The Great American Motel

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Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had their encounter with the law at the Red Crown Cabin Camp one evening in July of 1933. The police closed in with machine guns and an armored car, but Bonnie and Clyde and the three other members of the Barrow gang made it to the Ford sedan parked in the garage attached to the cabin, careened onto the highway, and escaped. According to Hoover, there were numerous cases throughout the 1930’s in which notorious fugitives from justice eluded capture by holing up in one motel after another. Hoover blamed casual registration procedures, the absence of effective police scrutiny in the rural areas where many motels were located, and in some instances, the connivance of owners with criminals. Predictably, motel operators were angered by Hoover’s broadside, and they became even more unhappy when they heard that some hotels were handing out reprints along with customers’ bills.

Such criticism did no lasting damage. Even when tourists disappeared during World War II, motels didn’t fare too badly. Many people were uprooted and on the move—defense workers following jobs, wives following soldier-husbands—and they filled rooms. And after the war, when autos started rolling off assembly lines and Americans took to the road again, the motel business embarked on a prolonged expansion binge. By 1960 there were sixty thousand motels—triple the 1940 total.

Fortune magazine commented in 1951 that it seemed as if all those people who had once dreamed of taking up chicken farming now dreamed of owning a motel. Envisioning a life of semiretirement, middle-aged couples emptied their savings accounts and headed for sunny locations like Miami, Myrtle Beach, Phoenix, and San Diego. They built motels of concrete block covered with stucco or brick—sixteen to eighteen rooms strung out in a row and frequently named El Rancho. Swimming pools became essential to draw customers, even though then, as now, hardly anyone used them.

Some couples profited handsomely; a 30 per cent return on revenues was not uncommon. But their lives were anything but semiretirement. Both husband and wife found themselves working from dawn to midnight, seven days a week. Theft was a constant headache. The direct access from room to car makes it easy to steal from motels, and patrons have been known to stuff television sets and even beds into the backs of their cars, in addition to routine pilferage of ashtrays and towels.

But there was a bigger headache for many of the novice motel operators: if they hit on a lucrative location, competitors flocked to the spot. Then profits would plummet, and before long the owners of the cheek-by-jowl motels would be sitting in their offices waiting for someone to take the places off their hands. By 1960 motels and hotels together had so much capacity that every man, woman, and child in the United States would have had to sleep in a rented bed five nights a year to fill it all. Many “ma and pa” motels went bankrupt.

Aggravating the troubles of the independent operators was the emergence of the major chains. There had been associations of motels since the 1940’s—Quality Courts, for example, and the TraveLodge Chain—that set standards for members and passed customers along to each other. But it was in the 1950’s that the chains began driving toward their present dominance. The first Holiday Inn opened in 1952, and in time the chain was completing new franchises at the rate of one every two and a half days. The Howard Johnson Company diversified from the restaurant business into motels in 1954. The big hotel chains, including Sheraton and Hilton, also began building motels. With the launching of the federal interstate highway program in 1956, the chains started grabbing the prime sites at the key interchanges and exits.

Overnight Moderne

 
 
 

It is these chain motels that draw most of the criticism for contributing to the blandness of the American landscape. A traveler can cross the continent and still be in the same place, the social historian Daniel J. Boorstin has complained. “By using the guide to a chain of franchised motels … when he stopped for the night he would know where to find the ice maker, the luggage rack, the TV set, he would recognize the cellophane wrapping on the drinking glass, the paper festoon on the toilet seat, whether he was in Bangor, Maine, in Peoria, Illinois, or in Corvallis, Oregon.”