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The Great American Motel

July 2024
13min read

You’d never recognize it today. Perhaps this will refresh your memory.

The single-engine plane comes in low over the green hills of Zululand, then bounces to a landing on a grassy strip. The American tourists clamber out into the African sun. The surrounding countryside is dotted with clusters of thatch-roofed huts, and rhinoceros and wildebeest lurk nearby. The comfort and ease of home have been left far behind. And then, a stone’s throw from the strip, they spot a familiar green and yellow sign, topped by a star. It is a Holiday Inn.

Along with computers, rock music, and fast foods, any listing of mid-twentieth-century America’s distinctive contributions to the world must surely include motels. Today they are found not only along the interstate highways crisscrossing the United States but also in Moscow and Islamabad and beside French country roads, as well as in Zululand.

As they have spread around the globe, motels have become part of American folklore. Bonnie and Clyde engaged in a celebrated shoot-out with the police at the Red Crown Cabin Camp near Platte City, Missouri. The most titillating scene in It Happened One Night occurred when Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were thrown together in a motel room.

Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita , found motels the quintessence of America. Now many people find them the quintessence of what is wrong with America—plastic, disposable, uniform, a symptom of a boring homogeneity that increasingly afflicts our lives. Partly true perhaps, but in all fairness we should recall the plight of the automobile traveler in those distant days when there were no Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson’s or Ramada Inn signs glowing at the end of the long day on the road.

Hal Borland, the naturalist, drove from New York to Los Angeles in 1923 in an Oakland touring car with folding top and side curtains. It was a thirty-two-day trip, over paved roads until Omaha, dirt after that. Borland shunned hotels. In cities they were in the heart of downtown, accessible to the rail travelers for whom they had been built but usually not convenient for motorists. In small towns the hotels tended to be “grubby and bugridden.” Most of the time, Borland camped, each night unpacking the array of gear—tent, folding cot and chair, cooking utensils, dishes, portable gas stove—that he carried in boxes on the running boards of his car.

Finding a pleasant campsite was often difficult, particularly on the first half of the journey. “I pitched my tent in an open field in Pennsylvania, behind a signboard in Ohio, in a country schoolyard in Indiana. In Iowa, I found a municipal campground, a few vacant lots beside the town dump, with a cold-water spigot and an outdoor privy. It was run by the town marshal, who charged 50 cents for the privilege of camping there overnight.”

In the wide-open country west of Iowa the choice of campsites improved, and Borland also encountered something new—the “cabin camp.” “Some were clean and comfortable, but most of them were mere clusters of shabby little huts, each with a water pitcher, an iron bed and a bare floor,” he remembered. Though Borland was not terribly impressed—he decided he preferred his tent—such cabin camps were the genesis of the motel industry.

They had evolved from the campgrounds where pioneering long-distance motorists pitched their tents. Many early automobile tourists shared Hal Borland’s aversion to hotels. Even if they chanced to find themselves near a decent one at dusk, it was expensive to put up at a hotel night after night. Moreover, in those days of frequent breakdowns and tire changes, motorists were often a grubby lot, and they felt ill at ease parading through elegant lobbies. Thus many, like Borland, carried camping equipment.

Initially, motorists had little trouble finding a place to camp beside the road, but as their numbers grew, their welcome diminished. Some towns began to view them as a nuisance; farmers put up No Camping signs in their fields. But then a few more farsighted communities, as well as some private landowners, began to look upon the campers as a source of profit. Here and there farmers and gas station operators put up new signs offering campsites at twenty-five cents a day. Some towns, seeing the campers as potential customers for local merchants, set aside tracts of land for motorists to use at little or no charge.

The municipal auto camps spread rapidly, particularly in the West, and by the early 1920’s there were hundreds. Many were no better than the bleak plot beside the town dump that Hal Borland found in Iowa, but some provided a variety of amenities. Denver, which opened the first of several camps in 1915, had one offering cold showers, fireplaces (an evening’s supply of firewood cost a nickel), tennis courts, and a dancing pavilion. A handful of municipal camps even erected rustic shelters for individual families, and it may be that Douglas, Arizona, which knocked together half a dozen board shacks for the use of motorists in 1913, should be honored as the site of the very first motel.

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.”

Home Away From Home


A Touch of Class


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.”

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.”

Boorstin could have expanded his comment to embrace the globe, but in any case it is unlikely the chains would take umbrage. For aside from a splash of local color in the bar, a high degree of uniformity and consistency is precisely what they seek. They long ago learned that weary salesmen and parents with youngsters squabbling in the back seat are in no mood to experiment, and the chains go to great lengths to ensure that such travelers will find everything just as they expect it—from the softness of the beds to the canned farewell of the waitress. (“Thank you. Have a nice day. It’s been a pleasure to serve you.”) Holiday Inns has its own “university” to drill its standards into employees, and company inspectors pay unannounced visits. If a franchise holder repeatedly fails to make the grade, he risks the loss of his Holiday Inn sign—known within the company as the “Great Sign.”

For years motels grew ever more elaborate. By the 1960’s some had not one but two or three pools for guests not to swim in. Auditoriums drew the convention trade, and in Florida the dog kennels were air-conditioned. Another trend was for motels to move into downtown and become multistory motor inns. In these the already blurred distinctions between motels and hotels just about disappeared. The rates often didn’t differ much from those charged by hotels, guests could no longer park their cars outside their doors, and bellboys on the alert for tips hovered anxiously. All the amenities of a hotel were available, including the fifteen-minute wait to check out in the morning. One lingering difference was that parking remained free at motor inns, whereas most hotels charged for it. Another, less appealing difference was that most motels were cheaply built compared with traditional hotels—and their transient, insubstantial quality was somehow more conspicuous in the city than on the highway. Motor inns do not age like the Plaza.

A more recent development has been a new generation of motels that dispense with some of the frills and charge half the price of the fancier places. We are too spoiled to want to go back to the drab little shacks by the railroad tracks, but the promoters of the cut-rate motels are nevertheless onto something. A cheap, comfortable, casual tourist accommodation was a good idea when Model T’s went chugging down the highway, and it still is.

Checking in With Nabokov

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