First Women-only Hotel Opens, in NYC in 1903
In her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” published in 1929, English novelist Virginia Woolf argued that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A hotel that opened in New York City 26 years before Woolf’s revolutionary remark had already established that if a woman had money, she could have her own room: the Martha Washington Hotel, the first hotel built exclusively for women, opened on March 2, 1903. Male guests were strictly banned.
There was an instant demand for the Martha Washington Hotel’s rooms when it first opened in Manhattan. The hotel allowed no male guests, no smoking, and no alcohol. A problem soon arose, however: although it opened with a nearly all-female staff, males soon had to be employed for certain jobs such as bellboys—and they objected to the female guests’ no-tipping policy.
As the following eight contemporary newspaper articles show, there was a range of reaction in the nation’s press to this new concept of a women-only hotel.
This article was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on March 25, 1903:
Martha Washington Hotel
Between three and four hundred women are now making themselves at home at the new Martha Washington Hotel for women on East Twenty-ninth street, New York. They moved in one night, bringing with them piles of baggage. “There were no exercises,” says the Sun. “The women walked in and took possession, just as calmly as a crowd of drummers or confirmed travelers might. Women of every description were there. They included professional women, women with their hair rolled back from high foreheads, women truly frivolous and feminine in fluffy sorts of evening frocks, women who carried lorgnettes [i.e., eyeglasses] and missed nothing, the shyer kind who shrank behind the shelter of some potted palm, women from Brooklyn, women from Terre Haute, working women and confessed idlers.”
This article was published by the New York Times and reprinted by the Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri) on May 10, 1903:
Life at the Woman’s Hotel
From the New York Times.
There are over 300 applications for rooms at the Martha Washington hotel on East Twenty-ninth street. A charming woman coming from Washington recently was a guest at the hotel for one evening. She said that it was impossible for her to eat her dinner in the dining room, as she had never seen so many women gathered together without the relief of a black coat. There was an orchestra and a gentle murmur of conversation. After dinner women thronged about the office and lobbies, and it seemed an Adamless Eden.
This article was published by the Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri) on Sept. 8, 1903:
This Is a ‘Tipless’ Hotel
The Martha Washington, at Which Only Women Are Guests
But the Difficulty of This New York Innovation Is That the Employees Won’t Stay Where They Cannot Make Extra Money
New York, Sept. 8.—The new Martha Washington hotel, which was built exclusively for women and receives no men guests under any circumstances, whatever, is having all kinds of trouble with its bell boys because the women guests will not give tips. The management at first employed girl “bell boys,” but the guests did not like them and they were found to be incompetent. So all the girls were discharged and boys employed. Now the management is perplexed over what step to take, for the boys will not remain. The entire force is changed nearly every week.
When the institution opened every employee under the roof, except the manager, the porters, the engineer, firemen and elevator conductors, were women. There were only about a dozen men about the place and they were necessary for work which women could not do. There was a woman bookkeeper, a woman cashier and all the waiters in the dining rooms were women.
The first innovation was a man for head waiter, because the woman who occupied that position could not enforce discipline among the girls, and then it became necessary to employ robust youths to carry the soiled dishes from the dining room to the kitchen because some of the tender-hearted guests declared that the work was too heavy for girls, but within the last few days all of the girl waiters struck because of some reason and were locked out. Their places have been filled with men, ordinary, cheap, professional hotel waiters, secured at the employment offices on Fourth avenue. It is not believed, however, that they will remain long, because they will doubtless make the same complaint as the bell boys, that women do not give tips. Thus far the kitchen has been run with women cooks without difficulty.
The Martha Washington hotel is a handsome new building of fireproof material, twelve stories high and furnished with every comfort and convenience, at a cost of ¾ million dollars. It will accommodate 500 guests.
This article was published by Portland Oregonian and reprinted by the Idaho Daily Statesman (Boise, Idaho) on Oct. 2, 1903:
What Bok Does
Men can get along without women, but women, it seems, cannot get along without men. The Martha Washington Hotel in New York, run for women only by women only, had to summon the friendly and efficient male. The girl bellboys, or bellgirls, sassed the customers, and had to be replaced with boys, and the head waitress couldn’t control her staff, so a man took her place. Now the hotel is run by men only for women only. The same thing is true of papers. All those for women only are run by men. Thousands of Americans would be drinking from finger-bowls and tucking napkins under their chins at table were it not for “E. Bok,” of the “Curtiss Pub. Co., Phila., Pa.”
