John Margolies’ Roadside America
As the pre-Interstate American roadside has slowly disappeared, why has it taken on such meaning for us? Historical geographer David Lowenthal tried to explain it in his book with the unusual title, The Past is a Foreign Country. He said it has to do with our desire to re-establish a sense of place in an increasingly rootless world. Old buildings, old signs, old lampposts and fences—those genuine pieces of evidence that prove to us that an earlier, almost mythic time once existed—provide a sense of stability and permanence lacking in our present lives.
Today, we appreciate the buildings, signs, and landscapes of the American roadside for many different reasons: their pre-Modernist artistry; their funky and humorous attempts to beckon motorists during the Golden Age of road trips; or perhaps the entrepreneurial spirit of the many Mom-and-Pop establishments that tried to make a go of it before national chains and franchises took over. No matter what the reason, our appreciation inevitably relates to a respect for—even a reverence of—what once was but is no more.
But our love of the American roadside wasn’t always so. During the 1950s, the two-lane highways that had given rise to the American roadside had become congested, slow, even treacherous. Most travelers rejoiced as segment after segment of numbered highways like Route 66 gave way to modern, four-lane, limited-access freeways and turnpikes. To the vast majority of people, the Interstate Highway System, established in 1956, was a modern blessing. The Interstates symbolized progress, promising motorists speed, convenience, and standardized amenities.
We didn’t really start appreciating the American roadside until it had virtually disappeared. By the late 1970s, massive urban renewal projects made us want to preserve historic neighborhoods and streetscapes. In 1977, the Society for Commercial Archaeology was formed, devoted to the buildings, artifacts, structures, signs, and symbols of the 20th-century commercial landscape. The decommissioning of Route 66 in 1985 almost immediately led to an outpouring of interest to demarcate and preserve sections of this most iconic of American highways. The mushrooming of predictable fast-food chains led to a revived interest in old roadside establishments, like diners—including Lamy’s Diner, moved to Henry Ford Museum and restored for the 1987 exhibition “The Automobile in American Life.” Increasingly, diners, service stations, and other old commercial buildings garnered enough respect to be nominated for entry into the elite National Register of Historic Places.
By the 1980s, motorists, preservation groups, journalists, film producers, art and architectural historians—a whole movement of people—had come to reject those now-impersonal, too-efficient Interstates and once again embrace the American roadside for its adventure, variety, and personality.
But John Margolies beat us all to the punch.
Spurred on by a childhood interest in the roadside he had viewed out the car window during family outings, he began visiting roadside businesses as soon as he obtained his drivers’ license in the mid-1950s. His deep-seated interest in these old businesses led to a career exploring, studying, and writing about the architectural history of the roadside.
During the course of his work, Margolies became alarmed at the way in which the creativity and individuality of the old two-lane road culture he loved was beginning to vanish. And he realized how essential it was to record it before it was gone.
So, beginning in 1972, John Margolies embarked on a 100,000-mile journey—to “go everywhere and see everything” in order to document that fast-disappearing American roadside. For more than three decades he traveled, renting the “biggest, most comfortable and foam-padded American cars” he could find, tuning the radio to AM Top 40 stations, picking out routes using AAA maps, and heading out from his Manhattan home to photograph places he had never seen before. He later admitted that he knew almost nothing about photography. He used Canon cameras, with basic 50 mm lenses most of the time and slow ASA 25 film for maximum color saturation. For the best shots, he often waited: for storms to pass and skies to clear; for people and cars to leave the scene in order to capture a more timeless moment.
Paralleling the growing public interest in roadside culture, Margolies’ images gained increasing attention—leading to exhibitions and books and, finally, worldwide acclaim. Today, his work speaks to us with deep emotional resonance because, as his subjects have vanished one by one, their presence in his photographs has taken on a magical, almost mythic quality. The past, as author David Lowenthal warned us, really is a foreign country.
In 2013, The Henry Ford acquired 1,500 transparencies from Margolies’ 75,000-strong archive of images. View a selection here.
During the course of his travels, John Margolies also amassed an extensive collection of historical materials documenting the same vanishing American roadside that he was photographing. From this collection, Margolies donated to The Henry Ford souvenir pennants, do-not-disturb signs from hotels and motels, 1930s-era travel journals, and a group of postcard photographs produced by Dexter Press.
View a selection of John Margolies’ historical collection here.
Today, we take John Margolies’ work for granted. But we shouldn’t. He saved a record of something that is not only fast disappearing but is essential to us as Americans—a record of ourselves. We thank you for all your efforts, John.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Donna thanks Marc Greuther, Senior Director of Historical Resources/Chief Curator/Curator of Industry and Design for his efforts in acquiring this amazing collection.
photographs, John Margolies, travel, popular culture, photography, by Donna R. Braden, roads and road trips, Roadside America