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American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66

Lisa Mahar (2002)


Many thanks to Heather from Cult of Not Doing, who donated this book to the D.o.C. library (which is highly devoted to taxonomies of obscurities such as this one; see also).


This is a book about the motel signs built on Route 66 between 1938 and the 1970s, from the year the highway was fully paved to the era when it as bypassed by the new interstates. It is an analysis of the complex processes by which these signs were created, from conception to placement along the highway. And it is an examination of how and why motel signs have changed over time, and what those changes tell us about the people who made and used them. Careful attention to signs made during these years, which encompass five distinct eras of signmaking, provides insight into changes not only in the signs themselves but also in patterns of transportation, work, and leisure and in regional and national traditions and economies. (Introduction)

Motel owners, generally husband-and-wife teams, were nimble and efficient and quickly adapted to customers' changing demands. They incorporated kitchenettes into their cabins, for example, reducing travelers' food expenses. They also provided convenient roomside parking, making bellhops (and tipping) unnecessary. (16)

Signmakers had been among the most traditional of designers, so when their clients began requesting unique symbols and patterns on their signs during the 1950s, they acquiesced, but with increasing anxiety. Without a foundation, they were at a loss for ideas for motel owners who wanted signs that stood apart from the competition and the past. An article in the trade journal Signs of the Times offered suggestions for generating designs; it suggested a signmaker "fold a piece of white paper and then put a little ink or paint near the crease and fold it again. Open it and you have a design." Or "crumple a piece of paper and hold it under a light bulb, and the shadow will give you an original shape to trace with a pencil." (24)

Like Pedagogical Sketchbook, this book relies on graphic elements—photographs, illustrations, and diagrams—in addition to text. Most studies of three-dimensional form do not include adequate visual documentation, and rarely are graphic elements like diagrams used as primary analytical tools. (25)

I approached several sign shops of Route 66 that had been in business between 1938 and 1968, but almost none had documented or archived their work. I also approached motel owners, but except for a few already documented examples, little knowledge about motels' histories has passed on to current owners. (28)

Behind a neon sign's neon tubing, letters were painted in light colors and sometimes outlined in a bright or darker color to emphasize their form and geometry. During the day, the crisp painted outlines of the letter forms were clearly visible against the contrasting background, usually a light color against a dark one. Neon tubes, although transparent, added dimensionality to a sign, especially in strong sunlight when shadows were cast by the tubes. (48)

Neon was used primarily to outline letters and occasionally to define the outer edge of a sign box. It radically affected the perception of the letters by softening the geometric rigidity of the letter forms. Neon also altered the perception of a sign box at night: by emphasizing the letters, the overall form of the sign was visually diminished. (49)

Early motels of the 1920s were referred to as "camps," reflecting the fact that customers slept in tents rather than rooms. As owners began building permanent structures in the mid- to late-1930s, the nomenclature shifted to "cabins" and also to the quaint "cottages," as the Colonial Revival took hold. When that styles fell out of favor during the early 1940s, there was a shift toward more modern terminology. "Court" became the most popular term, reflecting the U-shaped organization of many motel complexes, though this was eventually eclipsed in the late 1940s by the more generic "motel" (motor + hotel). (51)

Because the sign industry's trade journals were published in black and white until the early 1960s, signmakers had a particularly well-developed language for color. Published photographs of signs were often accompanied with detailed descriptions of color use. During the early- to mid-1940s, color names consistently described natural things—animal, vegetable, or mineral in a purse state—such as "fawn," "lemon," or "slate." Although many of the natural things referred to were not found locally, color names did convey a connection between the signmaker and the natural environments he placed his signs in. (53)

In the 1930s and early 1940s, symbols of colonial America, such as images of stagecoaches and lanterns and the use of colonial names, began to appear on motel signs. This trend in symbolism was a direct result of the boom in automobile travel. Cars allowed Americans to determine where they wanted to go, when they wanted to leave, and with whom they wanted to travel. As Warren Belasco notes in his book Americans on the Road, driving a car was a rejection of the restrictions of trains and, by extension, modern America in favor of the freedom of the open road, a freedom that harked back to the American Revolution. (54)

The traditional motel signs of the late 1930s and early 1940s illustrate the idea of direct sales: an unadorned 1:2 sign box reading "Clark's Motel" offered nothing more than a place to sleep, owned by a person named Clark. These signs did have some symbolic content: progressivism was conveyed through machinelike forms, for example, and the simple geometry provided an image of functional efficiency and cleanliness.
After World War II these subtle symbols no longer provided a sufficient means of differentiating one business from the next. Motel owners and signmakers responded by boldly theming their buildings and signs. Long-distance travelers might not connect with traditional local identifiers, such as proprietors' names, so they were replaced with broader regional symbols, or themes, that would seem more familiar. "If there are Indians around, or if it is in the Spanish section, or in the wild and wooly West," wrote a reporter for Tourist Court Journal, "the guests expect the motif to be in keeping with the locale and with that for which the state is noted. Don't disappoint them. Make their dreams come true." (77)

