The History of Hostelling

Franklin Roosevelt hostelling quote

Staying in hostels is a great way to explore historical sites, from the Roman Colosseum to Machu Picchu. But have you ever thought about the history of hostels?

Hostelling is a long-standing tradition. The first hostel opened over 100 years ago. Let’s look back at the history of hostels to see how they have evolved from a place for students to crash during field trips to the accommodation of choice for budget travelers.

Richard Schirrmann the Father of Hostelling

Once Upon a Time in Germany…

German schoolteacher Richard Schirrmann (right) is the father of modern hostelling. Schirrmann often took his students on educational field trips to the countryside. These trips gave students a hands-on learning experience and fresh air away from the industrial city where they lived.

The group often sought refuge at farms or schoolhouses during multi-day trips. School buildings made ideal overnight accommodations because they weren’t in use during the summer. By moving the desks aside and laying down their bedding, the group quickly turned the schoolrooms into makeshift dorms.

The idea for modern hostels was born.

Schirrmann opened the first hostel in a castle in Altena, Germany in 1912. His hostel featured dorms with three-level bunk beds (!!), a kitchen, and bathrooms. The castle is still a hostel today.

Hostelling spread fast. Thousands of hostels opened over the next two decades. In 1932, the first international hostel conference was held in Amsterdam. At the conference, the Youth Hostel Federation (YHF) was formed to unite hostel groups from across Europe. Two years after the YHF was established, the first US hostel opened in Northfield, Massachusetts.

The Youth Hostel Federation later evolved into Hostelling International, a well-known organization of over 4,000 hostels in 80 countries.

Hostel growth slowed during World War I. In the 1960s and 70s it began to spread again as air travel became more affordable.

The Evolution of Hostels

Hostel design hasn’t changed much since Schirrmann’s first hostel, but the purpose of hostels has evolved.

The first hostels were intended for young people needing a place to stay while biking or hiking the countryside. They were an outdoorsman’s oasis.

American Youth Hostels opened its first large, urban hostel in Washington, DC to house visitors during the US bicentennial celebration in 1976. The DC hostel’s success started a shift towards larger hostels in major cities. Most backpackers now stay in these city hostels while traveling abroad.

The other difference between early and modern hostels is chores. Early hostels offered free accommodations in exchange for doing chores. This arrangement led to the social, collaborative nature of the modern hostel.

While you might not have an assigned chore nowadays, you’re still expected to clean up after yourself and to respect communal spaces. Be responsible and treat a hostel like your home. Be respectful of the staff and your roommates. Showing a little personal responsibility is way better than being woken up at 7:00am for your daily chores like the original hostellers were.

Hostels Today

Hostels haven’t changed much in their hundred-plus year history. They remain an empowering, affordable means of youth travel.

Now you know your hostel history. Next time you hear someone complaining about a hostel, remind them to be grateful they’re not mopping the floors.

Special thanks to HI Hostels for their History of Hostelling and 100 Years of Hostelling.

Image sources: NPR, HI Hostels

About Fred Perrotta

Fred Perrotta is an entrepreneur and traveler. Unable to find a great piece of luggage for a backpacking trip to Eastern Europe in 2009, he co-founded Tortuga Backpacks to create the ultimate travel backpack. He's lived in, worked in, and traveled to over a dozen countries. His favorite meal abroad was spicy beef ramen in Tokyo.

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