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

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. 
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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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