Sometimes the most enduring travel memories come not in what you do when you reach your destination but in the stuff you see along the way. Check out this shortlist of roadside sights once commonplace along America’s highways and rural byways that are now disappearing or completely gone.
If you’re old enough to remember Esso gas (“Put a tiger in your tank!”) and Mobile’s flying red horse, then you probably remember the days when the corner gas station offered more than cheap coffee, bucket-sized fountain drinks and two-for-one breakfast burrito deals.
Drive into just about any gas station up until the early 1970s and the ding-dong bell activated when your tires rolled over a hose strung across the asphalt in front of the pump would bring attendants running to pump your gas, check your oil, squeegee your windshield and — because every service station back in the day had a garage and experienced mechanics on the premises — service just about any mechanical need your car required.
A combination of economic factors led to the slow demise of the full-service station. The long lines and high prices brought on by the oil embargoes of 1973-74 started the trend in self-serve stations that could then offer lower prices to penny-pinching customers. Ditto for the wave of discount auto parts shops, specialty tire stores and quick-lube facilities that finally made full and friendly corner gas service sadly obsolete.
Once a fixture on just about every busy American street corner, the iconic glassed phone booth has quickly become a dinosaur of communication technology. Sure phone booths could be dirty and smelly, covered with graffiti, foul drawings and obscene messages of the sort that have no place in polite society, but the nostalgic among us also remember the phone booth as the place where Clark Kent disappeared to change into the Man of Steel. And then there were any number of Hollywood films in which a phone booth has been used as everything from a time-traveling portal to a perfect cinematic refuge for a lonely and, usually, rain-soaked hero to reach out and touch someone he loved.
Ever wonder how sticking out your thumb became the universal symbol for hitchhiking? Writing for Slate.com, Forrest Wickham found the actual origin for the gesture rather murky. The first reference to “thumbing” however, happened in a 1925 article in American Magazine that described how “[t]he hitch hiker stands at the edge of the road and points with his thumb in the direction he wishes to go.”
In the decades after, “hitching” as a means for people looking to find work and/or see the country on the cheap was more than just common. It was an actual “movement” pretty much until the late 1960s. Then three things happened, according to this NBCnews.com report quoting Syracuse University popular culture expert, Robert Thompson.
“The interstate highway system took over as the principal route of long-distance travel, and hitchhiking was forbidden on these well-patrolled throughways,” Thompson said. “Law enforcement in many communities began taking a less casual approach to hitchhikers.” And finally, he said, “a generation of paranoid horror tales of what can happen if you hitchhike scared the bejesus out of most people who might otherwise have taken up this unique form of ad hoc carpooling.”
Once a popular medium in rural America for advertising roadside attractions, restaurants and chewing tobacco, barn ads largely fell into obscurity in the mid-1920s. One company carried on the trend — Mail Pouch Tobacco. The company started advertising on barns in the late 1880s and continued the trend under the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company of West Virginia into the early 1960s when some 20,000 Mail Pouch barns were scattered across 22 states.
Mom and Pop Motor Courts and Motels
Okay. Before anyone gets miffed by the picture and fires off an angry comment reminding us that wigwam motels were never very common, we know. But unique motels with real character sure were. And that’s the point.
During the 1930s and after WWII, private owners dominated the roadside lodging trade and, according to this retrospective over at Motel Americana, “offered a glimpse of the American Dream: home and business ownership on the same site.” Every motel (or “motor court” as they were called back in the day) used to have it’s own style and charm. Owners used to model the façade of their establishments with brick, stucco, even logs — whatever fit the local architecture and served to attract more guests.
But then, according to Motel Americana, came the interstate highway system that began snaking across the nation in the 1950s and 1960s. “Chains like the Holiday Inn began to blur the distinction between motels and hotels…[and] the thrill of discovering the unique look and feel of a roadside motel was replaced by assurances of sameness by hosts ‘from coast to coast’.”
Have a favorite long-lost roadside sight that you’d like to add to the list? Feel free to add your reminiscences in the comments below.