with the rise of motor vehicles and passenger airplanes, the hotel industry has grown to become a substantial and fast-growing segment of the national economy.
The first American hotel appeared in the 1790s in cities along the Atlantic coast. The establishment of the transcontinental railroad made travel easier, and hotels were built along the river system. During the 19th century, hotels became the centerpieces of urban sociability and political activity. During a three-decade economic boom, commercial travel increased. The success of organized labor made vacations more affordable for millions of workers.
By the 1860s, hotels had sprung up in a number of Western settlements, as well as along the Pacific coast. These hotels tended to be built in areas where there was little available land, and the construction was typically characterized by wood or whitewash construction. These hotels were typically run by an elite group of merchant-capitalists, who sought to promote the commercial future of the agrarian republic.
The second period of hotel construction was fueled by the American transportation revolution. Railroads and automobiles dramatically changed the nation’s transportation regime, freeing long-distance travel from the river system and reconfiguring the nation’s transportation network. This reordered the hotel industry as well. As automobiles came to dominate travel, the hotel industry developed a new variant, known as the motel. During this period, hotels often offered free parking, which served as a resting place for travelers.
The 1870s marked the beginning of the hotel industry’s transition from its traditional mercantilist strategy to a more democratic and standardized model. As hotel proprietors became more involved in the community, they began to organize local trade associations and to publish specialized publications. They also built parks and recreation facilities in prominent European cities.
The success of organized labor made paid vacations a reality for millions of workers. Hotels also served as a terrain of conflict in domestic politics. In the 1860s, political factions often set up headquarters in these institutions. They held meetings, lobbied, and made speeches from the hotel’s windows.
In the twentieth century, hotels began to dominate the national landscape. The industry employed more than 1.4 million people, collected more than $100 billion per year, and operated more than 53,000 properties. As of 2015, American hotels had over 4 million guest rooms across the nation. In addition, they operated more than 5,000 hotels abroad.
The emergence of the Grand Tour gave a huge boost to the hotel industry. The popularity of the tour lasted several years and was an essential element of education for wealthy British families. These tours were often a long, multi-day event.
The twentieth-century hotel industry was a booming enterprise, and it benefited greatly from the uneven prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s. The hotel industry continued to grow in the 1990s, and by the turn of the century, it represented a substantial and fast-growing portion of the national economy.