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. 

Britain Is Forming a Modern Version of the 'Monuments Men'—and It's Recruiting

John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray in 'The Monuments Men' (2014)
John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray in 'The Monuments Men' (2014)
Claudette Barius, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

During World War II, an international group of Allied art scholars, museum experts, archivists, and other conservationists known as the Monuments Men were sent to the front lines, tasked with locating and protecting cultural artifacts at risk of being lost to the ravages of combat. They were responsible for saving tens of thousands of priceless works of art in Europe—like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—from being destroyed by bombs or stolen by Nazis during the last years of the war.

Now, a new generation of experts will be tasked with doing the same in the face of modern wars. The British military is putting together a 15-person Cultural Property Protection Unit to protect art and archaeological artifacts in war zones from destruction, according to The Telegraph.

Recent wars in places like Syria and Iraq have put a huge number of priceless artifacts and artworks in danger. Smugglers use the chaos of war as cover to loot and sell ancient artifacts and other cultural heritage items stolen from from archaeological sites and museums on the international black market. The Islamic State finances at least part of its operations through the sale of stolen antiquities pillaged from sites under the group’s control, including the Mosul Museum, where militants reduced a huge number of rare artifacts to rubble and sold off others in the two years before Iraqi forces were able to take back the city.

The new group will investigate looting, prosecute smugglers, and gather information about endangered cultural heritage sites for the British government and its allies (to ensure that military forces don’t knowingly drop bombs on them). The Cultural Property Protection Unit is still in the nascent stages, though. It’s currently comprised of just one member, Tim Purbrick—a lieutenant colonel in the British Army—and is seeking to add experts on art, archaeology, and art crime.

There are already a few special forces dedicated to preserving art and cultural heritage items elsewhere in the world. Britain’s new task force will add to the work of groups like Italy’s Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri TCP), which has been investigating smuggling, forgery, damage to monuments, and other art crimes in Italy and beyond since 1969.

[h/t The Telegraph]

The Rise and Fall of 5 Claimed Mediums

Boston Public Library // Public Domain
Boston Public Library // Public Domain

In the late 19th and early 20th century, spiritualism was all the rage. People were looking for answers and comfort after the Civil War, so they turned to mediums and séances for spiritual guidance. The religious movement had such a pull that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer. Despite its popularity, many debunkers argued that it had little legitimacy—alleged mediums were con artists who took advantage of the emotionally vulnerable and drained them of all their funds. Perhaps most surprising of all is that what turned into an enormous religious following started out as a simple prank pulled by two preteen girls.

1. THE FOX SISTERS

The Fox Sisters
Emma Hardinge Britten, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In late March of 1848, Margaret Fox, a farmer’s wife living in Hydesville, New York, with her daughters, began to hear noises. These knocking sounds, she decided, could not have been human and certainly were not produced by her children. The mysterious banging became so maddening that she invited her neighbor in to hear for herself. Although skeptical, the neighbor humored the woman and huddled into a small room with Margaret and her two young girls, Maggie and Kate. The mother would ask questions that would be answered with a series of knocks, or as they would later be called, “rappings.” By the end of the night, both the mother and neighbor were convinced that Maggie and Kate were mediums, with the ability to communicate with the other side.

Soon their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester, New York, got involved. Hearing of the girls’ otherworldly “powers,” the eldest sister saw dollar signs and promptly booked sessions for people looking to communicate with the dead. Their act took off, and soon the girls were touring the country. Maggie eventually found love while on the road, and settled down with an adventurer named Elisha Kent Kane. Kane convinced her to give up spiritualism, which she did until his untimely death in 1857. Meanwhile, Kate married a fellow spiritualist and fine-tuned her act. She was so successful in her deception that respected chemist William Crookes wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Science in 1874 that he thoroughly tested Kate and was convinced the sounds were true occurrences and not a form of trickery.

The façade went on for decades, until 1888 when Maggie finally spoke up. After her husband had died, she was left penniless and alone, and had turned to drinking. She wrote a letter to the New York World confessing her and her sister’s trickery prior to a demonstration at the New York Academy of Music. “I have seen so much miserable deception! Every morning of my life I have it before me. When I wake up I brood over it. That is why I am willing to state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description,” she wrote.

