‘As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway,
I saw below me a golden valley;
This land was made for you and me.’
Americans discovered travel in the 19th century, when trains first stretched across the landscape. But travel was on roads of iron, and many of the ‘golden valleys’ were untamed. The ‘endless skyway’ was only tamed in the 50s when American enterprise, American business, made air travel affordable.
‘What is good for General Motors is good for America and vice-versa.’ So said Charles Wilson, president of the car company from 1941-53. And he was not alone, and nor was he wrong. ‘The chief business of the American people is business,’ said President Coolidge. The images in this deck come mainly from the affluent 40s and 50s, a time of rampant prosperity, prompted by WW2 which delivered full employment and a massive boost for industry. At war’s end the US Marshall Plan made Europe safe for Uncle Sam’s exports. Some stats: from 1946 to 1960, the US’s GNP leapt by 36% and personal expenditure by 42%. The population increased by 23% to 56 million. Average income rose from $3940 in 1946 to $6900 in 1960 (16% allowing for inflation). It meant that homeownership, durable goods, recreation and above all TRAVEL were no longer restricted to a few. In 1957, 96% of wired homes had a fridge, 81% a television… and 72% of households had a car by 1960. The ‘white flight’ to the new suburbs, in houses often bought by veterans with generous loans, meant a car was essential and Detroit provided the vast majority. Eisenhower’s creation, in the late 50s, of Interstate Highways meant cars could take the family on vacation across America. Trains and planes were options, although increasingly the train struggled to combat the freedom of the car and the speed of air travel.
Travel in the US in the 50s was like another country, things were different then. You could drive faster (on cheap gas) via empty freeways in bigger cars (with vast fins), recline in a Greyhound bus, fly comfortably in uncramped Constellations, sleep soundly in sleepers like the 20th Century Limited where Eva Marie Saint seduced Cary Grant in North by Northwest. White-gloved attendants smiled. The greatest boon was the absence of bustle or queues. Americans began to discover their country. Airlines and railroads and tourist boards painted a picture, literally, of stunning destinations. The typical airline poster – often the product of a graphic genius – shows the exotic charm of, say, Hawaii with a teeny airplane in the top corner. The destination was the lure.
I once took a sleeper, the Montreal Limited, from NYC to upstate New York. It passed through majestic scenery. I shared a jug of Martini with myself. A blond sat next to me, far removed in beauty from Eva, but I was no Cary Grant. When she learnt I was from England she said rather bluntly – ‘bad food, bad plumbing, bad service and when it rains you go to the seaside in despair, and it rains.’ In contrast she said, America ‘offers everything we want that you have to cross continents for, from skiing to surfing, and with clean toilets, sun and no funny food or foreigners.’ The posters in this deck, celebrating a golden age of American travel, prove her point. The Land of the Free with her people freed from austerity to roam. Woody Guthrie was right:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island;
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.