The Early History of Hotels in the US Sounds a Lot Like Airbnb

In the 1700s, homes were often used for lodging

Hotel sign
The history of hotels in the U.S. and Canada goes to some interesting places.
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When booking a room while traveling to a new town or city, odds are good that you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. That’s not just in the “should I stay at a luxury hotel or opt for something more modest” sense of things; booking spaces via Airbnb and Vrbo is also in the cards for most municipalities. There, too, it’s not hard to see the contrasts available — staying in someone’s apartment versus staying in a hotel are, by definition, going to be wildly different experiences.

A trip back into the nation’s history reveals something interesting: it wasn’t always this way. Writing at JSTOR Daily, Livia Gershon ventured back into the history of hotels in North America, and finds that what qualified as a hotel hundreds of years ago sounds very similar to what we’d expect from Airbnb today.

Citing the work of historian A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Gershon points to the prevalence of public houses in the U.S. prior to the 1790s — spaces described as “repurposed private homes” where rooms might be shared with other travelers. If you’ve ever seen a listing for a couch in someone else’s apartment, try to imagine that situation over 200 years ago and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

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As Gershon points out, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, the U.S. began to see more of what we’d consider to be modern-day hotels. Given the number of rooms to book in private residences in 2023, however, it seems like history has come full circle — sometimes in unexpected ways.


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