PERHAPS MY GREATEST CHILDHOOD regret is that I never talked one of my parents into ponying up a quarter for the Magic Fingers bed massage machine at the Spotted Horse Motel in Hamilton. Still, just staying in a motel was pretty exotic, compared with sleeping on a pallet on an aunt’s living-room floor, so I took the disappointment in stride. After all, there were numerous other pleasures to be had for free: an endless supply of ice in cool little cubelets, postcards and stationery, and unrestricted splashing in a lifeguardless pool. Once, during a summer vacation with my grandparents in 1962, we stayed at a pink motel in San Antonio, a Spanish-villa knockoff with lush landscaping, where the soft-drink machine gave me my bottle of Coke and my dime back. The next morning at checkout time, my sisters and I argued over who got to keep the little unused bar of Lux as a souvenir.
In the early sixties the pink motel in San Antonio and the Spotted Horse in Hamilton (it was mint green) were just two of hundreds of family-run motels in Texas. Millions of people stayed at those motels, but only a few thousand knew the business from the inside—the husbands and wives who checked guests in and out, acted as maids and pool boys, and performed dozens of other duties every day. They were the target audience of Tourist Court Journal, the official publication of the International Motor Court Association. In 1937 the newly formed group tapped a Temple printer named Bob Gresham to be the publisher of the fledgling magazine , which would go on to chronicle the ups and downs of the motel industry for 32 years.
“Tourist court” was then the standard phrase for rentable cabins or cottages grouped around a patio or lawn; “motel,” a telescoping of “motor hotel,” was a slangier term that was already in use and usually meant a single-story building with adjoining rooms. Both terms implied accommodations that catered to families or businessmen traveling by car. Although Gresham knew little about either tourist courts or trade chronicles, he jumped in with gusto and fashioned a bible for mom-and-pop motel owners, addressing everything from laundry woes to undesirable guests. Today only two full sets of Tourist Court Journal exist: one in the Library of Congress and one in the archives of Temple’s handsome Railroad and Heritage Museum, where a peek into its pages is a figurative blast from the past—punctuated by literal ones from the vintage steam locomotives on display outside.
The covers of Tourist Court Journal—typically, an out-of-focus photograph of a motel room—are endearingly ugly. A sampling of story headlines over the years includes “Smile—and Mean It,” “The Latest in Lamps,” “Guests Like Percale,” “What Is a Heat Pump?” and “Are Credit Cards for You?” Some are easily misread by modern Texans; for example, “Reservation Abuse” (mistreatment of Native Americans?), “Grass Greets the Guest” (now that’s hospitality!), and the unforgettable “New Poop in Pools.”
In the beginning, the Journal relied heavily on contributions from its readers. One monthly column solicited solutions to such questions as “Linens and Blankets—do you have any stealage?” (Yes, and word coinage too.) The misleadingly titled “Court News” consisted of everything from birth announcements to building-permit requests. The Oaklawn Court, in Brady, noted that a bug invasion had caused its neon sign to flicker. Longview’s Lighthouse Lodge reported finding a lawn mower on its property after a minor tornado. The owner of a Harlingen motel, The Flamingo, sent in a photo of his dog, who wore a fishing hat while manning the front desk. Often articles were of the “Come again?” variety, such as one about the writer’s patent-applied-for “Murphy kitchenette,” which could be folded up out of the way. Sometimes the Journal was a little too motel-centric, as in this November 1954 bulletin: “A B-36 Air Force bomber crashed near the International Airport in El Paso, Tex., narrowly missing the El Rancho Motel. There was no damage to the court. One airman was killed.” (As these snippets suggest, a disproportionate share of the Journal’s readers were Texans.)
Especially in the fifties, many features focused on technical innovations like television (the sets were originally coin-operated) and air conditioning. The latter was a huge draw; one R. J. Ufheil even named his San Antonio property the Aero-Motel. Some topics were hardy perennials, such as how to beat a bad location and how to decorate with the latest fashion colors (in 1949 trendy shades included yellow, geranium, and chartreuse—which were photographed in black and white). And both writers and readers were continually in a lather over what to do with half-used bars of soap. A common suggestion was to turn them into homemade detergent, but after World War II, innkeepers began giving scrap soap to a charitable group that sent it to Europe “as an aid to the sanitation of that continent.” (Hey, let’s try this again; America’s international stock will soar even higher.)
Soap, a commodity that moteliers bought in quantity, quickly became the Journal’s most-advertised product. The ads’ nude models also gave the squeaky-clean magazine a bit of va-va-voom, although they were judiciously depicted from the back—and from the waist up. Palmolive, Dial, and Camay were long-time clients, as was the now-defunct Sayman Lanolated Soap (“the soap they remember you by—billowy lather even in cold hard water!”). Innkeepers also bought paper items in serious bulk, like those “Sanitized for Your Protection” toilet-seat strips; in 1955 they could get 10,000 of them for $3.75. (Many motels still use these, and my brother likes to remove them intact, take them home, and then surreptitiously reinstall them in friends’ bathrooms.) Another motel must-have was the freebie postcard. Ads for companies like Tichnor Bros. of Boston showed how printing magic could remove telephone lines and sidewalk weeds or add nicely spaced bushes and fat clouds. And both ads and articles showcased the woods and wood-nots of furniture trends, from Western-style oak pieces, like the late-forties wagon-wheel designs by Prairie Schooner