A Good
Night’s
Sleep

The Evolution of the
Motel Room

By Lyle Miller

The sign beckons you, the building interests you, and the office welcomes you, but the room itself defines most of your motel lodging experience. It is here that the traveler sheds the stress of the road, seeking relaxation and slumber. The success, or lack thereof, of this effort determines the enjoyment of your stay.

Early on, travelers were just happy with a roof over their heads and a bed lifted off the ground.  Utilitarian conditions were acceptable, as the goal was to comfortably sleep through the night to hit the road the next morning. Although travelers were sometimes required to bring their own bedding, a crude cabin beat setting up a tent in the rain.

TOP: The Bagdad Inn, 3335 East Van Buren, Phoenix, 1960. ABOVE: The Bagdad Inn’s lobby, 1969

A property owner along a busy highway, with an investment of time and money, could start in the auto camp business. Popular Mechanics magazine provided some guidance with their July 1935 article, “Tourist Cabins that get the Business.” The three-page story explained the construction, while the illustrations showed dimensions and layout. In a 12×10-foot, 2×4.frame cabin, there was space for handmade furniture, including a bed, two chairs, a folding table, and a wall-mounted cabinet.

The traveler felt at home because these were standard furnishings of the era. By the 1950s, however, the motel room offered luxuries perhaps not found at home. Now there was a chance to enjoy wall-to-wall carpeting, Hi-Fi music, and later, color television.  The day’s stress could be eased in a few minutes on a Magic Fingers bed for 25 cents.

In 1960 guests could control room lighting and television selection from the comfort of their beds at the Safari Motel in Limon, Colo.

A room too hot or too cold could negate all efforts of providing an enjoyable environment. Before air conditioning was available, occupants had to rely on Mother Nature for cooling. Windows placed on opposite walls could capture cool evening breezes. Cross ventilation was both a marketing ploy and a concept. Screens on doors and windows assured that insects were not guests. Steam heat provided a comfortable and cozy environment in the winter. As technology improved, motel units could offer individually controlled electric heat and refrigerated air conditioning that helped to assure a pleasant stay, as far as temperature, anyway.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lyle Miller is retired from the historic preservation field but still enjoys collecting and researching. Many years ago, he became interested in motels after receiving photos that his grandfather had taken of motel stays from 1930s–1950s. A short vacation to Taos, New Mexico, sparked his interest in room design where the room at a small vintage motel, though a bit worn, reflected the area’s spirit. What greeted him at a national chain a few blocks from the plaza in Santa Fe was flowered bedspreads and beach themed pictures on the wall—in Santa Fe!


There’s more! To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in (?). Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Fall 2020, Vol. 38, No. 2. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

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