Associate Dean Molly Berger wins major prize for study of American luxury hotels

Molly Berger, instructor in the Department of History and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, has received a prestigious award for her study of a distinctively American form of technological innovation: the luxury hotel.

During an international conference in Copenhagen on Oct. 6, Berger accepted the Sally Hacker Prize from the Society of History of Technology (SHOT) for her book Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology and Urban Ambition in America, 1829-1929 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

The prize recognizes historical writing that is “clear, accessible, and useful to a broad public audience,” including students. In the award citation, SHOT praised Berger for providing “a model for what the popular history of technology ought to look like.”

This is not the first time SHOT has honored Berger for her work. She received the Joan Cahalin Robinson prize in 1992 for a paper that, in her words, “tested the potential of the topic that eventually became Hotel Dreams.”

Berger’s book explores the emergence and development of commercial luxury hotels over 100 years of American history. These hotels were impressive architectural and corporate accomplishments. At the same time, however, they were lightning rods for public debate about the role of luxury in a democratic society.

Hotel Dreams examines such iconic urban institutions as Boston’s Tremont House (1829), Philadelphia’s Continental (1860), San Francisco’s Palace Hotel (1875), Chicago’s Stevens (1927) and several of New York City’s famous luxury hotels. Berger documents the escalating competition to build the “largest hotel in the world,” with each hotel outfitted with the latest technologies of comfort.

“Because large urban commercial luxury hotels are such familiar institutions and seemingly so transparent, I have encountered more than my share of raised eyebrows over the years as I advanced hotels as a subject of serious historical inquiry,” Berger remarked in accepting the award.

She added, “I am particularly grateful for the honor of the Sally Hacker Prize, an award that recognizes and encourages efforts to bring our questions about technology’s history to a wider audience.”

Hotel Dreams has also received accolades from leading journals. The American Historical Review praised the book as “rigorously researched and elegantly written,” calling it “a must-read for scholars of business history, the history of technology, architectural and urban history, and the history of consumer culture.”

Berger earned her doctorate at Case Western Reserve, where her adviser was Carroll Pursell, the Adeline Barry Davee Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History.

“Molly’s study of the American genius for democratic luxury set in a context of technological marvels is a model of what the cultural history of technology should look like,” Pursell said. “Case Western Reserve, and particularly its history department, have every right to be proud of all she has accomplished.”