Albert Richard Smith was a writer who contributed to Punch and was known for his comedy writing, and also a few travel journals. In 1855, he wrote a little booklet titled The English Hotel Nuisance, which was an amusing diatribe against inns. At times it reads like it has been written by Victor Meldrew, although Smith was only in his thirties at the time of publication.
Let us first take, as an example of the harpy spirit brooding over most hotels, the elaborate and expensive process of washing one’s hands, which is as follows :
You go into the coffee room, and, previous to dining, wish to wash your hands. You ring the bell, and the waiter appears, to whom you communicate your wish. He says, “Hands, sir, yes — sir,” and goes away. After waiting a reasonable time you ring again. He then conducts you to the foot of the staircase, and calls up it to the chambermaid. You stand in expectancy with the waiter for a little while upon the rug, and then the chambermaid appears. She precedes you up some stairs, and down others, and along passages on different levels, and round corners, and at last introduces you to a bed-room. She next draws the bed-curtains, and pulls down the blind — not because such is wanted, but from mere mechanical habit, and then leaves you to your own devices, with some hard water that will curdle the soap, if it would dissolve; but you might as well wash with a bit of chalk, as with the singularly hard white cake in the soap-dish. There is one towel, damp and hard, and very like embossed pasteboard; and with these aids you make what toilet you may, and then come out to find the attendant waiting for her fee at the door. This is no exaggeration: I am certain there are few of my readers who will not bear me out in the truth of the picture…
Of inn soap— of that little inconvenient latherless cube of indurated composition which is a part and parcel of the old hotel system? What is it? Where is it bought? How is it made? What is supposed to be its use? Is it really soap, or cheese, or wax, or chalk, or gutta-percha, or cement, or all these things combined? If you try to wash with it in cold water, you might as well use a square of ivory — if you put it in warm, after a time a film collects about it, as we have seen about a dead perch in the well of a punt; but you will get no lather. And if, in your desperation, you try to rub it hard on your coarse single towel, its nipped-up cornerless form offers no hold; and slippery, without being saponaceous, at last it darts out of your hands, like a bullet, into a corner of the room, where you had better let it lie, and purchase some brown Windsor on your own account.
A couple of definitions of words that are less familiar nowadays: ‘indurated’ means ‘hardened like rock’ and ‘saponaceous’ means ‘soapy’.