As an author, I am often on the road and staying at motels/hotels. My friend Kim crisscrosses America at least once per week and often bemoans the desire to sleep in her own bed. Even so, both Kim and I have it SO-O-O much better than early travelers. In 1925, the word “motel” was coined. Although the word did not appear in dictionaries until after WWII, motor hotels had carved out a niche in society.
A “motel” was customarily a single building of connected rooms whose doors faced a parking lot. Occasionally, the rooms faced a common area. The need for low cost overnight accommodations grew with the improvements to the road system. Motels were situated along the highways. Prior to motels, the urban areas sported hotels, while the rural areas had “tourists courts” or “tourist rooms.” Highway travelers encountering “tourists courts” found a series of one-room dwellings holding a steel cot and perhaps a chair or two. The bathrooms were down the bath to the outhouse. A “tourist home” was generally a family home with extra rooms to let.
Do you recall this song? “King Of The Road” was written by Roger Miller.
Trailer for sale or rent/Rooms to let, fifty cents/ No phone, no pool, no pets/ ain’t got no cigarettes/ Two hours of pushin’ broom/ Buys a eight by twelve four-bit room/ I’m a man of means, by no means/ King of the road/ Third boxcar, midnight train/ Destination: Bangor, Maine/ Old worn out suit and shoes/ I don’t pay no union dues/ I smoke, old stogies I have found/ Short, but not too big around/ I’m a man of means, by no means/ King of the road/ I know every engineer on every train/ All of the children and all of their names/ Every handout in every town/ Every lock that ain’t locked when no one’s around/ They sing, trailers for sale or rent/ Rooms to let, fifty cents/ No phone, no pool, no pets/ I ain’t got no cigarettes/ About two hours of pushin’ broom/ Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room/ I’m a man of means, by no means/ King of the road.
Motels differ from hotels in their location along highways, as opposed to the urban cores favored by hotels, and their orientation to the outside (in contrast to hotels, whose doors typically face an interior hallway). Motels almost by definition include a parking lot, while older hotels were not usually built with automobile parking in mind. Because of their low-rise construction, the number of rooms which would fit on any given amount of land was low compared to the high-rise urban hotels which had grown around railway stations. This was not an issue in an era where the major highways became Main Street in every town along the way and inexpensive land at the edge of town could be developed with motels, car lots, filling stations, lumber yards, amusement parks, roadside diners, drive-in restaurants, theatres, and countless other small roadside businesses.
The automobile brought mobility, and the motel could appear anywhere on the vast network of two-lane highways. Auto camps predated motels by a few years, established in the 1920s as primitive municipal camp sites where travelers pitched their own tents. As demand increased, for-profit commercial camps gradually displaced public camp grounds.
Until the first travel trailers became available in the 1930s, auto tourists adapted their cars by adding beds, makeshift kitchens and roof decks. The next step up from the travel trailer was the cabin camp, a primitive but permanent group of structures.
During the Great Depression, landholders whose property fronted onto roads in U.S. highway or provincial highway systems built cabins to convert unprofitable land to income; some opened tourist homes. The (usually single-story) buildings for a roadside motel or cabin court were quick and simple to construct, with plans and instructions readily available in how-to and builder’s magazines. Expansion of highway networks would continue unabated through the depression as governments attempted to create employment but the roadside cabin camps were primitive, basically just auto camps with small cabins instead of tents.
The 1935 City Directory for San Diego, California, lists “motel”-type accommodations under Tourist Camps. One initially could stay in the Depression-era cabin camps for less than a dollar per night but small comforts were few and far between. Travelers in search of modern amenities soon would find them at cottage courts and tourist courts. The price was higher but the cabins had electricity, indoor bathrooms, and occasionally a private garage or carport. They were arranged in attractive clusters or a U-shape. Often, these camps were part of a larger complex containing a filling station, a café, and sometimes a corner store. Facilities like the Rising Sun Auto Camp in Glacier National Park and Blue Bonnet Court in Texas were “Mom-and-Pop” facilities on the outskirts of towns that were as quirky as their owners. Auto camps continued in popularity through the Depression years and after World War II, their popularity finally starting to diminish with increasing land costs and changes in consumer demands.
In contrast, though they remained small independent operations, motels quickly adopted a more homogenized appearance and were designed from the start to cater purely to motorists. In town, tourist homes were private residences advertising rooms for auto travelers. Unlike boarding houses, guests at tourist homes were usually just passing through. In the southwestern United States, a handful of tourist homes were operated by African-Americans as early as the Great Depression due to the lack of food or lodging for travelers of color in the Jim Crow era.“There were things money couldn’t buy on Route 66. Between Chicago and Los Angeles you couldn’t rent a room if you were tired after a long drive. You couldn’t sit down in a restaurant or diner or buy a meal no matter how much money you had. Your couldn’t find a place to answer the call of nature even with a pocketful of money…if you were a person of color traveling on Route 66 in the 1940s and 1950s.” – Irv Logan, Jr. The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936–64) listed lodgings, restaurants, fuel stations, liquor stores, and barber and beauty salons without racial restrictions; the smaller Directory of Negro Hotels and Guest Houses in the United States (1939, US Travel Bureau) specialized in accommodations. Segregation of U.S. tourist accommodation would legally be ended by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by a court ruling in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States affirming that Congress’ powers over interstate commerce extend to regulation of local incidents (such as racial discrimination in a motel serving interstate travelers) which might substantially and harmfully affect that commerce.
Information for this post can be found in Reminisce: The Magazine That Brings Back the Good Times, July/August 1995 and from Wikipedia.