Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


BACK BEFORE driving was considered an undesirable activity, people used to “take drives” as entertainment. Imagine that!

And, indeed, there’s a most informative account of this: Americans on the Road, written by Warren James Belasco, Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He begins with gypsying, the camping by automobile that commenced more than 100 years ago, and shares its evolution almost but not quite to motels with glittery ceilings.

For Wife Dottie, me, and others of our generation, the book reminds us of adventures of “going on a trip” with the family.

Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945, by Warren James Belasco, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

I particularly enjoy the book’s academic appeal, with an extensive index, 11 pages of suggested books for additional reading, and 20 pages of notes. The book is not heavily illustrated, but its photos are well- and occasionally wryly chosen.

Belasco’s tale begins even before the automobile, with a network of American railroads leading to the growth of towns along their routes. Salesmen traveled from one to the other, but travel as entertainment didn’t really exist.

View from the tracks, Dunkirk, New York, c. 1900. This and the following images from Americans on the Road.

The typical railroad hostelry wasn’t known for its luxury. To a large part, the American west’s Harvey House chain and Canadian Pacific’s Frontenac were reactions to these less than salubrious accommodations.

On the other hand, by 1910 the the automobile was no longer merely a rich man’s toy. It offered ordinary people the option of travel as entertainment. What’s more, this mobility no longer depended on train routes. Roads, even though rudimentary, opened the entire country to family touring. Belasco quotes an Outing magazine editor in 1923: “The car or trailer is M’Lord autocamper’s castle… And the whole wide world is his manor!”

A pioneer motorist in his Toledo admires the Grand Canyon, 1902.

Families would motor along to a suitably scenic setting, pull off to the roadside, and set up for the night, maybe using a tent or just sleeping in the car. The terms “motor gypsying” and “motor hoboing” became popular.

Belasco offers an “only slightly exaggerated” 1913 motor-gypsying joke: “Hubby—What does that dirty tramp want at the gate? Wifey—He just arrived in a rickety last year model automobile and asked me to get him a set of old tires.”

Gypsying, 1923.

For those interested in motoring, but not camping, the choices were slim. Fancy resort hotels were expensive and formal. Belasco writes that, with moderate accommodations, “Interiors generally remained unchanged from the 1870s. To 1914 eyes this meant shabby, overstuffed Victorian parlor furniture and faded green wallpaper.”

Drummers, clerks, and bellhops at the Hotel Beale, Kingman, Arizona, early twentieth century.

“Women motorists,” Belasco observes, “felt particularly uncomfortable in such traditionally male places.” Instead, gypsying took on an aspect of family reunions. And, in the early 1920s, municipal autocamps arose to fill this need.

A happy family is shown on the cover of Motor Camper & Tourist, April 1925.

At first, a town would set aside land for the free use of overnight gypsying. Improved accommodations, showers, as an example, might be accompanied by small fees. More fancy autocamps evolved as commercial activities, not just municipal benevolence.

In time, local businessmen sensed that inexpensive restaurants and lodging could take the place of these autocamps.

Tourist cabins near Antigo, Wisconsin, 1941.

As an example, Belasco observes of Antigo, Wisconsin, accommodations, “These units typified the basic cabins of the 1928–1932 era. The larger building at the far right is a community toilet and shower.” By 1940, such accommodations were out-of-date.

As touristic choices evolved, some of them were downright bizarre. Do you want to stay in a traditional mission? Sure, they were throughout the southwest. How about a tepee? Even if, indeed, it was in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Above, Mission Courts, near Dallas, Texas, 1942. Below, Wigwam Village, near Bardstown, Kentucky, 1940.

Wife Dottie and I recall tourist cabins that were rather less extreme. She remembers tiny cottages with kitchenettes where one could cook the day’s catch and enjoy a fresh-baked salmonberry pie on the Oregon coast.

Colonial Cottages, Louisville, Kentucky, 1940. Belasco notes, “The ‘no locals’ policy reduced the notorious ‘bounce-on-the-bed’ trade.”

Belasco cites Howard Johnson’s originally as a restaurant chain that added lodges in 1954. The first Holiday Inn opened in 1952, and Belasco observes how franchising became ubiquitous in this evolving industry, all projecting “scrupulously clean-cut Americanism.”

And glittery ceilings. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Russ Harness
    September 13, 2017

    Memories of roadside picnics on a weekends and overnighting on cross country trips in my grandparents 49 Nash. Adventures!!

  2. phil ford
    September 13, 2017

    This sparked fading memories of my childhood travels in the 50s. Toward the end of the Golden Age, but I do remember when the bitsy ‘cabins’ were a common sight in flyover country. Our family of five couldn’t have afforded so much travel any other way. 😎

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