Roadside Humor Postcards
Collecting travel postcards is an entertaining and engaging way to connect
to the history of tourism and its relationship with the rhetorical construction
of 20th century America. This site, a subsection of Motel
Americana, provides you a collection of humorous travel postcards, mostly
from the 1940s. To save downloading time, I've chosen to place thumbnails of
the various images in this essay. Click the
button to enjoy the full-size view. Use your browser's BACK button to return
to this page.
Heading West to the Wild Frontier
Many early travel postcards poked fun at the irony of auto enthusiasts and their contradictory desires to "get away from it all" even as they carried everything with them. In his Home away from home: Motels in America, John Margolies (1995) provides a humorous example with the Automobile Telescope Touring Apartment: "It had electric lights, shower, bath, and a seemingly dangerous heating device connected to the car's exhaust system" (p. 21). The imposition of technology on the wild and untamed frontier served a key role in the performance of a uniquely American ideology. Patriotism was also key. Click the second card in this row for a "See America First" billboard. Here is reference to a Western booster movement that blossomed throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century. Even Cole Porter tried to capitalize from the movement with his 1916 musical of the same name (this play featured a tune called, "Will You Love Me When My Flivver is a Wreck?") As this tune reminds us, the realities of highway life - the often unimproved two lane roads and the vast distances between mechanics - brought many auto-expeditions to a grinding halt.
"But it Looked So Pretty in the Postcard!"
Perhaps the second most basic theme of road travel postcards - besides "wish you were here" - was "thank goodness you're home." Highway travel was not nearly as glamorous as the travel books said. Moreover, many tourist courts were little more than shacks thrown up next to a gasoline pump. Maybe you could buy some homemade sandwiches from the owner or go into town for fried chicken and an orange soda. But you almost always provided your own linens and were lucky if your cabin wasn't a glorified outhouse. Certainly some organizations and publications like Tourist Court Journal attempted to infuse some degree of professionalism in the roadside accommodation enterprise but, in fact, anyone with a hammer, wood, and some excess farm land could get into the tourist trade. As these postcards depict, the results were the subject of humor for folks at home.
Tin Can Tourists and Sardine Tight Accommodations
Even as tourist courts evolved into single-roofed motels with telephones and inside plumbing, many travellers chose to keep as close to the road and their vehicle as possible. Some were called "tin can tourists" for the tin cans soldered to their radiators - and the mostly canned food they consumed. For many TCTs, the continuous nature of the trip emerged from economic forces. An anonymous 'tidbit' from the Tin Can Tourists Homepage recalls that "With the postwar (WWI) drop-off in industrial production in the North, many laid-off workers still had a cushion of money - and a Ford Model 'T'. Instead of despairing, they decided, 'Lets take a vacation.' And they headed to Florida." Throughout the south, tin can cities flourished, sometimes despite the best efforts of sheriffs, health officials, and tourist court and motel owners who feared the competition. As late as 1966, the official association of TCTs counted 100,000 members in their records. With all of those bodies and all of that exhaust, it's little wonder that conditions in paradise where less than perfect. Even so, every year, tens of thousands of "highway gypsies" converged in tin can camps. As the last postcard in this series demonstrates, motel accommodations weren't necessarily any more comfortable.
Women and Men on the Road
Discovering sexism and other forms of prejudice in early century postcards is like finding tacky souvenirs on a roadtrip - it doesn't take much effort but it's kind of embarrassing. However, it is useful to note the manner in which women's roles were defined and contested in travel postcards of the era. In Americans on the road: From autocamp to motel, Warren James Belasco notes that the Victorian notion of separate spheres was alive and well for early tourists: "Until the 1920s few women signed hotel registers. Clerks made the official notation for women traveling alone. Except at a few fashionable metropolitan hotels, the register was not considered suitable reading for the gentler sex" (p. 58). Autocamps and early tourist cabins inspired some dismissal of outdated notions but underlying depictions of women were no more progressive than found in commercial hotels. In these more modern sites, oppositional narratives hung suspended against one another without challenging the sexism of the day. In other words, while women could cross boundaries into the public sphere, they were subject to more varied forms of surveillance. After all, only "certain women" would entertain themselves in tourist camps. Hyper-domesticity (serving an entire roasted chicken for dinner in one card) was the necessary counterpoint to assure the viewer of feminine virtue on the road.
As my collection of highway travel postcards and memorabilia grows, I'll add
to this subpage of Motel
Americana. Be sure to check back soon.