The Visual Poetry of Roadside America

The late John Margolies (1940-2016) is perhaps best known as a photographer and chronicler of “vernacular commercial structures along main streets, byways, and highways throughout the United States in the twentieth century.” Put another way: if you’ve ever spent time looking at photos of miniature golf courses, weird motels, whimsical gas stations, and assorted wacky bar signs, you’ve almost certainly seen his photos. In addition to the massive archive of his work held by the Library of Congress (have a look at the online catalog), there’s also a site that catalogs his images, collected artifacts, exhibitions, and lectures, well worth a look. The Library of Congress is currently sharing images from the Margolies archive on Flickr, and it is amazing — if you’ve got time to go down the neon rabbit hole, you should definitely check it out. Giant shrimp with guns and cowboy hats! Random giant dogs! Scrap metal dinosaurs! Peach water towers! Oh, so many treasures!

Among the signs collected by Margolies and shared by the Library of Congress is this little gem:

No-Tel Motel sign, Route 172, Massillon, Ohio (LOC)

The No-Tel (sometimes spelled No-Tell) Motel is, of course, a fairly obvious and familiar trope, famed in song and in story. This is where folks go to do things they shouldn’t be doing (drugs, prostitutes, someone else’s spouse, the occasional murder). One does not expect an establishment with this name to have more than one star (although one would be wrong, if one counts ironic stars). One does not expect cleanliness, safety, or service. One does expect adherence to a certain minimal notion of privacy and access to a selection of — ehem — services and amenities of interest to those who do not intend to stay long on the premises. The most (in)famous joint currently in operation with the No-Tel name is in Tuscon, AZ, and is known for being exactly as awful as the trope suggests. Also: you can apparently get a Groupon for it, although one hesitates to suggest that you do so.

The sign in Margolies’ photo (taken in 1988), however, belongs to a different bearer of the proudly dodgy No-Tel name: the No-Tel Motel on Ohio Route 172 (the old Lincoln Highway) outside of Massillon, near Canton. According to newspaper advertisements from the 60s and 70s — around the time when the Lincoln Highway was reassigned to US 30, likely sounding the motel’s eventual death knell — the Massillon No-Tel had all of the expected features implied by its noble name, including round-the-clock operating hours, TV, air conditioning, and temperature-controlled waterbeds “with vibrators.” (See ads in The Massillon News (1977) and The Evening Independent (1976), for example). Its charm, as I’m sure you can imagine, was undeniable to its select clientele.

It’s not really surprising that Margolies only appears to have shot an image of the sign rather than the building — the building itself probably wasn’t that interesting. The sign, however, is an important part of the story of the Lincoln Highway, whose decaying legacy still remains visible in hundreds of oddball constructions marking the way across the landscape between one coast and another, the human condition spread out in its best and worst forms along now mostly-empty blacktop.

Curiously (and wonderfully), the Groupon page for the Tuscon No-Tel lists the website for a now-defunct literary zine specializing in erotic poetry (attached to an also now-defunct independent publishing operation) as the motel’s own site, probably due to a spelling error (the no-tel/no-tell thing). It’s a fun little find off the Information Superhighway — another old sign left standing, waiting to be discovered and then abandoned once again.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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