Journeys on the mother road: Interpreting the cultural significance of United States Route 66
Route 66 has two histories, one as a mode of transportation, and another as a symbol of the Southwest and twentieth-century automobile culture. While not the longest, or the first, American highway, Route 66 became the most famous highway in America. This dissertation studies the factors that made Route 66 an American icon and an object of nostalgia, analyzes the perceptions of contemporary Route 66 enthusiasts, and discusses the preservation and interpretation of historic structures and “cultural landscapes” along Route 66 for the enjoyment and meaningful education of contemporary travelers and students.
While studying the historical basis for Route 66's popularity, this dissertation examines imagery created by railroads in the late nineteenth century to exploit southwestern myths such as “wild” Indians, “wholesome” cowboys, “lost” civilizations, “fiery” Mexicans, and the “forbidding” desert, to promote tourism in the region. The dissertation then analyzes similar promotional material created by Route 66 boosters after 1927 and literature by contemporary Route 66 enthusiasts. This study compares the ideas expressed by today's enthusiasts to the perceptions of Route 66 travelers between 1927 to 1970, as taken from letters on postcards, to determine if current notions about Route 66 are accurate recollections or merely nostalgia.
The research uses historic Route 66 architecture, discussions with individuals familiar with Route 66, historical advertisements, period postcards, motoring periodicals, academic and trade journals, and literature by contemporary Route 66 enthusiasts to support its findings.
The study concluded that much of Route 66's present fame resulted from railroad advertisements about the Southwest, marketing by Route 66 businesses, and promotion by contemporary Route 66 enthusiasts. Literature, such as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Bobby Troupe's song “Route 66,” and the CBS television show Route 66, also contributed to Route 66's popularity. The research found that recent enthusiasm for Route 66 vernacular roadside environments is, in part, a popular reaction against the monotony of interstate highways. Since many view historic Route 66 as a powerful symbol and may have misconceptions about its actual historical significance, those interpreting the highway or using it in education should carefully discern the road's actual history from myth.