Postcard Ponderings: Motels — A uniquely American experience

By Karen Knapstein

Americans have – and have always had – a special relationship with their cars. In a way, automobiles are as much about freedom and the pioneering spirit as they are about industry and manufacturing.

Auto pioneer Henry Ford made the Model T to be affordable to average, working-class Americans. People loved the independence and freedom of having their own means of long-distance transportation. And what better way was there to see America than to hit the road. Even if the majority of them were rough, rustic, and even unpaved.

Motels Offer Solution to Weary Early 20th Century Travelers

While we can take the availability of overnight lodgings for granted today, in the 1920s much of America was still under-developed and amenities for travelers were minimal, at best; sometimes lodgings were limited to those near railway stations. If a trip was expected to last more than a day, travelers either had to arrange stays with family or friends ahead of time, or they might pack a tent and pitch it wherever there wasn’t a “No Trespassing” sign, perhaps in a farmer’s field or some other secluded spot. These popular spots among travelers became known as “tourist camps.”

Enterprising individuals saw the opportunity to serve the needs of weary travelers by giving them a place to stay that was more comfortable – and safer – than a tent set up along the roadside. Motor courts with rustic cabins sprung up here and there. The really toney places had indoor plumbing and heat.

First Mo-Tel Opens in California

On December 12, 1925, the Milestone Mo-Tel, modeled after California’s Spanish missions, opened in San Luis Obispo, California. It is credited with coining the phrase “motel” (although with a hyphen). The Milestone Interstate Corporation, formed by brothers Arthur and Alfred Heineman, hoped to build a chain of motels through the Pacific Coast states, about a day’s drive apart. The San Luis Obispo site would serve as the prototype for the proposed motel chain. Alas, fierce competition, the inability to trademark the Mo-Tel name, and the lack of investment capital squelched the expansion plans. The Heineman brothers even lost their one existing motel to foreclosure during the Great Depression.

In the 1930s, tourists became more familiar with cottage camps and motels that were popping up along the roadsides. It wasn’t until the after World War II that the motel boom really exploded.

Also, in postwar America much of the working class found itself financially in a position to buy cars (by 1960, 80 percent of American families owned one). Tourism hit new highs in the 1950s thanks to the middle class having a bit of discretionary income, some leisure time and the ability to travel comfortably at will.

‘Kitschy’ Design Sets Motels Apart

Auto touring fever created a lot of fish for ‘moteliers’ to reel in. New motels sprang up across America. Ever in competition with one another, enterprising owners came up with more gimmicks, more promises, and more amenities in hopes of standing out among their peers. For example, you could find the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, California, and the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada. You could find the bright pink Flamingo Motel in Eerie, Pennsylvania, and the Motel Safari in Tucumcari, New Mexico. I would wager you could even find a motel showing the tiki influence in most states across the country.

Americans were restless and on the move, but who can you trust when it comes time to lay down your head for the night? In 1937, the American Automobile Association (AAA) started anonymously inspecting hotels, motels, and restaurants as a service to their members. Then, as now, to gain AAA approval, motels have to meet certain standards; anonymous inspectors show up unannounced to evaluate lodgings and restaurants for cleanliness, amenities, and service. It makes sense, then, that when a motel earns AAA approval, that information would be included on its postcards.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, approving federal financial support for the building of more than 40,000 miles of four-lane, interstate highways without stops and at greater speeds. While it made traveling long distances easier, the interstates often bypassed motor courts and existing motels, creating even more challenges for many motel owners.

There’s no limit to the variety and number of motel postcards available. The bad news is narrowing the focus of a collection is challenging (linen vs. chrome; location vs. theme). The good news is vintage postcards featuring motels are as affordable as they come, with retail prices starting at about $3 apiece.

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