Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Some Thoughts on Warren Belasco's Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945

The last few days I have spent some time with Belasco's Americans on the Road, in part because I plan to use this book this time around in a senior seminar this coming spring. I have always found this work, now more than 30 years old, a joy to read. It stimulates my own romantic interest in road trips and travel, although at times the narrative is slow moving and a tad repetitive.  It was a pioneering work in its day, however, and considerable scholarship followed this books 1979 publication. Belasco traces the transition of Americans on the road for leisure. beginning with rough and ready camping during the WWI era to the evolution of free, pay, and cabin type camps during the 1920s and the 1930s. It is a story that brings in much concerning  middle class values and aspirations between the Wars, as the author explores the alternative of the hotel and why Americans desired other ways to travel than by the railroad.
So now that I have taken a decade or so break from reading this book, what struck me the most concerning its contents?
On at least two occasions, Belasco discusses the changing nature of the road trip, as daily distance itineraries increase markedly between the 1920s and the 1930s. The trip no longer is about taking time and seeing the roadside, but getting from place to place, as fast and quickly as possible. So the auto experience becoems far more about speed and driving.

Some passages from page 87:

"There seems to be a certain irresistible impulse within us to keep moving on," wrote one autocamper who was not pleased with the discovery...By the 1920s this mysterious urge to move on assumed the status of conventional wisdom....Yet all too often the auto vacation wound up as a hurried drive to a given objective."

As roads were improved daily average trip distance increased from 250 miles, to 300 miles and finally to 400 miles by the end of the 1930s.

The psychology and culture of driving from an historical perspective certainly could use more study.

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