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The word motel originates from the Motel Inn of San Luis Obispo[?], first built in 1925 by Arthur Heinman[?]. Entering dictionaries after World War II, the motel (aka the motor hotel) referred initially to a single building of connected rooms whose doors face a parking lot and/or common area, and their creation was the outcome of the creation of the United States highway system which predated the Interstate highway system and allowed easy cross-country travel.

Unlike their predecessors, auto camps and tourist courts, motels quickly adopted a homogenized appearance. Typically one would find an 'I' or 'L' or 'U' shaped structure that included rooms, an attached manager's office, and perhaps a small diner. Even so, postwar motels often featured eye-catching neon signs which employed pop culture themes that ranged from Western imagery of cowboys and indians[?] to contemporary images of spaceships and atomic symbols.

The modern motel began in the 1920s as mom-and-pop motor courts on a the outskirts of a town. They attracted the first road warriors[?] as they crossed the U. S. in their new automobiles. They usually had a grouping of small cabins and their anonymity made them ideal trysting places (or the "hot trade" in industry lingo). Even the famous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were frequent guests, using motels as hideouts[?]. The motels' potential for breeding lust and larceny alarmed then FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who called motor courts "camps of crime" in a magazine article in 1940.

Motels differed from hotels in their emphasis on largely anonymous interactions between owners and occupants, their location along highways (as opposed to urban cores), and their orientation to the outside (in contrast to hotels whose doors typically face a hallway).

With the 1950s introduction of Kemmons Wilson's Holiday Inn, the 'mom and pop' motels of that era went into decline. Eventually, the emergence of the interstate highway system, along with other factors, led to a blurring of the motel and the hotel. Today, family owned motels with as few as five rooms may still be found along older highways, but their lifespans appear to be short.

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