Signs of the Times

There is a magical allure to motel signs.  Perhaps it is the multi-colour neon, the fun iconography in their design or both that make them so appealing. For whatever reason I love them.

It isn’t exactly clear when the famous motel sign came to be. Businesses have always used signs to advertise.  But there is something distinct about motel signage that is different from other establishments.

Diplomat Motel c1960 and today in Elkhart IN

These signs harken back to a time when travel differed from today and it was common to venture off on a journey without a room reservation. The motel sign served a dual purpose to beckon people off the highway and give you a taste of the experience they aimed to provide. They were the best and often only form of advertising for the moteliers.

In researching the history behind the motel sign, it appears to have taken root in the 1950s. The signs stood at the driveway entrance to entice travellers from the highway. The sign imagery set the tone for what guests could expect and types of services the motel offered. They advertised features like swimming pools, colour TVs and air conditioning on the sign. Purposefully designed to provide contrast and visual appeal, the tall sign posts on which the signboards stand were in direct contrast with the single story motel architecture of the day.

Motel Safari in Tucumcari, NM paying homage to a time gone by, advertising Seely Posturepedic pillow top mattresses as a sign of quality

Come the 1960s, motels were finding it more difficult to compete with the hotel chains.  Travellers slept in hotel chains because they promised a consistent product.  This is the Holiday Inn era. To compete with the hotel chains, motels often advertised household brand names on their signs to attract travellers. Brand names like Seely mattresses, RCA televisions and Crosley air conditioners were regularly featured on motel signs to convey quality.

Relative to 1961 and with so few motels in operation, it is a special sight to see these nostalgic signs today. And I get excited every time I see one. Too bad there are so few but it is just another sign of the times.

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