History of the Motel

Though the name “motel” first appeared in 1926 (the “Milestone Mo-Tel” in San Luis Obispo, California), the concept had developed steadily for almost a quarter of a century. The history of the motel is directly linked to American car culture, which began with the first affordable car, the Model T. The automobile and the freedom it represented and provided touched the American spirit of adventure, individualism and exploration.

Affordable Accommodations
At the turn of the century nearly all long-distance travel was by train. Destinations were dictated by rail routes. Accommodations were either modest, and often seedy, rooming houses near the train station, or well-appointed downtown hotels. Traveling salesmen, migrant workers, and others on a tight budget stayed near the rail station. The well-to-do were transported from the station downtown by horse-and-carriage where they would be met by porters and taken to often luxurious rooms.

The advent of the automobile changed all that. The first Model T rolled off the line in late 1908. Designed by Henry Ford to be reliable and inexpensive, it was the first car made by mass production and cost $825. With the availability of an affordable car people of average means were suddenly able to travel to destinations of their own choosing. With a spirit of adventure and some money for gas and oil, common folks could explore the countryside or even cross the country on their own for the first time.

Auto Camps
The adventurous, middle-class car travelers were a far cry from the genteel hotel patron. Prepared to fix a flat or brave the elements after a break-down they valued economy and adventure. Often on a tight budget, but eager to see other parts of the country, they struck out on their own over rutted roads made for horses and wagon wheels. A 1904 survey reported that 93 percent of the 2,151,570 miles of road in the U.S. were unpaved. Often there were few, if any accommodations and travelers simply pulled off the road and camped, often on private property. As more travelers took to the road there were lapses in car camping etiquette which led many landowners to post No Trespassing signs.

In the early 20s municipalities began building camps on the outskirts of town to accommodate and attract “tin-can tourists” as they came to be called (partly because they drove “tin lizzies” and partly because many left empty tin cans in their abandoned camp sites). Landowners were glad to have them off their property, and town businessmen looked forward to new customers. Most camps were free and little more than a place to park at first, but civic pride led towns to make improvements such as drinking water, laundry facilities, and covered shelters. Some even installed flush toilets (which sometimes confused dust-bowl migrants who were unfamiliar with them).

The auto camps became a victim of their own popularity as more and more travelers crowded into them, some just passing through, and others staying for months. Unemployed transients tarnished the reputation of some camps and there were conflicts with the regular travelers. Many municipal camps were closed as they became more trouble than they were worth. Others began charging for their services. Once the camps were no longer free commercial camps appeared, some with cabins and other amenities. Soon auto travelers were living less like campers, and more like house guests.

Rustic Cabins
Privately owned cabins were being built as early as 1901. The first on record, “Askins Cottage Camp” in Douglas, Arizona, was first constructed to house workers from the nearby copper-smelting plant. As auto travelers began to show up the name was changed to “Askins Tourist Court” then “Askins Auto Court.” A free two-bedroom shelter was opened in 1914 in Delavan, Kansas, and boasted beds, cooking utensils, dishes and cutlery.

After World War I even more people were travelling, looking for work or migrating to other parts of the country. Along major routes, such as the famous Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, numerous “cabin camps,” “auto courts” and the like sprang up. Many were basic, but some were furnished and catered to the needs of travelers with restaurants and gas stations. According to one source, in 1935 there were nearly 10,000 lodging facilities serving the varied needs of the auto traveler, from the rustic to the elegant.

War Time
During World War II, the early 40s, many Americans had to put their travel plans on hold. Gas was rationed, and major car manufacturers devoted parts of their production lines to making tanks and other war-related vehicles. Raw materials for building new auto courts and motels were in short supply because of military requisitions. Motel developers who were able to survive the hard times economized by building long rows of connected rooms, rather than separate cottages. Units shared a foundation, roof, and utility systems, which reduced not only construction but operations costs. Attached garages for guests cars were dropped in favor of parking spots in front of each room.
After the end of the war in 1945, with gas rationing over and peaceful prosperity just around the corner, American’s once again hit the roads in record numbers. The developing interstate highway system and more powerful cars allowed travelers to go farther and faster.

Chains and Franchises
Until the early post-war years nearly all motels were owner operated, “mom-and-pop” businesses. But as motel customers grew more sophisticated, so did motel owners. Mom and Pop joined motel associations to learn the latest in business practices and marketing techniques. Member motels referred traveling customers to other member motels with the assurance that they could enjoy high standards of hospitality clear across the country.

But by the 60s the individualistic owner-operated motels were being engulfed by the wave of the future– the chain and franchise motels. Post-war prosperity had given birth to America’s consumer culture. Advertising trained buyers to trust brand names. When it came to shopping for a place to spend the night tourists and traveling businessmen liked to know they could expect certain amenities.
The motel chain was a refinement of the earlier informal membership referral network– individual ownership with brand identification.. Franchises promised even more standardization, often imposing architectural uniformity on franchisees, along with the brand name and business plan. For the traveler this meant predictability.

Off the Beaten Path
Just as the automobile has changed over the past century, so has the motel and the expectations of today’s traveler. Now cars are powerful and dependable, highways are wide and smooth, and motels are comfortable and predictable . Sadly, for some, most of the small, individualistic mom-and-pop motels seem to be going the way of the Model T. But they are still there, away from the freeway, along less-traveled roads that existed before the freeways.

copyright©Jim McCluskey 2002-2012