The saguaro cactus was used on signs to convey a Western theme, although there were many examples of its use along Route 66. The plant was not native to the area. (79)

The Navajo reservation in Arizona was the largest on Route 66, but references to the tribe were often erroneous. In this example, the customary dress is portrayed inaccurately. (79)

Like other components of signs from this period, type styles were extremely varied. While type consistently worked toward conveying a particular theme, it did so more subtly or more obviously depending on when the sign was made. In the late 1940s, early themed signs followed the type treatments of prewar signs: square, sans serif, all capitals. By the early 1950s, however, type became more expressionistic in an effort to emphasize the name and theme. Script was especially popular and was often set on a curve or angle to make it more noticeable. By the mid-1950s type began to return to simpler, less stylized forms, although it still retained the ability to promote a specific theme. Stylized type treatments were almost always reserved for the name of the business; the function, "motel," remained simple and generic. (86)

Theming dictated all aspects of a sign's appearance and content, and motel names were no exception. Indigenous peoples, distinctive natural topography, and native flora were the most popular categories for names. Mid-1940s names generally reflected the regional culture more accurately than 1950s examples, which were more likely to repeat stereotypes portrayed in the media. (88)

A less culturally specific name made a sign more accessible to out-of-towners and could be used in more than one region. (94)

Illustrations were almost always literal representations rather than abstractions. Cowboys, Indians, and other regional icons conveyed a sense of adventure to tourists—but within the confines of familiar, established themes. (94)

The most ubiquitous Western symbol was a cowboy on a bucking horse with a lasso; it was found on motel signs in every southwestern state along Route 66. Cowboys not only said "Western," they were also ideal symbols of adventure and freedom, the same qualities tourists expected to experience while on vacation. (94)

Native plants were difficult to illustrate and even when well-executed, formally non-descript. Additionally, many plants—such as the piñon—were unfamiliar to out-of-towners and therefore not very compelling. Later examples used more recognizable plants, such as the saguaro cactus. (94)

"Cactus" is much more generic than the saguaro that illustrates it, which in any case is not native to Gallup, New Mexico, the motel's location. (95)

Recommendation services such as the American Automobile Association existed primarily for traveling customers, not motels. If a motel was approved by the AAA, it meant that it met customers' standards. (98)

Best Western was another popular referral chain. Founded in 1946, it structured its business on soliciting motels along major western highways, including Route 66. In exchange for membership dues from affiliated motels, Best Western printed and distributed travel guides and bought advertising in national magazines and major newspapers. (99)

The lasso was a permanent part of Best Western's identity until the late 1950s, when Western themes fell out of favor. (99)

The more general the plant reference, the more likely it was that the motel was located outside of the species' native range. For example, this mid-1950s iteration of the Cactus Motel sign uses an illustration of a saguaro, though the motel is located four hundred miles outside of the plant's native area. As Southwest historian Douglas Towne notes in his article "The Mysteries of the Wandering Cactus Unearthed," motels with more specific names, such as the El Sahuaro Motel, in Tucson, Arizona (a town not on Route 66), are generally located within the plant's native habitat. (103)

The tepee was one of the more interesting structures adapted for motel rooms, but like many Native American symbols used in signs and architecture, it was inappropriate. The tepee was actually used by Plains Indians, hundreds of miles from this motel in Holbrook, Arizona. (107)

Adobe-style construction for motels was common from the early 1940s through the mid-1950s. The style enjoyed tremendous popularity not only because of its ability to portray a Spanish theme but also due to its stripped down, undifferentiated surfaces, which were economical and easy to build. These simple, streamlined forms conveyed modernity and up-to-dateness as well as regionalism. (107)

The Navajo Motel in Seligman, Arizona, is close to the reservation. The detailed illustration accurately portrays traditional Navajo clothing. (108)

It would be difficult to choose a more derogatory motel name than Tonto (Spanish for "stupid"). Although the word originally referred to a subgroup of Apaches who lived near modern Flagstaff—named the Tontos by Spaniards during the mid-1700s—this sign was almost certainly meant to capitalize on the well-known character from the radio, film, and television series The Lone Ranger. (110)

[For those interested, John E. Koontz has a more nuanced explanation of the origin of Tonto.]

