From housekeeping service to a Bible in the nightstand drawer, there’s a standard set of amenities you can expect to find in most American hotels. We can chalk up housekeeping to hospitality and Bibles to the Gideons, but what about ice machines—how did these hulking apparatuses come to be so common in the alcoves of American hotel hallways? Sure, ice is theoretically useful, but who decided that hotel guests must have free access to it at all times?
Major credit goes to Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inn. The original Holiday Inn, which opened in 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee, was the first hotel to offer free ice to guests via the ice machine. Wilson was frustrated by the upcharges and additional fees he encountered when traveling—yes, hotels once had the nerve to charge for ice—so he decreed that ice would be free for all guests in his hotels. He was also, importantly, an early proponent of franchising, envisioning a chain of hotels where guests could expect the same services whether they were in Miami or Milwaukee. As more Holiday Inns opened in subsequent years and each one was equipped with ice machines, the trend gradually spread across the nation.
That’s just the tip of the ice cube, though. The deeper question of why there was such a hankering for ice in the first place, so strong that a new hotel would make its ice machines one of its major selling points, goes back to America’s long love affair with ice. It’s a truism that Americans love ice more than people from other countries; according to historians, the obsession developed gradually throughout the 19th century along with the growing availability of ice.
Hotels have also had a longstanding interest in ice. When industrial-size ice machines were introduced in the 1890s, in the days before modern refrigeration, hotels—along with dairies and breweries—were among the first businesses to embrace them. Not wanting to be at the mercy of the natural ice industry (in which ice was harvested out of lakes and ponds and transported all over the country—like in the movie Frozen), hotels installed ice machines that would be able to provide the stuff on demand for all their varied icy needs: keeping food fresh, making ice cream, serving cocktails, helping guests cool down via the tried and true ice-to-forehead method, and more. Back then, you’d have to ring up room service for the stuff; thanks to Wilson, you can now go get it yourself.
Explainer thanks Heather Balsley, senior vice president of Americas brand management for the InterContinental Hotels Group, and Jonathan Rees, history professor at Colorado State University–Pueblo and author of Refrigeration Nation.
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