The Motel in America
© 1996 Jefferson S. Rogers, John A Jakle, and Keith A. Sculle
At some point in high school I pulled out a dictionary to find out what, exactly, was the difference between a motel and a hotel. They seemed much the same to me: “A place to sleep when traveling”. A motel, the dictionary informed me, was typified by guests’ easy access to their cars. It was cars that built motels, or rather motorists: The Motel in America is a history of how the first “auto camps” came into being, in a fairly organic fashion, which follows their maturation from mom and pop shops to national franchises. Also included are special sections on the evolution of the motel room, and a case study of motels and their impact on urban form, using Albuquerque as a case-study. It’s thus a mix of topics with some popular appeal (social history) interspersed with more academic sections, like the comparative brand distribution of various chains.
The story of motels begins decades before the auto-oriented boom of the 1950s, Americans began touring by car almost as soon as there were roads fit to drive on — sometimes before — but downtown hotels didn’t lend themselves towards motoring hospitality. They were enmeshed in an urban fabric, after all; their travelers disembarked from downtown passenger rail stations and got where they needed via trolley or on foot. That ‘urban fabric’ meant a lot of buildings in a small space, with precious little to spare for parked automobiles. So people began improvising and camping out on the outskirts, and through the magic of free enterprise, a new business was created to cater to them. One woman who allowed travelers to camp in a grassy area near her gas station put up small cottages for rent — followed by more cottages, until the cabin rentals were better earners than the gasoline. ‘Campgrounds’, initially roped-off areas created by cities to keep motor-gypsies from running amok, attracted food-and-service vendors and quickly became a commercial form in their own right. The first ‘motels’ were essentially campgrounds with little cottages or cabins that motorists rented for the night; the owner-operators, typically a family, often served meals on the premises. Kentucky Fried Chicken actually began its life as the lunch option of the Sanders Motor Court.
These auto camps, motor courts, or ‘motels’ flourished in the Great Depression even as the downtown hotels struggled under the burden of the economy and urban reformers out to destroy them. World War 2 put expansion on pause, but after that — and especially given the free range of the in-progress interstate system — the business quickly grew into the network of massive chains that now fill the continent. The strings of cabins largely gave way to more space-efficient barracks, though they were organized around pools and prettied up in pastel.While the loss of mom and pop shops can easily be mourned, the chains came into being largely because it was more beneficial for motels to exist as part of a network. That network could be built from the ground up (in the manner of Best Western) or organized from the top down, if one motel was owned by an especially ambitious and savvy man as in the case of the Alamo line. Networks of motels could refer travelers along a route to one another, present a united front against other motels by maintaining uniform standards, and lower their prices through bulk purchases.(They might even purchase the same ‘room sets’, as furnishings were standardized.) The authors also cover the franchise approach, used as effectively in motels as in fast food restaurants.
The Motel in America proved itself an interesting little bit of history, demonstrating another facet of the genuinely revolutionary impact automobiles have had on American urbanism. The case study of Albuquerque — a city which was known primarily as a train layover until it began expanding rapidly through Route 66 and the interstates, with gobs and gobs of motels to service them — was a welcome surprise.
- Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in America. Paul Groth
- Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser. Primarily the chapters on auto-oriented restaurants, the first drive-ins.