Goggles & Side Curtains

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Many early filling stations, now more often called service stations, looked rather like cracker boxes. With success, however, their architecture grew fanciful, to harmonize with the neighboring real-estate developments; in southern California, mission-style structures were favored. Elsewhere the motorist drove up to pagodas, sea shells, castles, or lighthouses, with illuminated globes on top of the pumps beaming out the brand name of the gasoline sold there.

The man who thought up the free road map was William B. Akin, head of a Pittsburgh advertising agency. Akin was himself an enthusiastic automobilist who knew how it felt to get lost on nameless roads. The whole concept came to Akin while he was driving his 1912 Chalmers along Baum Boulevard. He took the suggestion to the Gulf Oil Company in the fall of 1913. His proposal was that the company prepare, publish, and distribute a map of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, as an advertising scheme, with copies to be mailed to all registered car owners in the area and handed out at the company’s new drive-in filling station, another Gulf innovation. The thing was done. It was an instant hit. State maps followed in 1914.

“Gulf was quite cute about all this,” an old-time employee recalled. “We used this map … to persuade the customer to come back for another map for another trip. Hence, not too much territory or information was included in any one map.”

But the whole industry, by the early twenties, was producing easy reference maps in enormous quantities. Oil companies were to the American road what Baedeker was to Europe. While the automobile population exploded, the maps, along with the gas pumps and the courteous men who hand-cranked them, became indigenous to the travel scene. No longer did Dad have to be a spiritual descendant of Henry the Navigator to dream of driving west from the Oranges in New Jersey to spend the winter at Pasadena. One question did remain to be answered: What about food and lodging on the way?

As the inn had developed in response to animal-drawn transportation and the modern hotel had followed the spread of the railroad network, a new social entity known as the “auto tourist camp” came into being. Almost unknown in 1918, well-established by 1923, the camps were located in a field or woodland where motorists pitched their own tents and prepared their own meals. Some camps were free, operated perhaps by a retail dealer who sold oil, gas, and a few groceries. “Camping at garage,” one tour book noted of Fairview, Pennsylvania, in 1923. But the movement was toward modestly priced “pay” camps. Some were located in city parks and provided water, a cookhouse, common dining hall, sanitary facilities, and police protection—all for about fifty cents a day. On the road between Dodge City, Kansas, and Lamar, Colorado, the U-Smile Auto Camp, a privately run place, offered similar facilities for twenty-five cents a day. But whatever the price range, the mood among the auto gypsies was one of fun and release from life’s tedium. Their social atmosphere was more egalitarian than in most areas of American life. Conversations were easily started; one glanced casually at the license tags on a dusty auto and found it natural to inquire, “What part of Iowa are you folks from?”

Just stay two nights at the Santa Barbara auto park, the saying ran, and you would be asked to a party, especially if you could play the violin, read palms, or turn the crank on the ice cream freezer. These holiday-makers constituted a new leisure class who were seeing America’s natural wonders through goggles and side curtains while enjoying the exhilaration of swift movement and new contacts. Theirs was a quest of the spirit, too, as they shared enchanted evenings at the band concert in the park, the fragrance of the summer night around them, and the stars swinging above.

There was a rapid upgrading of facilities, including the innovation of tourist cabins. At Camp Grande, at El Paso, Texas, the gasoline tourists in 1925 found prices ranging from fifty cents to five dollars a day (for a “de luxe bungalette”). There was a central recreation hall furnished “about like a country club,” and electric irons could be rented from the office. Denver’s chief motor camp, called Overland Park, was a veritable metropolis of the thermos bottle and the khaki lean-to; it frequently checked in between five and six thousand open-air guests in one night. The camps expanded to meet the demand. The total of such stopping places for the whole country was estimated in 1925 at between four and five thousand.

But weary travellers tired of pitching tents, of breaking camp every morning, and of generally playing Indian. The preference shifted to a room of one’s own, a real room in a real house. Private homes hung out a sign that became increasingly familiar, “Tourists Accommodated.” Simultaneously, refinements were added to the “cabin” concept with the appearance of specially designed “cottage courts,” which soon spread from the West to the East.