This article was published by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on Oct. 31, 1903:
What Did She Want?
An angular looking woman went into the Martha Washington hotel and asked: “Is this the women’s hotel I have heard so much about?”
“It is,” answered the clerk.
“Do you let people smoke here?”
“We do not.”
“Do you keep a bar?”
“Can men come here and stay?”
“Do you permit dogs?”
“Under such regulations as hold good in first class hotels.”
“That’s all,” said the woman, as she turned away.
“Do you wish a room?” asked the clerk.
“I do not wish a room,” came the response, with emphasis.
That left the clerk wondering. Was she asking for mere curiosity? Did she decline a room because no drinks were served, and smoking not permitted? Would she go to no hotel where men were barred? “It beats me,” said the clerk, “and yet she was a very respectable looking old girl, too.”
This article was published by the Charlotte Daily Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina) on March 6, 1904:
The other evening the guests of the Martha Washington Hotel (where no man is ever allowed) who belong to the W.C.T.U. [i.e., Woman’s Christian Temperance Union] held an indignation meeting, on account of the suggestion emanating from other guests, not opposed to liquor, that drinks be added to the menu. Some of the more hopeful looked forward to the establishment of a barroom, which would be fitted up like a cozy corner and in which no man would be allowed. Others suggested that the best mixer of fancy drinks to be obtained in the city should be employed, but alas for the hopes of those who desired stimulating beverages, the manager interrupted the meeting by declaring that such a thing as the establishment of a bar with polished glasses and mirrors or the selling of drinks in the Martha Washington Hotel had never been contemplated for a moment. Tea and toast will continue to be the only intoxicants dispensed in the feminine caravansary, and the fair guests who crave stimulants will have to continue to smuggle them in their muffs.
This article was published by the Springfield Daily Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts) on April 12, 1904:
Note and Comment
Guests of the Martha Washington women’s hotel in New York City put out a promising blaze in a trunk-room on the 11th floor, Sunday, by bringing their full water-pitchers, and dousing the flames, which in five minutes would have got beyond such control. The battalion fire chief, when he came, complimented the women, said they ought to organize a fire brigade, and that they had set an example to all tenants of apartment hotels. And yet it is regarded as a strong objection to women’s voting that they cannot act efficiently in emergencies and are lacking in fighting courage. Men could have done no better work than the Martha Washington hotel women—and the chances are they would never have thought of the pitchers.
This article was published by the Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) on April 25, 1904:
Not a Place for Honeymoons
Manhattan’s Martha Washington Hotel Puts Ban on Such Patronage
New York, April 25.—A slender girl in dove-color clothes and a tall young man with a slouch hat and two valises, who said they were from Boston, went into the Martha Washington Hotel yesterday and asked the clerk for the “rate card.”
“Dollar, dollar’n half, two an’ two’n half,” rattled the clerk.
“All right,” said the man with the slouch hat, “two’ll do, I reckon.”
“How long do you want to stay?” asked the man at the desk.
“Just a week,” replied the girl.
“Any baggage to be attended to?” the clerk wanted to know.
Two checks were produced and handed over to the porters.
“Now about meals?” asked the man with the slouch hat.
The clerk explained these matters and then asked the man:
“Would you like to accompany the lady to her room with her baggage?”
“Would I like w-w-what?” questioned the slouch-hatted man.
“That is permitted. You may go up and see the apartment if you wish,” said the clerk.
“Well, I reckon I may,” said the guest. “What do you think I come here for if I can’t even see my own room?”
“Your room?” gasped a woman who had called for her key. “Your room! Do you know where you are?”
“Thought this was a hotel, madam,” said the man with a low bow.
“That’s what it is,” said the spinster. “That’s just what it is. A ladies’ hotel.”
“There’s a mistake,” said the clerk. “I thought the gentleman was arranging for the lady’s room.”
“Well, why can’t she stay here?” demanded the tall man with a touch of anger.
Some Missouri Idiom
“She can, but you can’t. It is against our rules. We don’t receive gentlemen.”
“Well, what kind of a town is this?” demanded the stranger. “I come from Boston. Maybe you think you can all do things like that away down here, but you’ve got to show me. I ain’t been married but four days an’ I reckon we ain’t goin’ to separate now. Come on, Dolly; we will go elsewhere.”
And they went.
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