Understanding American Roadside Businesses

I love travelling. It was a thrill to recently visit Moscow and Chiang Mai (Thailand) for the first time. But I enjoy travelling the great highways and byways of the United States every bit as much as those exotic locales.

I once sat beside a really interesting woman on a plane who crowed (appropriately) about how she and her husband took their kids travelling every year – to Peru, to Italy, to China, to New Zealand. Then I asked her if they also had seen the USA. And she said, “No, we don’t take trips around the US, it has all become so lookalike and boring.”
Man, she has not seen the USA I have seen. If you think all the USA looks alike, go to Seattle, spend a few days in that wonderful city, then jump on a plane to San Diego, see the sun for the first time in a week, and tell me those places are alike. Sure, they both have Walgreen’s and Radio Shack, but that can be a good thing for people like me who travel all the time.
Drop in on Burlington, Vermont, then come down here near me and spend a weekend in Fredericksburg, Texas. Then try the upper peninsula of Michigan, downtown Chicago, and then drop into Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, Florida. Even within single states, America has amazing diversity. In New York, compare Letchworth State Park to Times Square. People who think Texas is only the exciting cities of Dallas and Houston do not know Marfa in the Big Bend Country, or the mysterious Caddo Lake. And of course California, despite all its challenges, still perhaps the most diverse and beautiful state of all.
As I have explored 49 states, I am fascinated by all the roadside architecture and businesses. Gas stations change in design from region to region, and have in the past varied from one era to the next. Brands like Standard and Esso go away and new names like BP and Valero rise to the fore. Motels started as little cabins, then evolved from one design to the next. Roadside hamburger stands evolved, and continue to co-exist with the giant chains. All this fascinates me, probably because it represents the intersection of business, architecture, popular culture, and travel and geography. And a decent dose of nostalgia, which I always love.
If you want to really understand the motels, gas stations, and quick food eateries and how they developed, there is a set of three books that are among my all time favorite books, all by John Jakle and his co-authors Keith Sculle and (on one book) Jefferson Rogers.  All are published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, which publishes some great history books as well as many other subjects. They are The Gas Station in America (1994), The Motel in America (1996), and Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. I know of few other books which so successfully knit together business history, visual history (architecture and design), and their cultural implications. 
Combining industry histories with plentiful data, maps, and photos about specific companies, this is relevant history – who hasn’t stayed in a Holiday Inn at one time or another, who hasn’t stopped at a Mobil station? But so often we stop, and yet know nothing about how and why these places look the way they do, why they are located in the places they are.
Even if you don’t find joy in nostalgia and roadside memories, these books are among the best industry histories I own. And they each cover an industry that is not well-documented in non-specialist books. As important as motels have been in the life of America, there are very, very few books about them, and no others (that I know of) that tell the story of this amazing innovation. There are diatribes against fast food, but how many really know the story, the facts of the evolution? Few people study the marketing (gas station) side of the oil business except for memorabilia collectors, who sometimes know little about the companies involved – where did that flying red horse come from? 
If you work in or are thinking about working in one of these industries, then these really are “must-have” books. You cannot know where you are going if you do not know where you came from: that observation is every bit as true in the restaurant, oil, and lodging industries as it is in any other industry. 
Jakle has written other great books about the American highway, but I would start with these three. They can be hard to find and will be rare in new bookstores; if you don’t find them at your favorite online bookseller, try your local used bookstore or the great website www.abebooks.com which specializes in on used books – millions of them from thousands of booksellers.