A brief history of hotels’ photographic darkrooms

Nuisance of the Kodak Fiend
“Nuisance of the Kodak Fiend,” Los Angeles Herald, Aug. 7, 1899.

Deciding on a hotel to stay in, you’re likely to look for a gym, a business center, a continental breakfast or a pool. But a darkroom for guests?

That’s right, it’s a thing. Or, at least, it was once.

I was introduced to the idea by a passage in “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” (Amazon link), and had to look further.

Author Erik Larson writes (pp. 244-245):

… Holmes provided none of the common areas — the libraries, game parlors, and writing rooms — that the big hotels like the Richelieu and Metropole and the nearby New Julien offered as a matter of routine. Nor did he supply the darkroom facilities that hotels closest to Jackson Park had begun installing to serve the growing number of amateur photographers, so-called “Kodak fiends,” who carried the newest portable cameras.

Though I’m familiar with the term “Kodak fiend,” and I know of many a photojournalist who’s worked with film and paper in a hotel bathroom, I’d never imagined a true darkroom as a hotel amenity.

With some research, though, I discovered the trend goes back further than I’d imagined.

As early as the 1850s, traveling photographers had left such a mark that innkeepers would retain stained sheets and towels from their visits to make them available for future photographer-guests.

In his “Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography” (Amazon link), John Hannavy writes (p. 383):

[William Henry Fox] Talbot, like many other travelling (sic) photographers who came after him throughout the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, thought nothing of converting hotel bedrooms into makeshift darkrooms for the preparation and later development of their materials. Indeed, innkeepers in the 1850s were known to keep towels and bed-linen, already stained with silver nitrate, for when photographers came to stay.

Around the time of the American Civil War, wet-plate photography was state-of-the-art. This required a darkroom in situ, however, because the plates had to stay, well, wet. Many photographers created these portable darkrooms in the backs of wagons, using them to travel right to the locations they photographed.

But within just a couple of decades, those trends drove hotels to add fully outfitted darkrooms. According to “The Photographic Experience, 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes” (Amazon link), by Heinz K. and Bridget Ann Henisch (p. 422):

As early as 1888, the Philadelphia Photographer reported that the owner of several establishments on the island of Madeira had set up a darkroom in each; a year later, another journal printed the names of North American hotels that made the same provisions for their guests. The list had lengthened noticeably by the time The American Annual of Photography for 1901 drew up for its readers a nationwide, state-by-state survey of “Hotels Having Dark-Rooms for the Convenience of Tourist Photographers.”

You can read that 1901 list on Google Books. Even earlier, other magazines were starting to compile similar lists, such as this one published by The Photographic Times and American Photographer in 1889.

In May, 1902, under the heading “An International Signboard,” Camera Craft magazine published a note about an worldwide effort to create a symbol, easily posted by hoteliers with darkroom facilities, that photographers would recognize.

Of course, they weren’t perfect. One complaint in particular was that lighting was inconsistent and, in some cases, incorrect. Improperly lensed safelights could fog film and ruin plates. In an 1892 article titled “Letter From Germany,” on page 518 of Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, Dr. H.W. Vogel writes:

Hotels may consider [proper safelights] as too expensive, and, therefore, prefer daylight. They are also not sufficiently careful in the selection of the red glass. Three years ago I made known that of twenty darkroom lanterns tested by me, not one had red glass actually fit to use. They all admitted the passage of green.

By the mid-20th century, though, it seems this hotel amenity was already disappearing. As 35mm film took over the world of photojournalism, and transmission by wire became the norm, news services like United Press International and The Associated Press began to outfit photographers with portable darkroom kits that fit in a trunk and turned a hotel bathroom into a makeshift darkroom.

In “Picture This! The Inside Story and Classic Photos of UPI Newspictures (2006)” (excerpted here), Gary Haynes describes the portable darkroom effort as part of UPI’s race to beat AP to press with photos:

Converting a hotel room into a photo operation had its amusing moments. An upscale New Orleans Hyatt hotel room was transformed into a lab/darkroom with heavy black plastic gaffer-taped floor-to-ceiling over all the windows and door openings, and extension cords draped everywhere — to safelights, a film dryer, and a transmitter. The maid let herself in the first night to turn down the bed and leave chocolates on the pillows. No doubt wondering if Dr. Frankenstein had moved in, for the duration of the stay she stayed in the hall and pushed UPI’s chocolates under the door.

Today, of course, darkrooms are not only hard to find in hotels — they’re hard to find anywhere. LocalDarkroom.com has a number of listings, but the pickings are slim in the U.S. and around the world. More and more people are building their own as film’s resurgence continues, though.

Sam A. Cooley, photographer
Wagons and camera of Sam A. Cooley, U.S. photographer, Department of the South, in 1860-65; location unknown. (Library of Congress)