I love the the Roaring Twenties. This was an amazing era in American history, when what we think of as modern life really began.
The Saranac Lake Laboratory Museum has a new exhibit which features the experience of staying at a 1920’s hotel. This activity, commonplace to most of us, was relatively new to people back then, along with cars, home appliances, and talking on the telephone.
This exhibit was designed to celebrate the complete updating of the Hotel Saranac, which first opened in 1927, and will be grandly re-opening this fall.
“Now be sure to ring the bell,” my guide said, ushering me to the door of the exhibit room. “Because there’s a bellhop there.”
Soft period music is playing as I enter the lobby. There’s a lifesize image of the bellboy and an actual hotel registration book from Paul Smith's Adirondack Club. I would have signed this book with a fountain pen. There were no ballpoint pens until after World War II.
The wallpaper and potted palms reflect the art deco style of the time, with bold geometrics and bright colors. New manufacturing processes allowed for more exacting shapes, and the recently ended World War I "dye famine" had opened the United States to color once again. Everything looked new and exciting.
This style might be more familiar to us than we might have realized, since it was used around the world to decorate the great movie palaces of the late 1920s and 1930s, some of which still exist. Movies of that time period also were highly stylized examples of the home decorating and fashions of the time.
Vacation traveling was something new for most of America. Once automobiles became inexpensive enough for ordinary people to own, and there were enough roads to drive them on, people went places. They needed someplace to stay when they got there.
One of the things I always emphasize when I discuss historic hotels is warning people that the standard rooms were smaller back in 1927 (Which is why the Hotel Saranac now has suites available). But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t luxury in abundance; there was.
Then and now, vacations were a time to be pampered. The hotel of the Twenties was all about giving this to their guests.
One of the differences between now and then is the employee ratio. People in the typical Roaring Twenties hotel could have reveled in an astounding one-to-one exployee-to-guest ratio. Quite a difference from the usual experience of today, which can seemed designed to minimize any human intervention.
From the bellboy (who could be any age) taking up the bags and running errands, to the fully staffed, on-premises hair salon, barbershop, and shoeshine stand, all the way to the full service dining room (including room service) and the housekeeping staff, a cleaning army in itself.
In the bedroom exhibit, ladies can see what they would have looked like in the flapper style, which was considered incredibly daring at the time. It was scandalous when women bobbed their hair and rolled their stockings down, much less their new habits of public smoking and drinking.
Where did they drink? With Prohibition in full bloom, everyone had to find a speakeasy. Turns out, during the Hotel Saranac renovations, the construction crews found what looked like hints of their basement speakeasy. But of course, that was a secret. One every hotel, B&B, and inn around town kept for each other.
You will have to find the speakeasy exhibit for yourself. But no password is required for this one.
Ripples still spreading
There's so much more to this exhibit, and each one has echoes in our own times. Roaring Twenties hotels were highly restrictive to our modern sensibilities, turning away people of color, people of the Jewish faith, and even people who had tuberculosis. (Yes, even in Saranac Lake.)
Yet there were small signs of the great changes to come. Every hotel would have a ballroom, and everyone wanted to know the hot new dances. This was the first time a hint of jazz went national. These were the Jazz Babies, after all. And jazz was the baby of African-American musicians.
Women had gotten the vote in New York state in 1917, and soon the whole nation would let women vote. The ladies of the 1920s were throwing open these doors, and running through them as fast as they could.
I was so impressed with the whole exhibit, with such interesting snapshots of the times, that I interviewed Amy Catania, Executive Director of Historic Saranac Lake. I expressed how impressed I was with the presentation and the extensive research.
"Thanks so much for your interest! I'm so glad you liked it. I really enjoyed learning more about the history of hotels in America, and specifically in Saranac Lake. Understanding the past really helps illuminate the present. Humanities New York supported consultation with a scholar of hotel history and another expert in 1920s fashions. The grant allowed us to write a clear and engaging exhibit script that challenges visitors to think about interesting topics in 1920s history."
"One of the most fun things about this exhibit was working with area artists. Kent Streed, from Pendragon Theatre, who is one of the most creative people around, helped us brainstorm many of the fun elements of the exhibit. He stood in the room with us when the exhibit was just an idea in our heads, and he had one vision after another about how to bring the exhibit to life, from the silhouettes around the room, to the dance floor, to the speakeasy.
Then our friend Tom Seymour came in with his carpentry skills and built these partitions that allowed us to break the room into various spaces to explore. After that it was time to bring in the visual artists. We worked with three different artists — teacher Maria De Angelo; Morgan Paul, a student artist at Alfred University; and high school student Hannah Gochenauer. They all did wonderful work bringing the room to life.
We are really proud of how it turned out, and we couldn't have done it without the talents of so many artistic Saranac Lakers."
I was very sorry to leave this magical time and return to my own. I’m sure actually living back then had its own share of challenges and difficulties, as every era does. But in this one, it had a lot of focus on fun, which everyone is used to thinking of as a very modern concept.
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