Hostels started in Germany in the 1910s when a school teacher wanted places for his pupils to stay when he took them into the country. In Britain, the Youth Hostel movement got going in the 1930s, where its main function was to provide cheap, simple accommodation for hikers and cyclists.
The theme of simple accommodation to which visitors travelled 'under their own steam', were out during the day hiking or sightseeing, and helped with the 'chores', was still going strong into the 1960s. School groups were frequent visitors, sometimes very well-behaved, sometimes not, but always engaged in active countryside pursuits. Some hostels by then were beginning to specialise in activities such as field studies or mountain sports, though all usually had room for the lone hiker or cyclist.
Families and other groups began to discover the value of staying in youth hostels, and often wanted to travel by car. Horror of horrors-- this was not allowed! So car travellers learned to park their car 100 metres away, pick up their backpacks and walk into the hostel!
With the increasing car ownership and the accompanying decay in public transport, this policy could not continue indefinitely, and in the 60s it was decided to allow car travellers to stay at hostels, provided they engaged in more energetic activities after they arrived! This was the beginning of a gradual change in the nature of hostels, away from the simple, large- dormitory, outdoor toilets, self-catering, do-a-duty, out at 10am hostels to the more luxurious hostels of today, with meals provided and far fewer discomforts and restrictions. There was always a rearguard action against the changes, and for a while the YHAs in Britain continued to keep a sizable number of hostels that maintained the simple touch, with volunteer wardens, self-catering, and where visitors help out with the chores, even though they now all have central heating and indoor toilets.
Unfortunately, even these hostels are being rapidly closed, as the YHA realises that it is more businesslike to close them and invest the money in flagship city hostels catering for all types of visitor. The YHA and SYHA are still registered charities and have 'members', but nowadays business considerations override the idealism of the traditionalists. Being a member now means nothing other than a reduction in the overnight price; the YHAs are run in business mode, and members' expressions of interest are answered in a businesslike manner that takes no account of the members' enthusiasms.
Nowadays YHA hostels, and those of their international family, the IYHF or HI, tend to be fairly standardised, with relaxed rules. YHA hostels cater for many types of traveller including families and business travellers, which is an admirable policy but it does mean that many guests tend to keep to themselves. The policy of modernisation results in comfortable accommodation but tends to dampen out the sociable atmosphere which should be such an important feature of hostels.
For many years it was taken for granted that hostels meant the YHA. There was a tradition of privately-run bunkhouses in mountain areas, but these were known only to connoisseurs and used by climbing and hiking clubs. However, since 1980 there has been a development of independent hostels, and since 1990 this has become rapid, so now there are more independent than HI hostels in most countries. Independent hostels are gradually coming together in associations to help their marketing and to promote standards.
In Britain, the number of independent hostels, including Bunkhouses which are essentially simpler hostels with limited facilities, but still with hot water, heating and beds or mattresses, has increased to be about equal to YHAs, and the trend continues as YHA hostels steadily close and new independents open. Hostels have stringent fire and safety regulations to meet, so they are not attractive business propositions. Large companies are establishing large hostels in the most popular cities, some are very good, some greatly lacking in sociability, friendliness or efficiency. Individual entrepreneurs with enthusiasm for hostels may open small ones and these are some of the best hostels, but when the founder retires the next owner, even if a member of the family, often treats it more as a business and its atmosphere may decline.
Independents have no specific standards other than national standards of cleanliness and safety, although many of them belong to associations which promote standards. Independent hostels appeal to many travellers because they are often more relaxed and have a more friendly atmosphere than HI hostels. But they do vary, and a few in the large cities are sadly deficient in features such as cleanliness or adequacy of bathrooms, while some economise on standards by not having an adequate kitchen or common room.