Classic Motels

An icon of the 20th century...the American Motel. Source
Vintage motel postcard, Tucumcari, New Mexico
America invented the motel and with it a national cultural icon. The word 'motel' was meant to denote a motorist's hotel and they were, in large part, a response to the exponential expansion of the automobile in US society; as road trips were becoming more and more popular,  the weary travellers needed convenient places to stay.

It was an innovative form of accommodation where travellers could conveniently park their cars just outside the door to their room and it wasn't long before motel chains began to spring up everywhere, some of them richly quirky, .such as the tee-pee-shaped rooms of the Wigwam motel on Route 66, where the sign apparently wittily read: When they suggested we stay at the Wigwam motel, I had my reservations.

The Wigwam Motel Arizona. Source
 Over the years the motel took on various memes - one the one hand they were symbols of American enterprise, highway adventure and family comfort but on the other, the motel's reputation acquired a certain creepy seediness,  which was featured to good effect in the Hitchcock thriller Psycho. The fictional Bates Motel captured the imagination, suggesting that maybe there was a dark underbelly to some of the isolated motels dotted around the country. Any motel keeper at the time who happened to have stuffed animals lying around would have been wise to stuff them in a box. Even the classic motel Vacancy/No Vacancy took on a strange cultural significance and has been used in countless films, songs and photographs, as metaphors for deeper themes about life.

Bates Motel on the Universal lot

A 60s Thing
Motels really peaked in popularity throughout the 1960, having superseded the pre-war  'auto-camps' that initially were make-shift camping grounds and developed into bed and breakfast style accommodation in stand alone cabins. Motels spread internationally in the 50s and the first motel in Australia was called the Belair, opening in Orange, NSW in 1957. At the time, it was a revolutionary new concept but the motel idea suited the long-distance travel that was a feature of the Australian lifestyle. By the 1960s motels were in full swing in and came a fixed and familiar part of the landscape. Travelling  salesmen, in particular, appreciated the convenience and for a mid-century family, staying in a motel was an exciting, even mildly glamorous, adventure.

Aging motel signs take on a poignant significance.
Though way past its heyday in the 21st century, the classic motel is so recognizably retro and so closely tied to cars - one the great icons of modernity - and to the optimism and innovation of the booming post-war period, that it has etched for itself a permanent place in the American cultural frame.

Drive-in Theatres