The Great American Motel

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Despite the variations, the fact remains that, for anyone who took long auto trips forty years ago, “motel” will always evoke the picture of a dozen tiny, white clapboard cottages grouped in a semicircle in a grove of trees just off a two-lane highway. The signs for Shady Oaks or maybe Seven Maples began appearing miles down the road, and by the time the Turn Here sign loomed up, the family of tourists was keenly anticipating escaping from the cramped, stuffy car to a grassy lawn and a neat cabin.

At the office, the manager hopped onto the running board and directed the driver to a cottage. Even though the rooms were identical, the driver’s wife would usually inspect two or even three before selecting one. Those who pulled in at five o’clock watched others arrive and were playing the role of hospitable old-timers by six. Later, as the travelers relaxed in lawn chairs in the cool of the evening, strangers became friends as they talked of hometowns, the heat on the highways, and mileage done that day. Horseshoes clinked. In the morning, families started leaving early, one by one, and the friendships of the night before evaporated.

Motels were bad news for hotels. Along with “tourist homes,” which proliferated during the Depression as householders struggled to eke out a living, motels cut deeply into hotel patronage. In some states hotel trade associations pressured legislatures into enacting stiff regulations for motels in the hope that high standards would destroy the new competition. But in several places—most notably, California—the tactic backfired; motels improved their accommodations to conform to the new rules and took even more business from hotels.

Hotel owners also tried to blacken the reputation of motels, claiming they prospered by renting rooms to unmarried couples and to criminals on the lam. A “menace of irresponsible competition,” charged the president of the American Hotel Association in 1935. He had an axe to grind, of course, but many motels had undeniably acquired an unsavory reputation.

In an age of coed dormitories and live-in boyfriends and girlfriends, it is easy to forget that not very long ago couples were often hard-pressed to find a place where they could shut the door on the world. Motels, where guests could drive right up to a cabin unseen by anyone but a discreet manager or employee, offered a solution. Those that specialized in this “couple trade” became known as “hot-pillow joints.”

The landmark study—indeed, perhaps the only study—of sex in motels was conducted by the sociology department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1935. The research was carried out by graduate students who paired off in couples, rented cabins at motels in the Dallas area, and according to their reports, spent the nights seated by the windows watching customers come and go. In the morning they noted the license numbers of the cars parked by the cabins so they could check later to see if the owners were local residents. They also interviewed motel operators.

Even now some of the findings are startling. “At least 75 percent of the camps’ business consists of Dallas couples who find in the anonymity and privacy afforded them ideal conditions in which to engage in illicit sex relations,” said an account of the project in a scholarly journal. On a typical weekend some two thousand such couples patronized the thirty-eight motels in the Dallas area. A check of car registrations against the names given at one motel where the researchers were allowed to look at the register showed that almost all the customers had given fictitious names. To illuminate the socioeconomic status of those involved, the published report on the study included a map of Dallas with black dots marking the approximate locations of the residences of the motel patrons as disclosed by auto registrations. There must have been consternation in a number of Dallas households as word of the map—which showed that most of the patrons came from the better neighborhoods—circulated through the city.

Some motel owners acknowledged that they barred tourists altogether on weekends because they could make more money from the high-turnover couple trade. The average turnover of cabins on a Saturday night was found to be 1.5, but one proprietor admitted to renting one cabin sixteen times during the course of a Saturday. Said another operator: “Tourists are a nuisance. … We can’t rent to tourists on weekends or busy nights because it would ruin our couple trade.”

The SMU sociologists were focusing on motels in an urban area, and it hardly seems credible that their findings could be applied to the whole industry. Nevertheless, in 1940, J. Edgar Hoover declared that a majority of tourist camps were disreputable. Not only were many “assignation camps,” Hoover asserted in a lurid magazine article, but many were also “hideouts and meeting places” for criminals and “actual bases of operations from which gangs of desperadoes prey upon the surrounding territory.”