10 Things You No Longer See in Hotels

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

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

Ron, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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