"THE GOLDEN KEYS
THE HOTEL PORTER IN HISTORY

The first literary work to contain a rebuke from the master to his doorman dates back to the time of Homer, in the first canto of his Odyssey, where we can find Telemaco, Ulysses' son, complaining that the Goddess Athena, whom the custodian had not recognized, had been stopped at the doors of the palace.

It was not until the sometime after the birth of Christ that certain buildings were adapted so as to be used as hotels, in particular during the reigns of the Emperors Augustus, Domitian and Aurelian. These inns or stations were usually situated at all the principal halting places along the Roman roads and here traders, soldiers and travellers, though only those bearing special permits, could find a change of horses, food, or stay the night. This service, organized by the Imperial administration, became progressively more and more efficient.

A praefectus praetorianus, who represented the authority of the state, played and important part in the general organization of the hotels and postal service in Roman times; this personage, if we consider his power over the hotel community, could be compared today to a modern hotel manager. Another important official was the praefectus machinarum, who was in charge of the various pieces of equipment in the building and, in a vague sort of way, was rather like the hotel porter of today.

He was supposed to act as a custodian, organize provisions, changes of horses and see to the maintenance of the hotel buildings and furnishings. His staff was composed of stablemen, postillions and veterinary surgeons, as well as ordinary labourers.

After the fall of the Empire, the hotel organization and the postal service were completely eliminated by the disorganization that followed the barbaric invasions and Charlemagne was the only ruler who tried to reconstruct, in his kingdom at least, a fairly functional organization that, however, did not survive him. There was no real need, during the rest of the Middle Ages, when travelling and trade were much less widespread than in the past, to set up a similar organization.

The duties of hospitality however were encouraged by Christianity and therefore carried out by the great religious institutions: in fact all the abbeys had lodgings for guests while one of the monks was charged with receiving guests at the door and accompanying them to the refectory and bedrooms.

During this period the governors of the castles, often threatened by enemy attacks, were forced to keep a guard who kept watch in a sentry box situated above the castle gates. The custom of warning custodians not to open the gates before having first identified the visitor and to bar the gates at night, dates back to this wary diffidence of the 15th century.

The word "Concierge" - still used for doormen in modern French - is possibly derived from the Latin word "conversus", though many glottologists believe it comes from a corruption of Comte de Giorges, the title given to the royal officer in charge of the Conciergerie du Palais, which was already a position of great responsability and prestige in the 14th century. In later years this title was also given to a new kind of porter, first to those employed at the houses of the nobility and, later still, to all custodians.

In the 12th century the guardian of the Public Palace and the Palace of the Royal Governor of Paris was a magistrate whose jurisdiction also covered the land surrounding the palaces that they were in charge of; they more or less became officers of public security and registrars because they knew all about the various births, marriages and deaths, as well as crimes, that took place in the palace.

A law of 1359 gave this concierge formal powers that included rights of inspection and surveillance. A later ruling of 1374 confirmed the privileges and powers that came with this only apparently humble post which became more and more appraised because it required great tact. Emperor Charles V reserved this position for one of his most favourite personal councillors.

Under King Charles IV of France, the profession of the hotelier could no longer be carried out by just anyone; the king ruled that they must have a permit which had strict regulations: hoteliers were forbidden, at the threat of dire punishment, to take in beggars, people who owned no property, smugglers or other lawless persons; hoteliers also had to use staff who were capable of proper surveillance.

During the Middle Ages, the hotel porter, a prerogative of the wealthy houses, was considered a luxury and could not be found in middle class houses. When the grouping together of several different middle class houses in the same building became common practice - in other words, buildings composed of several floors divided up into single flats, a new kind of porter was introduced who had to see to the maintenance of the buildings as well as welcome visitors on their arrival. The porters represented the proprietor: their rights and duties were prescribed by strict regulations and varied over the centuries. The use of the door bell - an instrument that is closely linked to the functions of the custodian - took a long time to catch on and even today we can still find many doors still have their original knockers, not just in the country, but also in the large cities, including Paris.

Nowadays the reputation of porters in middle class houses is often, quite unfairly, a bad one. This profession requires a responsible character by day and by night that often comes close to slavery; porters are often housed in airless lodgings and tend, like most subordinates when allowed a little authority, to be somewhat tyrannical. They are often accused of being over-curious, gossipmongering and slanderous.

This rather unattractive portrait of the porter of private houses has become a comparison to be avoided for hotel porters who have to be gifted with discretion, courtesy, optimism, immediate understanding and always ready to act. A mistake or rudeness can lead to the cliente leaving in a huff and damaging the hotel's image; the concierge should be able to imagine his clients' needs and carry them out almost before being asked.

The French traveller Marcel Chabrot, on his return from a journey he made in central Europe at the beginning of this century, tells us for example that in the Russian city of Dvorniks foreigners had to be registered by the porters at the hotels or in private houses; strangers were unable to get a permit to leave the town again unless the porter certified that they had paid all their debts. They stood on guard by night and day though sometimes, as in Vienna, the porters would not open the door at all if it was very late, though they could change their minds if offered a sizeable tip.

Therefore the hotel porter of today, with his obscure origins and variagated history, after acting as a magistrate, official of public or ecclesiastical security, carries out duties of great responsability. Progress, the development of tourism and business affairs, new inventions and the evolution of technology have brought about duties that were completely unknown in the past.

However, even today, the porter is often an old member of the hotel staff who started working there when very young. When we remember all the questions he is asked, all the problems that he has to resolve and all the people he needs to know in a wide variety of fields, it is clear young people who choose this profession must be given the chance to specialise properly and form a good cultural background.

When the importance of the role of the porter within the modern hotel organization and the complex problems that are involved in this service are finally recognized, then only people possessing specific talents will be accepted for this job and we will no longer have porters who make mistakes or are uncourteous, however unintentionally.

Everyone now knows that the hotel porter is no longer the liveried doorman of the past, but a man of great experience and one of the most important heads of staff in the hotel. If young people intending to start out in this profession are properly prepared for it, the image of the hotel organizatione can only gain in prestige.

(taken from "The hotel porter - innovation and tradition")


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