The New Roaring 20s

Welcome the glam. Welcome the style. Welcome the 2020s!

It was 100 years ago that America welcomed in the roaring 20s. The Great War was over and people were thirsty for decadence and adventure. The 1920s ushered in a new era of motor tourists as Americans bought shiny new motor vehicles and took to travel the country.  While there is no record of the total amount of motorcycles sold in the 1920s, by the end of the decade Americans purchased over 20 million cars and were exploring her roads. We do know that in 1920 Harley Davidson was the world’s largest bike manufacturer and their motorcycles were being sold in 67 countries. In 1923 BMW came out with a shaft driven motorcycle and introduced the boxer engine and when the decade came to a close, DKW of Germany became the dominant global motorcycle producer. We also know it wasn’t just car owners travelling the roads. As early as 1919 adventures like C.K. Shepherd had travelled across America by motorcycle and by 1922 were publishing the stories of their travels.

Vintage motorcycle poster – Harley Davidson, 1927

The 1920s also saw the introduction of neon signs to advertise businesses which would become a mainstay for motel advertising and Art Déco.  Although they discovered neon as a lighting form in 1898 and the famed distiller Cinzano first used it on a sign in Paris to advertise the iconic brand, advertising with neon in the United States didn’t occur until 1923. A Packard dealership outside of Los Angeles bought the first two neon signs for $1,250 each. And it wasn’t long before all the iconic brands of the era were capitalizing on the Art Déco craze.

Art Déco has its own distinctive style, incorporating the design elements of the new minimalism with the old decorative design of Art Nouveau. The term is short for the the French word Arts Décoratifs. Its design elements feature bold geometric patterns, sunbursts, and airbrushing and was prevalent in all forms of architecture, furnishings, fashion and even advertising of the era. The style was quickly being adopted the world over.  Everyone from Italian and German fascists, French communists and British socialists began embracing the design. In the United States, they commonly referred to the style as Modern Jazz and instead of a simple minimalist look it exuded lavishness, class and modernity. Some architectural examples include the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. With the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Art Déco incorporated Egyptian influences in its design, similar to how Googie architecture did in the 50s and 60s by capitalizing on the culture of the day. And like Googie, Art Déco represented luxury and progress which spurned the growth of the motel industry.   

With the rise in motor tourists the decade began the growth era of roadside motels. By 1928 there were 3,000 motels in America and just seven short years later that number had grown to over 9,000. It was also in the 1920s we see the first recorded use of the term Mo-Tel. The Milestone Mo-Tel opened in 1925 in San Luis Obispo, California. Previously, motels were categorized by a series of names like motor courts, tourist camps and tourist courts. And, in what is arguably the first recorded use of the term motel without a hyphen, the Motel Du Beau opened in 1929 in Flagstaff, Arizona. Motel Du Beau is still open today and I feature it in Sleeping Around in America.

A century later the new roaring 20s are upon us. So with the roar of our engines, let’s celebrate this decade by taking to the open roads and exploring the centenary of motels and an incredible era of progress and optimism. In the words of the Great Gatsby, “what do you say old sport?” 

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