By Bob Blake
As the automobile expanded our horizons, some travelers sought more than camping. Cities continued to have hotels, but the majority were in the center city and visitors arrived by train.
Automobiles introduced a new class of travelers who wanted convenience over luxury. Enterprising couples opened their houses, served a meal and called themselves a “tourist home.” They were the start of our “bed and breakfast” inns today.
Cabins and small, one room “houses” sprang up along the roadside so the motorists could park directly in front of their quarters! The next morning the road was at their doorstep.
How did the word “motel” work its way into our vocabulary? Michael Karl Witzel’s book, The American Motel, tells us. As might be suspected, the first one appeared in California. The Hamilton Hotel chain saw a need for motorist lodging and adapted small bungalow houses as tourist accommodations. They combined the clean appointments with the convenience of the motorcar. Without much thought, the word “motel” was innocently written into a brochure. Previously the cumbersome word “Autel” had appeared. All agreed “Motel” had a flow and a ring but their efforts were thwarted as the copyright office considered “motel” too general. In 1926 “Milestone Mo-Tel” was accepted and registered. Soon, however, “Motel” joined the plethora of common words such as cheeseburger, milkshake, and hot dog!
The prosperity of the twenties filtered through society and America took to the roads. Tourist homes, cottages, motor camps, and a few motels sprang up like weeds on the roadside. Many square brick or wood salt boxes lined the city outskirts. Glass bricks were a common accent. Within a few years, many displayed banners from national organizations certifying basic standards.
As the black pall of America’s Great Depression feathered across America, travel changed. Eight million people in 1931 were jobless, hungry and distraught. The sound of slamming factory gates echoed across the nation.
Midwesterners experienced a one-two punch as their land became a giant dustbowl. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath captured the plight of America. Their auto travel was a quest for work, not pleasure. Humorist Will Rogers captured the spirit and said, “We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile!”
The shock of WW II restarted America’s motels. Despite gasoline and tire shortage, travelers needed a place to lay their head each night. Many trailer parks became permanent villages and cabins rented by the month instead of by the day.
Independent motel owners quickly learned the advantage of consolidated marketing.
Best Western ® was an early (1946) grouping of individual motels that maintained their unique character but met basic quality standards. The first Holiday Inn ® appeared in Memphis in 1952…a result of hotelier Kennoms Wilson’s frustration with subpar accommodations he encountered on a family vacation. It is reported the name was inspired by the 1942 movies of the same name starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Now the company is part of an international group with thousands of rooms. I suspect the sole owner of a 1930s tourist court would just say…wow!