When was the last time you packed up the car and hit the highway for a road-tripping adventure across the States? Thelma and Louise famously did it in the ‘90s, and the Griswold’s hilariously went cross-country in the ‘80s. However, it was the 1950s that were most famed for the family road trip. Across the nation, Americans were on the move. Travelling on newly built highways and in tail-finned cars; taking in the sights and scenes of the country; eating at roadside diners, and overnighting at roadside motels. Unless you can get your hands on a DeLorean, your road-trip won’t take you back in time. But, you can get an insight into this travel culture from the postcards from this era, and particularly those of motels. In the 1950s – as they do today – postcards served as a means of communication, a travel souvenir, or a way for vacationers to document their journey or add to a personal collection. For small business owners, postcards were a primary means of advertising. As the motels were usually pictured in idealized ways these postcards offer us a window to postwar American culture.
Postcards were first introduced in the mid-nineteenth century as a cheap and easy way for people to keep in touch, and by the turn of the twentieth century – renowned as a Golden Age for postcards – they were widely circulated and collected. They offered a glimpse of the world when the public had limited access to pictures and travel. By the 1920s, the popularity of the Model T Ford and the construction of better roads stimulated a national tourism industry. The postcard industry soared as motorists began traveling further afield, collecting and sending images of national landmarks, landscapes, tourist attractions, and roadside imagery.
Postcards during this time were black and white photographs that were frequently colored. In the early 1930s, “linen postcards” became widespread. They presented images based on photographs, however, they were often so retouched that they appeared almost entirely drawn. By the mid-1950s, the “photochrome” card became available. It had a smooth, glossy surface, sharp edges, and the accurate reproduction of colors, and it’s still the postcard that we can find in stores today.
As mass numbers of vacationers took to the road in the ‘30s, the highways became filled with accommodations, gas stations, and restaurants. While tourist cabins provided motorists and traveling salesmen with a place to stay overnight, they were notoriously associated with being hideouts for criminals and gangsters, or one-hour rentals for the “hot pillow” trade. By the mid-‘40s the travel industry was preparing for a postwar tourist boom and small, independent motel owners – fondly known as “Mom-and-Pops” – worked to overcome the industry’s tarnished reputation. Wishing to project a wholesome image of a comfortable “home away from home” for middle-class families, they furnished motel rooms with modern, home-like amenities and tempted vacationers with children’s playgrounds and swimming pools. Their motels were conveniently located on highways or near tourist attractions, and they had ample parking for passing motorists. They reflected the values of Mom-and-Pop’s personal touch: economical, informal, and hospitable.
So came the heyday of the motel postcard. In order to attract customers, motels were usually pictured in highly clichéd ways: nearly always under bright blue skies, and with limited subject matter and idealized atmosphere. Embedded within these postcard images were two important ideologies of the middle-class American Dream – mobility and home: having the freedom to travel, and having the comforts of home.
The exterior of the motel building with car park and highway:
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the motel became an iconic and familiar site along the roadside, and the postcard documented the optimism and fantasy of this postwar landscape. Over-sized signs used neon lighting, bright colors, and imagery from popular culture to catch the attention of motorists. The highway – the lifeblood of the motel itself – emphasized how important mobility was in the postwar era and associated the motel with the freedom of the open road. Automobiles appeared as decorative props and displayed the glory of consumerism in the 1950s.
The interior of the motel room with modern furnishings and appliances:
The motel promoted itself as a “home on the road” for vacationing families at a time when owning a home in the suburbs was key to achieving the American Dream. Motel owners provided a modern, yet comfortable and homey atmosphere that encouraged family togetherness. Motel rooms were often decorated with bright colors, a taste of luxuries, and the latest appliances that many Americans could not afford at home.
The motel pool with vacationers swimming and lounging poolside:
The motel was also presented as a lively, leisurely, and sociable place as guests were shown relaxing at picnic tables or having fun in and around the motel pool. While these scenes were often staged and the atmosphere contrived, they reinforced the importance of family togetherness and vacation fun.
The ‘50s were the height of the roadside motel industry. However, the development of new interstate highways in the late ‘50s forced many of the smaller Mom-and-Pop motels to close their doors, as the main thoroughfares – and the tourists – passed them by. In the ‘60s, larger motor courts were built near highway interchanges, and social and cultural changes forced the travel market to evolve. While families continued to vacation, it also became more common for young, single men and women to head out on road trips across the country. Motel owners appealed to this market with images of bathing beauties lounging and posing poolside.
Today, Mom-and-Pop motels and postcards play into the cultural phenomenon of American nostalgia. Travelers (myself included) enjoy the old-time reminiscence of the Mom-and-Pop motel and its connection to an iconic time in American history, and abandoned motels and other roadside buildings hold great appeal for many photographers. While these buildings offer a glimpse of a faded American culture, postcards give them life and evoke their lost past. —Rebecca Gross
Above photos taken by Rebecca Gross in Green River, Utah.
Rebecca Gross is a design historian and freelance writer, currently completing her Masters in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at Parsons The New School of Design. Her research interests include twentieth century design, architecture, and photography. Originally from New Zealand, Rebecca has travelled extensively throughout the world and much of her work is informed by these experiences. One of her favorite road trips was a one-month adventure through the American Southwest staying at roadside motels, hiking in national parks, and photographing ghost towns and abandoned buildings.