The Bizarre History Of America’s Motels

The heartland was built for $2.50/night roadtrippers.

The Bizarre History Of America’s Motels

Josh O’Connor

The Wigwam Motel in Bardstown, Kentucky in the 1940s. | MPI/Getty

The heartland was built for $2.50/night roadtrippers.

When the automobile hit US showrooms at the turn of the 20th century, it took the nation by storm. More than any other country, America embraced the motorcar as a key to unlock a world of private travel in our 2,680-mile wide country of mountains, plains, forests, deserts and beaches.

Before that, people had mostly traveled across the country by train. That meant when the car arrived, we didn’t have hotels in most places other than where the trains stopped. So in the early days of motoring, people packed tents in their cars and pitched them by the side of the road when they got tired. By default, the farmer’s fields or lake shores became known as “tourist camps.”

Back then, there were zero amenities for road travelers, as one local explained to motorist Beth O’Shea, who recounted the episode in her 1946 book, “A Long Way From Boston”:

Sure, it’s a tourist camp,’ he told us. ‘Anythin’s a tourist camp what has water and no no-trespass signs. All the towns has got ’em now. They figure they give you a place where you can pitch your tent and you’ll buy food and stuff at their stores.’”

Of course, roadside camping and the attending dangers from prison escapees and wild animals weren’t to everyone’s taste. Soon, enterprising entrepreneurs across the country began building crude cabin camps, motor courts and motor lodges offering overnight stays in permanent structures that were only marginally cozier than tents.

“A cabin without a mattress rented for one dollar; a mattress for two people cost an extra twenty-five cents, and blankets, sheets, and pillows another fifty cents,” write John Jakle, Keith Sculle, and Jefferson Rogers in their book “The Motel in America.

In 1925, the first motel (or “motor hotel”) opened in San Luis Obispo, California. It cost $2.50 a night to stay there. Below, an illustration of the motel:

See? It has an ‘M’ over the ‘H.’ | San Jose State University

If tourism took a dip during World War II, the postwar 50s and 60s were the Golden Age of the motel. Impressed with the autobahn he’d seen in Germany, President Eisenhower built an “interstate” highway system here in the US. While the rich flew in airplanes and stayed in hotels in big cities, moteliers in more far-flung locations went to great lengths to attract the patronage of working- and middle-class motorists.

Mid-century motels styled themselves as roadside resorts, offering luxuries previously available only at expensive hotels, like swimming pools. This was also the age of the “Tiki” craze, inspired by soldiers returning from the Pacific theater of World War II with tales of exotic lands, food and women. Motel owners built huge, culturally insensitive depictions of Polynesian gods that loomed over pools and restaurant buffets. (The “Polynesian” food was usually Cantonese standards stuck inside a pineapple — non-Asians were none the wiser). Native American-themed motels were also plentiful.

The Wigwam Motel in Rialto, CA is a Route 66 landmark. | David McNew/Getty

Strips of motels in the middle of nowhere caused whole towns to spring up, simply because they were a day’s drive from major population centers.

The town of Tucumcari, New Mexico, is one of them. The Route 66 way-station town is still preserved today in all its tacky 50s glory. I had the good fortune to stay in a motel in Tucumcari where seemingly nothing had changed since the glory days, from the wood paneling and the Sears painting of the Grand Tetons to the sputtering air conditioner and musty sheets.

Another one of these little motel towns was Custer, Wyoming — the gateway to Yellowstone Park. I found that, like Tucumcari, Custer was preserved in all its mid-century glory, its main drag featuring traditional motels and restaurants that all seemed to close bang on 9pm, five minutes after we arrived, exhausted and famished from driving. I was horrified when the bedside lamp exploded in my run-down, wood-paneled room at the Old West motel, but the fellow in the room next to mine was more than happy for his family to spend a week in roadside luxury.

With their painted-on luxury, low prices and anonymity, motels attracted not just travelers but criminals, too. Shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — with their depictions of gun-running biker gangs (the former) or emotionally abused slashers (the latter) — have put motels in the popular consciousness as scenes or staging areas for crimes both petty and gross. In countless noir films and shows like “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo,” motels are where the real shit goes down.

The inherent transience of motels also made them attractive to migrant laborers looking for temporary homes, whether they were farm workers from Mexico or electricians and builders crossing state lines for a few days’ work. The rapper Chingy immortalized another popular use of motels — as one-night party venues — in his 2003 song “Holidae In.”

Motels are peculiarly, quintessentially American. The first motel didn’t open in England until 1960. There just aren’t as many miles of road in most other countries.

Motels like this one in Barstow, CA are an endangered species. | David McNew/Getty

By the 70s, the motel business had become dominated by nationwide chains which traded personality for consistent standards of cleanliness.

Hotel stays punctuated my childhood road trips (we favored Holiday Inn, Best Western and, at a stretch, Red Roof Inn, though I never found out why). Some had pools and some didn’t, but they all had those classic motel staples — cups wrapped in plastic, ice and Coke machines down the hall and cable TV. In fact, it wasn’t until the 90s that I ever watched HBO outside of a motel or my aunt’s house.

The advent of low-cost hotels has blurred the lines a bit, but today, the top eight hotel chains in the US are all motels, led by Holiday Inn Express, Super 8 and Days Inn. These guys dwarf Marriott and Hilton, at #9 and #10 respectively, proving that America is still the Land of Motels.

While motels live on, the cheesy gleam that defined their Golden Age has all but faded out, and is now the preserve of kitsch aficionados, RVers and social archaeologists.