One of the pleasures of digging through old newspapers is the way you occasionally stumble across something that illustrates just how foreign a country the past really is.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Washington Post ran a regular column under the charmingly Victorian title “People Met in Hotel Lobbies.”
(Or “Heard in Hotel Lobbies,” or “Men in Hotel Lobbies,” or just “In Hotel Lobbies.” The title floated around a bit over the years. But you get the idea.)
The premise of the column was pretty simple. Back then, before travel became a thing that the unwashed masses did on a regular basis, coming and going through hotel lobbies was the sort of thing that marked a person out as someone of significance, as a Man of Affairs. So the Post had reporters whose job was simply to hang out in the lobbies of the city’s fashionable hotels, interviewing anybody who happened to walk by, on the theory that if you were the sort of person who would be walking through a hotel lobby your opinions were probably worth recording.
Was that theory right? Having read through a fair few of these columns, I can report to you, Dear Reader, that it was not. This was before two World Wars made Washington the capital of the free world, and the people who pass through “In Hotel Lobbies” are for the most part dreary bores pursuing the sorts of business one would pursue in the provincial capital of a provincial nation: businessmen seeking adjustments to this law or that tariff, boosters of development projects trying to drum up backing for their latest scheme, local political nabobs come to kiss their party leaders’ rings.
They’re not all dross, though. Digging through the archives, every now and then you stumble across a story that jumps out at you. Some feature confident predictions that we in the far future know will turn out to be spectacularly right (or spectacularly wrong); others say more about their subject than either the reporter or interviewee realizes; others are simply warm, relatable human interest stories. Taken together, they provide a fascinating portrait of Washington life in the long, slow sunset of the Gilded Age.
I haven’t been able to review them all — the column ran for many years, and at its height was a daily feature, so there simply hasn’t been enough time. I wanted to give you a sample, though, so I’ve read through the “In Hotel Lobbies” columns published in 1889 and 1890 and picked out a few to highlight here. (If you’d like to read more, ask your local library if they have access to ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers database, which includes all issues of the Post published between 1877 and 2000.)
November 28, 1889: Chicago tailor A.M. Denny wants you to understand that American-made clothes are every bit as good as those made in England, thank you very G-D much.
November 29, 1889: M.L. Parvin, “a bright mulatto” of New Orleans, argues a way forward for African-Americans that would be echoed in Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” six years later.
January 24, 1890: Telegraph engineer T.P. Dowly explains one of the major challenges that had to be overcome to build a nationwide telegraph network — the tendency of buffalo to view the poles as heaven-sent scratching posts.
January 29, 1890: James O’Beirne, Civil War veteran of New York’s “Irish Rifles” (and a guy who led a pretty interesting life) explains his personal cure for the flu.
April 25, 1890: Thirty years before the Eighteenth Amendment brings Prohibition to the entire nation, S.W. Rathbun explains how it is going to go down.
May 3, 1890: Meet Ira Barnett of Louisville, Kentucky. He’s a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory.
June 1, 1890: Have you heard Confederate veteran J. L. Vandiver’s Civil War stories? Don’t worry; if you bump into him in a hotel lobby, you are going to.
June 12, 1890: The manager of Willard’s Hotel explains that what Washington most desperately needs is a hotel that doesn’t suck.
July 16, 1890: Moses Handy came all the way from Philadelphia just to get his booze on.
July 9, 1890: Charles A. Gordon of Mississippi offers an explanation for why African-Americans in his Jim Crow state don’t vote: they are lazy.
July 20, 1890: J.C. McKibben of Florida predicts that, one day, growing oranges in that state will be big business.
August 13, 1890: Never share a hotel suite with a political opponent, no matter how much you like him personally.
August 19, 1890: Caleb Walton West, former governor of the Utah Territory, explains that the days when the Mormons ran Utah are pretty much over.
August 23, 1890: “Leading lawyer” James Hamilton of Mississippi assures the reporter that, while Mississippians naturally want to keep African-Americans from voting, they would never do anything to achieve that end as outlandish as extending the vote to women.
September 2, 1890: Jacob Augustus Geissenhainer, Congressman from New Jersey, loses his hat. And the Post is on it.
September 3, 1890: The appearance of a foreigner in a Washington hotel lobby never goes without mention.
September 20, 1890: Thomas Jones, newly elected Governor of Alabama, tells an antebellum hotel lobby story of his own.
October 11, 1890: The Post throws some shade at visiting writer Laura Jean Libbey, the Stephenie Meyer of her day.
November 14, 1890: As of the 2010 census, the current population of Buena Vista, Virginia is 6,650.
November 15, 1890: A former House member laments the tendency of modern voters to think for themselves. (Some things never change.)