Saturday, October 25, 2014

Auto Camping, Gas stations, and Road Food during the 1920s and 1930s



"Hot Dog Stand, West St. and North Moore, Manhattan" Berenice Abbott (1936)


Auto Camping and “Gypsying” Across America
A word might be said here about the “gypsies” that journeyed via the automobile during the first few decades of the twentieth century.31 Beginning around 1915 or so, gypsies in their cars traveled throughout the U.S.A., setting up camp by the roadside. During summer nights, their campfires dotted main routes. They pitched tents on private property, often angering farmers who were typically far from hospitable. In an effort to maintain order and promote this inexpensive tourism, around 1920 communities through which many of these gypsies passed began setting up free camping facilities near towns. Enterprising individuals saw the commercial possibilities in all of this, and by the mid-1920s private campgrounds were established, along with the first tourist cabins.32
            The tourist cabin, the size of a small shed with perhaps a cold water basin, bed, night table and dresser, characterized the American roadside before World War II. James Agee, writing for Fortune, described these temporary domiciles as “curious little broods of frame and log and adobe shacks which dot the roadside with their Mother Goose and Chic Sale architecture, their geranium landscaping, their squeaky beds, and their community showers.”33 With a rate of perhaps $2 a night, and the fact that the owner cared little about names and who stayed in these structures, fears of the “hot pillow” trade surfaced.
            The contemporary traveler on U.S. 40 or 66 has to look hard at the roadside to find these cabins, once a place of rest for those who had made 300 miles a day and were weary, hungry, and ready to stop for the evening. Later that night male travelers would gather outside the cabins and compare notes about road conditions and weather, while the women would congregate in one of the units and chat. Only recently-married couples darken their cabins at an early evening hour.
Fill’er Up
            Of all the roadside structures erected during the golden age of two-lane highways, perhaps the most significant was the gas station. Gas stations and their architecture and design developed in a competitive market with the hopes of attracting the consumer through brand association. Indeed, the architecture of the gas station played a vital role in attracting the consumer.
            Initially, gasoline stations did not exist in the sense of featuring a curbside pump. Rather, workers filled gasoline containers and later transferred the gasoline to the automobile by hand. In 1905, a revolution took place in terms of gasoline dispensing as the Shell Oil Company opened its first true filling station in St. Louis, using a gravity-fed tank with a simple garden hose attached. In a few short years, the development of pumps made possible the first curbside stations. In their earliest years, these stations primarily existed in front of groceries, hardware stores, and other commonly-frequented businesses.
            Following the early success of the curbside pump, the gas station evolved into a dedicated structure featuring a shed-like profile. The shed housed offices and supplies, but this was anything but an aesthetically pleasing structure, and a call went out by civic-minded citizens for a more pleasing building. In response, houses developed as a compromise.
            These house-type stations, frequently prefabricated, were large enough to contain an office, storage rooms, and restrooms. They were made of brick, stucco, and galvanized steel, and thus were relatively easy to maintain. And they were very much characteristic of the new gas stations of the 1920s. For example, in 1922, more than 200 of the 1,841 Shell gas stations included common design aspects, and these 200 stations accounted for 40 percent of Shell’s business.
            During the 1920s the house and then the house with canopy style became popular. By 1925, most gasoline stations were equipped with grease pits and car washing facilities. These bays allowed the station to offer an increasing number of services, mainly minor repairs. Thus stations added to their business, and the filling station was transformed into a service station. Houses could easily be adapted to accompany one or several bays.
            The house gas station design suggested a bond with the American family, and Pure Oil Company capitalized on this notion. Pure designed a cottage-type station complete with a chimney, a gabled roof, and flower boxes on the windows.
            Perhaps the most influential gas station design appeared on the scene during the Great Depression. This design, called the oblong box, developed as companies searched for functionality in station design. This layout gave the company the ability to sell tires, batteries, and accessories, referred to as the TBA line.
            Generally, this design featured a flat roof, plate glass, and an inexpensive porcelain enamel-looking facing. The design was a loose example of the International style, inspired by Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus School in Germany after World War I. Most notably, Walter Dorning Teague, a designer hired by the Texaco Company, made the oblong box a feature found in virtually every corner of American life. The Architectural Record reported that Teague’s stations featured “certain primary functional requirements [that] were obvious, such as trademark and color standardization, efficient layout for sales and servicing, adequate office and restroom space.” In sum, the oblong box design met the physical need of adapting a structure to a variety of lots and the primary psychological needs of comfort and convenience to the customer. The house and oblong box gas stations characterized one facet in the development of roadside structures prior to World War II. Certainly the appearance of tourist cabins and then motels would reflect another view of changes in structures just beyond the highway.
Road Food
            In addition to the camps, cabins, and gas stations, restaurants were also integral to life along the road. It was in these distinctive eateries where bad, good, and indifferent “road food” was served, often with regional flavors and dishes. Many hungry travelers during the 1920s and 1930s gobbled hot dogs (frankfurters were the term preferred by hot dog king Gobel), Bar-B-Q sandwiches, Good Humor ice cream and Popsicles. If ever there was a food that typified America and its restless citizens on the go, it was the humble hot dog.34  
            And while the hot dog remains a popular meal at truck stops across America, where one can purchase jalapeno, regular, ballpark, or corn dogs, with the rise of the divided highways slowly but surely the distinctive meal was supplanted by chain restaurants and fast food. How that transition from the two- to four-lane highway happened in America is an interesting story. During the interwar years, most construction consisted of two-lane highways like Route 66, as seldom were divided highways even thought of. But between the wars, innovators began to articulate ideas concerning the advantages of divided highway designs.


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