While driving along American roadways in the mid-20th century, it was common to see restaurants masquerading as a massive 65-foot-long muskie, gas stations in the shape of a teapot, and motels that looked like wigwams and railroad cars.

Before the arrival of corporate advertising, franchise branding, and building conformity, the architectural environment in the U.S. was a free-form landscape of creative expressions. During the open-road automobile culture that swept the country at that time, businesses wanted to take advantage of attracting potential customers. Enormous roosters, dinosaurs, peaches, milk bottles, giant lumberjacks, and other whimsical signs, artifacts and buildings stood as proud totems along the highways, beckoning to travelers like endearingly eccentric sirens and luring them to stop — because really, who could come upon a giant gun-totin’ rootin’-tootin’ shrimp in a cowboy hat and not want to get out of the car and at least take a picture of it?

From 1969-2008, photographer John Margolies (1940-2016) drove more than 100,000 miles across the country exploring the changing landscape of the open-road culture, documenting roadside attractions. Almost all of Margolies’ work was done in the interest of preserving images of what would otherwise be lost to time.

Margolies shot more than 11,000 photographs of signs on main streets, gas stations, movie theaters, restaurants, motels, miniature golf courses, fantasy coastal resorts, and various odd sculptures and amusements. In an age when online shopping and mega-malls have reconfigured American consumerism — stripping away delightful peculiarity in favor of a bland uniformity — his work stirs up nostalgia and reminds us of a more unpredictable and colorful past.

Author of a dozen books, including John Margolies: Roadside America (2010), his photographs have sold at auction from between $100 to $3,250. The bulk of his work was consigned to the John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive, which was purchased by the Library of Congress. In 2017, the Library of Congress lifted all copyrights on the photographs, meaning we can all cruise through them anytime we need a nostalgic road trip.


The Big Fish Supper Club in Bena, MN, in the shape of a 65-foot-long muskie, 1980.

The Big Fish Supper Club in Bena, MN, in the shape of a 65-foot-long muskie, 1980.


















Bob’s Big Boy, Los Angeles, 1981.

Teapot Dome gas station, Zillah, WA, 1987.

Bomber gas station, Route 99 E., Milwaukie, OR, 1980.

Leaning Tower of Pizza, Quincy, MA, 1984.

Peach water tower, Frontage Road, Gaffney, SC, 1988.

Bob’s Java Jive, Route 99. Tacoma, WA, 1979.

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