Youth hostels began in August 1909 in Germany during a violent thunderstorm. At the time Richard Schirrmann, a grade school teacher was forced to seek shelter in a barn with his group of eight students, who were out touring during their annual summer break. Several months later, Schirrmann wrote about his experience in a German newspaper and proposed the establishment of special camps with his and hers dormitory-style rooms to accommodate groups of school age students during spring and summer recesses.
The idea caught on immediately and soon Schirrman had enough money to open his first hostel. Incidentally, it was located in a centuries-old German castle referred to as Altenia. The idea grew rapidly, for by 1913 there were around 300 existing hostels , while one year later the number totaled 535. By time the first American hostel opened in 1933, there were already several thousand of these accommodations available across Europe. Unfortunately, that was the same year that the Nazis came to power, so the hostel movement in Europe disintegrated during the war.
In the United States youth hostels did not appear until 1934, but still the name of Robert Schirrmann plays large in the opening of such a venue. In 1932, two New Yorkers, Monroe and Isabel Smith, met Mr. Schirrmann, while trudging around the Continent with a group of American students. A year later they attended a youth hostel conference in Germany and in 1934 the first American youth hostel opened its door in Vernon, Connecticut. All in all, the Smiths were responsible for 35 new institutions of this type, which flourished during the pre-war years. Like their European counterparts, the American places were abandoned during WWII, as all efforts were directed towards the war.
Today youth hostels are back and just as popular as ever, except that these trendy and affordable places to stay are no longer limited to the student age traveler. For currently in most places, the term “youth hostel” is a misnomer. This is because people of all ages are welcome and in some cases, dorm rooms are coed or reserved for one or two occupants.
Furthermore, hosteling has gone international with this type of traveling quarters available in most modern nations. Hostel buildings vary widely from a high rise 16-story structure in Copenhagen to a lighthouse bunkhouse that overlooks the Pacific ocean in California. Hostels now also feature restaurants, bars and even nightclubs as they compete for the budget-minded travelers. In this wake several international organizations exist in the necessary and difficult process of providing operating guidelines for the thousands of youth hostels around the world.