I am bubbling over with excitement. I came across the most delightful primary source, By Motor to the Golden Gate (1916) by Emily Post who six years later would write her bestselling book on etiquette. By Motor to the Golden Gate is not just for fans of turn of the century American history. It will appeal to anyone who enjoys observations by those with a keen eye, quick wit and generous spirit. The prose are surprisingly modern and her outlook surprisingly down-to-earth.
This passage will give you a taste of why I admire Post and her outlook on motoring and life in general:
In fact, after years of touring, I have in a vague, ragged sort of way tried to hold to what might be called a motor philosophy. Anyway, I have found it a splendid idea when things go very uncomfortably to remember – if I can – what a very charming diplomat, who was also a great traveler, once told me: that in motoring, as in life, since trouble gives character, obstacles and misadventures are really necessary to give the trip character! The peaceful motorist who has no motor trouble or weather or road trouble has a pleasant enough time, but after all he gets the least out of it in the way of recollections. Not that our one disappointment about our chicken dinner is meant to serve as a backbone of character for this trip, neither do I hope we shall run into any serious misadventure, but I really quite honestly hope that everything will not be so easy as to be entirely colorless. (pp.44-45)
On a lark, Post, her son and a female friend decided to drive from New York to California via the Lincoln Highway, one of the earliest cross-country routes available to motorists. The success of the venture was hardly secure. Unlike today, automobiling at that time was an adventure sport especially when traveling long distances. The state of the roads was highly variably and in many cases “dreadful”, cars were a new invention and broke down often, and the quantity and quality of hotels along routes was unknown to the average traveller. Many advised the touring party to stay on the East Coast or at most turn back at the Mississippi River. Post’s editor stated, “After all, your object is merely to find out how far you can go pleasurably! When you find it too uncomfortable, come home!”(p.8)
While the Lincoln Highway did not pass through Tennessee, it is nevertheless a valuable source. Her first-hand account brings to life many of the aspects of hotel life that I have been researching. In Omaha she was peeved that she and her female companion were not allowed to partake in the “special and delicious-sounding luncheon at only sixty cents!”because it is just for “traveling men” in the cafe. (p. 99) This speaks to gendered spaces within hotels as well as how many establishments courted salesmen (also known as “drummers”) with special services. Furthermore, prior to Prohibition when hotels financial success was heavily tied to alcohol receipts, the food at hotels was geared towards men – heavy meat laden fare with rich sauces. Post stated that on the “traveling diet” “everything you eat is made of flour, flour, and again flour.” (p.100) The heavy fare and need to “dress for dinner” were two of the reasons why many travelers chose to camp along the roadside rather than stay at hotels according to Warren James Belasco in Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel 1910-1945 (1979). While Post and her party camped on a very limited basis – one time I believe – the description of their stay in the Painted Desert is memorable. She wrote, “My former fears of prowling Indians, strange animals, spooks, spirits – or perhaps just vast empty blackness – had vanished and instead there was merely the consciousness of an experience too beautiful to waste a moment of. I could not bear to go to sleep. The very air was too delicious in its sparkling purity to want to stop consciously breathing it.” (pp.181-182). I believe By Motor to the Golden Gate would have resonated with city dwellers of her day whose imaginations had been stoked by the “See America First” campaign launched by the railroads and National Park Service in 1915 but who desired the freedom to explore the country on their own terms. By making the trip, Post and her party made the idea of cross-country travel by auto feasible and fun despite the hardships.
Please raise a glass with me in Post’s honor. She was one cool lady. I, for one, would have loved to have had her as a friend and traveling companion. The book also makes me yearn for an adventure that is anything but “colorless”. Route 66 in particular with its distinct roadside architecture is calling to me. Road trip anyone?