Imperfect Idyll: Remembering A Vacation That Made History

The Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published July 01, 2008, issue of July 11, 2008.
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Many of us tend to think of our vacation as an inalienable right, up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But history suggests otherwise, making it abundantly clear that the vacation is a social institution much like any other, subject to bias and prejudice, nastiness and ill will. The site of unfettered expression — of release — turns out to be the site of multiple constraints as well.

NO VACANCY: Well-known New York banker Joseph Seligman was among those ‘expelled’ from the Grand Union.
NO VACANCY: Well-known New York banker Joseph Seligman was among those ‘expelled’ from the Grand Union.

The Seligman family learned this the hard way in June 1877, when, as in years past, they prepared to settle in for the summer season at the storied Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., only to be told there was no room at the inn. When, dumbfounded by the news, Joseph Seligman, a well-known New York City banker, sought an explanation, he was informed that Judge Henry Hilton, the hotel’s proprietor, had recently instituted a brand-new policy of refusing to accept Jews as guests, a decision prompted by economics rather than theology, or so he claimed.

Attributing a recent decline in the Grand Union’s popularity to its hosting too many Jews — and the wrong kind of Jews, at that — Hilton took steps to reverse the situation. As he explained to The New York Times, the “Grand Union Hotel shall be run for the best class of American summer guests; and that as these people do not like to associate with Jews of the Seligman type, and will not patronize a hotel where, out of etiquette or necessity, they are compelled to be in their company. This class of Jews must stay away.” It was as simple as all that.

Seligman’s “expulsion,” as the papers called it, as well as that of the Goldmans, the Landmans, the Josephthals, the Kochs and other American Jewish families who were also refused accommodations at the Grand Union, mushroomed into a cause célèbre; public interest in the affair ran high, as did the American Jewish community’s indignation, to which it unhesitatingly gave voice.

The sight of two powerful men squaring off against each other undoubtedly fueled a hunger for details. But, so, too, did the story’s larger significance: how America fell short of its much vaunted promise of equality across the board. The Seligman imbroglio appeared to make a mockery of that promise, raising the possibility that when it came down to it, the New World was no better than the Old. “It seems as if the air from inquisitorial Spain were being wafted to this clime, and our wanted tolerance but a boast,” one contemporary eyewitness declared. Another wondered what Europe would think.

Comments like these, as well as observations that likened Hilton to a “new Torquemada” and decried his behavior as “un-American,” underscored the belief that Seligman was the aggrieved party, the real gentleman and the hotelier a bully of the worst sort, whose actions were simply not to be countenanced in modern America.

So, too, did a broadside that cast the contretemps as a boxing match: “Extra! Great Fight at Saratoga Between Hilton & Seligman,” read its headline, while the body of the text took the form of a song, “The Hebrews Need Not Apply.”

The song that I am going to sing you,
Is a new one I’m sure you will agree,
It will tell you the latest that’s happened,
In a country which people call free.
If a man to the country is going,
In a hotel for to stop, he will try,
But the clerk he will smile, and will say,
That the Hebrews they need not apply!

All the same, expressions of support for Seligman were more than matched by expressions of support for his opponent and, more startlingly still, by a flood of rather brutish remarks about the putative shortcomings of the Jews. No longer kept under wraps, the nation’s anti-Jewish animus came tumbling forth that summer in 1877. It wasn’t just that the table manners of the Jews left something to be desired, or that their menfolk “swaggered,” or their womenfolk wore diamonds in the morning. As the pseudonymous “J” wrote to the editor of The New York Times in defense of Hilton, the Jew was “disagreeable, obtrusive, gaudy and insolent…. Add to these the lack of cleanliness which marks so many of the race and the petty avarice which has always distinguished it, it is not to be wondered at that Judge Hilton should have attempted to banish from the Union a class whose presence made that better custom impossible… I, for one, wish him every success.”

In the end, Hilton stood his ground, Seligman took his “custom” elsewhere, and American Jewry came face to face with the limits of social acceptance on the tennis court and in the hotel dining room. But not everyone came away disillusioned and disheartened, with faith in America shaken. On the contrary. Some, like the editors of The Galaxy: A Magazine of Entertaining Reading, insisted that something positive had come of the whole mess. “The Seligman affair carries a suggestion of Jewish freedom,” it wrote. “The Jew had once to bear his wrongs…. Now, however, he claims his hotel rights as a man and brother…. America, despite the Hilton-Seligman affair, is still the Jews’ land of liberty.”

Let’s hope the Seligmans and the Goldmans, the Landsmans, the Josephthals and the Kochs agreed.

Great Fight at Saratoga Between Hilton & Seligman is currently on view at the American Jewish Historical Society/Center for Jewish History in New York City. For more information, please visit www.ajhs.org.


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