She then explained that the mysterious thumping was the result of an apple tied to a string that the sisters would drop to torment their mother. At the New York Academy of Music, with her sister Kate in the audience, Maggie demonstrated her tricks to a raucous crowd of skeptics and staunch believers. She put her bare foot on a stool and showed how she could bang the stool with her big toe, producing the famous rapping noise. The Spiritualist world took a hit, but continued to persist. The same could not be said for the Fox sisters' careers. Although Maggie recanted her confession a year later—likely due to her poverty—the sisters were never trusted again and they both died penniless.

2. THE DAVENPORT BROTHERS

Photograph of the Davenport Brothers in front of their spirit cabinet
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Fox sisters may have burned out by the end of their career, but that didn't stop a slew of copy-cats and spin-off performers. Ira and William Davenport of Buffalo, New York, were inspired by the rappings of the Fox sisters and decided to try a session of their own with their father. Their session was so chilling (they would later claim their sister actually levitated) that they decided to make a show. In 1855, 16-year-old Ira and 14-year-old William got on stage for the first time. With the help of their spirit guide, a ghost named Johnny King, they performed a number of elaborate tricks that went past simple rappings; often bells, cabinets, ropes, and floating instruments would be utilized in the performance. Members of the audience would swear they saw instruments fly over their heads, or feel ghostly hands on their shoulders. The brothers were heralded as true mediums and enjoyed fame for the rest of their professional careers. After William passed away in 1877, Ira gave up the medium business for a quieter life.

He was not heard from again until magician Harry Houdini sought him out years later. The two became friends and Ira let him in on a few of his tricks, including one called "The Tie Around the Neck" that not even Ira’s children knew. The surviving Davenport told Houdini all about the tricks and trouble that went into keeping their secret, including reserving the front row for their friends and hiring numerous accomplices. Interestingly, some of their greatest tricks didn’t involve any work. Reports of flying instruments and mysterious sensations were purely delusions of the audience members. “Strange how people imagine things in the dark! Why, the musical instruments never left our hands yet many spectators would have taken an oath that they heard them flying over their heads,” Davenport told Houdini.

3. EVA CARRIÈRE

A photo of Eva Carrière regurgitating ectoplasm
Boston Public Library // Public Domain

Now armed with the secrets of the Davenport Brothers, as well as his own experiences as a medium in his younger days, Houdini set out to expose fraudulent mediums throughout the 1920s. He had initially believed that although it was all fake, it didn't harm anyone. The death of his mother made him realize the harm these fraudsters were really doing, and so Houdini set out to reveal their tricks. One such huckster was Eva Carrière.

As detailed in Houdini’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Carrière was a medium known for her ability to produce a mysterious substance called ectoplasm from a number of orifices. Carrière, with the help of her assistant and alleged lover Juliette Bisson, would be stripped down and searched to prove there was nothing on her person. She would then let Bisson put her in a trance, where Houdini said he was certain she was truly asleep. After some time, she would conjure up ectoplasm from her mouth that looked “like a colored cartoon and seemed to have been unrolled.” Houdini left feeling underwhelmed and unconvinced.

Still, Carrière seemed to hold many in her trance. A researcher named Albert von Schrenck-Notzing spent several years—1909 to 1913—working with her, and by the end, he was completely convinced. He published his findings and photographs in his book Phenomena of Materialisation. Ironically, this book ended up being Carrière's undoing: A skeptic named Harry Price wrote that the pictures proved that the faces seen in the medium’s ectoplasm were actually regurgitated cut-outs from the French magazine Le Miroir.

4. ANN O’DELIA DISS DEBAR

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar had gone through many monikers and identities in her lifetime, but according to Houdini [PDF], she started as Editha Salomen, born in Kentucky in 1849 (others claim she was named Delia Ann Sullivan and born in 1851). She left home at 18 and somehow convinced the high society of Baltimore that she was of European aristocracy. “Where the Kentucky girl with her peculiar temperament and characteristics could possibly have secured the education and knowledge which she displayed through all her exploits I am at a loss to understand,” Houdini wrote. Regardless, Salomon was extremely successful in her con artistry and managed to cheat Baltimore’s wealthiest out of a quarter million dollars. Claiming that funds were tied up in foreign banks, it was easy to drain potential suitors out of money and luxury.

