- Historic Sites
The Great American Motel
You’d never recognize it today. Perhaps this will refresh your memory.
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
The motel is largely the creation of private enterprise, however, and the story of one early motel operator shows how the business sprang up. In 1919 he bought a small grocery store with a gas pump in front on a highway near Dodge City, Kansas. With the business went two acres of land stretching from the road to some railroad tracks. He soon learned that in the tourist season he could count on several families pulling up to his gas pump every day around dusk, buying five gallons of gas, and then asking if they could camp in his field. He was agreeable, and he soon found that he could also count on the campers buying eggs, coffee, and bread from his grocery store. Playing host to travelers could be profitable, he saw, so he posted a sign reading “Free Auto Camp Ground. Welcome.”
Soon eight to ten carloads of campers were stopping each night. He made picnic tables, ran a water pipe into the field, and lit the area with a few electric light bulbs on poles. Then he put up a new sign: “U-Smile Auto Camp, $.25 Per Day.”
When he became aware that municipal auto camps along the road were cutting into his business by offering the same facilities free, he moved on to the next stage. Next to the railroad tracks he built fifteen “tent houses” with shingle roofs and walls of wood and canvas. In each cabin he installed a cold-water tap, a sink, and a gas burner, and he furnished a double bed equipped with bare woven-wire springs, two folding campstools, and a table. There was a communal washroom. Mattresses were available for rent, but tourists supplied their own sheets and blankets. The rate for a cabin was a dollar a night, and the place was an immediate success. In the summer and fall all fifteen cabins were usually taken before dark.
The Kansan’s cabins may have been crude, but he had hit on a good idea. He offered a cheap but adequate place for the automobile traveler to spend the night. The convenience, simplicity, and informality had immense appeal. A motorist could nose his car up to the cabin door, unload what he needed, and pad back out later in his bare feet if he had forgotten something. There was no one to tip, and no dressing up was required. The traveler paid in advance and could be off at dawn without bothering to check out.
The idea was so good that a lot of other people had it in the years following World War I as Americans took to the road in growing numbers. In 1926 it was estimated that there were some two thousand cabin camps, mostly in the West and Southwest. They were particularly numerous in California. It was a San Luis Obispo, California, proprietor who, in 1925, came up with the coinage “motel.” Over the years many names besides the original “cabin camp” or “tourist camp” have been tried—“tourist court,” “auto court,” “motor court,” and “autel,” among others—but “motel” has been the one to stick, even when the motel is a high-rise “motor inn.”
The story of the motel business from the 1920’s until World War II is one of uninterrupted growth. Motels spread from the West all the way to Maine and Florida. They clustered along transcontinental highways such as U.S. Routes 40 and 66 and the north-south routes on both coasts. According to Business Week magazine, there were more than sixteen thousand motels by 1935 and twenty thousand by 1940. Motels were one of the few industries not hurt by the Depression. Their cheap rates attracted travelers pinched for funds; even by the mid-1930’s cabins seldom rented for more than a dollar or two. Motel operation attracted many whose former businesses had collapsed but who had hung onto small nest eggs.
During the thirties a few motels evolved into sizable establishments of a hundred rooms or more. Individual cabins sometimes gave way to rows of rooms linked by carports, and some motels went to great lengths to doll up their facades. There were Spanish-style motels in California and the Southwest, log cabins in the Northwest, and miniature colonial houses in New England. A Kentucky motel offered cabins shaped like wigwams, and in Ohio the traveler could spend the night in enormous wooden casks converted into tourist accommodations.
Somewhere along the line, an unsung genius came up with a remarkable technical advance in the form of a neon No Vacancy sign in which the words could be independently controlled. And all the while, motel living was growing more gracious. From renting mattresses, motels progressed to renting linens and then to making up beds with sheets and blankets free. Hot and cold water became increasingly common, and travelers found more and more accommodations with private bathrooms. Many motels had coffee shops and cafeterias. By 1940, Business Week reported, some motels in California had “attained the ultimate perfection of swimming pools and air-conditioning.”