Large arrows were popular additions to signs, since they served both as expressive components that enticed and directed customers and as decorative elements that could distract from a sign's flaws. "Any time a designer runs into trouble with some structural problem," wrote signmaker Lucian Howze, "that customer may find that he is getting an arrow on his sign, even though he didn't know before that he needed it." (138)

Some motel owners and signmakers included symbols on their signs, such as colonial-style letters and lanterns, meant to attract customers who were, as a Signs of the Times article proclaimed in 1963, "looking for a place where they and their children could rest among people of their own class." (It went without saying that these people would also be of their own race.) (161)

As professional designers made inroads into the industry, the creative role of the signmaker shrank. In many cases, his tasks were reduced to the implementation of others' designs and the assembly and installation of prefabricated components. (162)

By the early 1960s, the transition from custom-shaped metal sign boxes to prefabricated plastic element was nearly complete. The formal vocabulary of these new modular components was usually geometric and abstract. With the exception of a small revival of colonial symbols, signs contained few referents; illustrations were avoided, as were names that referred to nature or particular places. (166)

Some owners replaced broken or spent neon tubing only if it was used for the words "motel" or "vacancy." (198)

Signs also became considerably taller, making them easier to recognize from farther away and at higher speeds. A motorist's field of vision was greatly affected by this increase in speed—peripheral vision decreased dramatically, as did the ability to absorb information. (204)

The new trend toward simpler, more generic forms was a boon for signmakers, since they could finally begin to free themselves from the demanding pressure for constant innovation. The fanciful compositions of the 1950s had required significant investments of time on the part of the designer, making it more difficult for shops to remain profitable. By contrast, the plastic components used on early-1960s signs were already designed and manufactured, which saved the signmaker considerable time and money. Designing a sign was as easy as perusing a catalog for components, having them shipped to the shop, and arranging them into a satisfactory composition. (210)

The signs that appeared along Route 66 during the mid- and late 1960s were extremely simple in terms of content and execution. Much like the signs of the early 1940s, they contained only the most basic elements—sign box, type, and pole—arranged in traditional, symmetrical configurations. The 1:2 sign box was once again common, as were plain type treatments. But while there was little formal variation between the signs from these two periods, there were distinct conceptual differences. Signmakers were not addressing the needs of a mass society. Signs of the 1960s were produced with almost no consideration for the specific contexts where they would appear. They were thought of abstractly and arithmetically—as lines on paper—rather than materially.
Signmakers became increasingly anonymous, making signs for towns they would never visit. This lack of contact sheltered the signmaker from the direct, personal criticism pre-World War II designers had been subject to if they failed to fulfill a community's expectations and also freed him from a sense of personal obligation to these towns. Without this personal interaction and commitment, signmakers began to lose interest not only in the local effects of their signs but in their craft itself. Signs from this era were often made of unsubstantial materials and constructed poorly. (213)

Government regulations sought to maintain scenic views along the highway. Signmakers were encouraged to make signs that were simple and unassuming and did not distract from natural vistas. (215)

Interstates bypassed slower highways like Route 66. Many motels added taller signs that could attract motorists on nearby interstates. (215)

As corporations began using acronyms in their logos, so did independent motels. (215)

All capital letters were preferred by signmakers; graphic designers favored upper- and lowercase. Ultimately, the signmaker prevailed—by the 1970s, most signs contained letters that were all uppercase. (231)

Many of the new, standardized fonts had elongated vertical proportions that conserved space on the printed page, but they were not meant to be read from a distance. When signmakers did choose such letters, it was usually for economic reasons. Many sign companies priced signs by square footage of background plus an additional amount per letter based on vertical height. "By raising the height of letters two or three inches," wrote art director Lucian Howze, "a commission salesman could get $10 or $15 more commission on the sign." Unfortunately, signs with tall, thin letters were more difficult to read, especially when viewed obliquely, from a motorist's perspective. (232)

By the late 1960s, many motels were dispensing with the name on the sign altogether. Independents needed the word "motel" to be as prominent as possible so that customers could quickly distinguish them from other types of businesses. By this time independents had little hope of competing with the national chains except through price, so any personal touches, other than indications of economy, were futile. (235)

Color selection became a scientific process. For example, yellow letters could be smaller than red ones since they were considered to be more legible. Some design purists found color unnecessary. "Clean design," wrote signmaker Charles Meyers, "defies the need for and white [will suffice]." (236)

Signmakers and professional designers did not acknowledge the similarities between 1940s and 1960s signs—they seem not to have noticed. Signmakers were chastened by professional designers when they used "outdated" hand-painted American fonts instead of more "modern," European fonts like Helvetica, but there was no acknowledgement that many of these late 1950s European typefaces were based on earlier American designs. (238)

Symmetrical signs were considered more elegant and sophisticated than assymetrical compositions, which were often referred to as garish. (239)

Although it was not until 1983 that Route 66 was fully bypassed by modern four-lane highways, the transition was well underway by 1970. Motel owners along the older road experienced a sharp drop in business. To make matters worse, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 prohibited them from advertising on nearby interstates. (250)

The height of signs changed dramatically between the late 1940s and 1970s, from an average of ten feet during the late 1930s to over eighty feet during the 1970s. (251)

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was intended to keep new billboards out of rural and scenic areas, eliminate those already in place, and encourage roadside beautification. Although the signs that identified motels on their own premises were not controlled under the new law, simplicity and restraint were encouraged. "The more primitive a people," observed [graphic designer Joseph] Selame, "the more they are attracted by bright, big, shiny objects. Too many signs of the past indicate the primitiveness of the American people." (254)

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