After a quick stint at an insane asylum for trying to kill a doctor, Salomen took up hypnotism and married a man of slow wit named General Diss Debar. As Ann O’Delia Diss Debar and a general’s wife (although modern scholarship says that he wasn't a general and they weren't ever actually married), she found that people were eager to trust her. She took advantage of this trust when she met a successful lawyer named Luther R. Marsh, who had just lost his wife. After convincing him that she was a skilled medium, Diss Debar persuaded him to turn over his home on Madison Avenue, which she then turned into a spiritualistic temple and successful business. The swindler created spirit paintings, which, through sleight of hand, seemed to appear out of nowhere on blank canvases, as if the spirits painted them.

These paintings eventually landed Diss Debar in legal trouble when Marsh invited the press to come and see them. In 1888, the so-called medium was hauled into court for deceiving Marsh and swindling him out of house and home. Many testified against Diss Debar, including her own brother, but the most convincing participant was professional Carl Hertz, who was called in to disprove her trickery. With ease, he replicated each of Diss Debar’s tricks, and performed some that not even she could do. Satisfied that the woman was a fraud, the state incarcerated her for six months at Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

Despite all this, Marsh continued to believe in spiritualism. Unfortunately for Diss Debar, he seemed like the only one—she attempted to resurrect her career, but was unsuccessful, later being hauled back into court for charges of debt a year after her release. She traveled between London and America for years, going in and out of prison, before finally disappearing for good in 1909.

As Houdini put it harshly:

“Ann O’Delia Diss Debar’s reputation was such that she will go down in history as one of the great criminals. She was no credit to Spiritualism; she was no credit to any people, she was no credit to any country—she was one of these moral misfits which every once in awhile seem to find their way into the world. Better for had she died at birth than to have lived and spread the evil she did.”

5. MINA CRANDON

Mina Crandon in 1924
Malcolm Bird, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the 1920s, Mina Crandon (also known as Margery, or the Blonde Witch of Lime Street) was one of the most well-known and controversial mediums of her time. Born in Canada to a farmer, Margery moved to Boston and took up a number of careers, working as a secretary, an actress, and an ambulance driver. After divorcing her first husband, she married Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a surgeon who studied at Harvard. It was the doctor who introduced her to spiritualism and eventually led her down the path to becoming a medium.

Margery was a friendly, pretty woman, but the ghost of her brother Walter was much less charming. The medium would conjure his spirit, who would then rap out messages, tip over tables, and yell at the participants. Often ectoplasm would ooze from her ears, nose, mouth, and dress. The mysterious substance sometimes took the form of a hand and supposedly rang bells or touched the participants. Her performance was so convincing that it attracted the Boston elite and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As her popularity soared, her prayers were even read by the U.S. Army.

In 1923, Harry Houdini joined a panel of scientists formed by The Scientific American to find a true medium. The prize for convincing them was $5000. The panel was quite convinced with Margery and was gearing up to give her the money for her legitimacy. Houdini wanted to take a look at the medium for himself, and in 1924, headed to Boston.

When the séance began, Houdini sat next to Margery with their hands joined and feet and legs touching. Earlier that day, the skeptic had worn a bandage around his knee all day, making it extremely sensitive to the touch. The heightened sensitivity helped him feel Margery move as she used her feet to grab various props during the act. After figuring out the scheme, Houdini was convinced of the fraud and wanted to go public. Despite his confidence, the rest of the panel remained uncertain, putting off the decision. By October, The Scientific American published an article explaining the panel was hopelessly divided. The hesitation angered both Houdini and Margery’s spirit. “Houdini, you goddamned son of a bitch,” Walter screamed. "Get the hell out of here and never come back. If you don't, I will."

By November, Houdini circulated a pamphlet called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium "Margery." He then put on performances recreating Margery’s tricks for the amusement of skeptics. Humiliated and without prize money, Margery made a prediction in 1926. “Houdini will be gone by Halloween,” Walter declared. Coincidentally, Houdini did die that October 31 from peritonitis.

Margery and her prickly ghost brother may have gotten the last laugh, but by 1941, her reputation was in ruins from Houdini’s mockery. Still, she never confessed to her trickery, even on her deathbed.

Additional sources: Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Arno, 1972.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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