Features & Columns

Heather David's Coffee Table Tome Plumbs the Kooky History of Golden State Motels

Weary midcentury road warriors and ladies looking for a tan found respite in quirky California motels. Photo by Arnold Del Carlo, Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History, San Jose State University

Heather David might know more about vibrating mattresses than anyone else in California. The proof lies in her new self-published book, Motel California: A Pictorial History of the Motel in the Golden State, in which she presents a fantastic taxonomy of kitsch, a hagiography of midcentury roadside motels in all their glory.

Throughout 180 full-color pages, David elevates wacky motel architecture to historical status, replete with neon signage, pools and, of course, Magic Fingers vibrating bed technology.

Like David's first book, Mid-Century by the Bay, this new zonked-out masterpiece is a hardbound coffee-table project chock-full of wacky ephemera from David's research over the last several years. It all began in the '20s, when developer Arthur S. Heineman opened an inn for traveling motorists in San Luis Obispo. For a while it was known as the Milestone Motor Hotel, later shortened to the Milestone Mo-Tel, believed to be the very first usage of that word. Connoisseurs of kitsch from across the globe are already demanding copies. Everyone seems to love kooky California history.

"My last orders were Switzerland, Japan, England, Germany, Australia, New Zealand," David tells me at a local coffee shop. "They're willing to pay $35 for international shipping to get this book."

From there, the book provides quirky history lessons galore, with insight into the growth of nuclear families and statewide automobile travel, plus the ways in which California's varied landscape proved fertile ground for themed motels. Mid-century swimming pool culture also comes through quite well, as does the sheer variety of innovative signage up and down the state, most of which is now gone. In that regard, fans of indie business culture will adore the book. On the other hand, if you're a jaded business traveler whose curiosity ends with how you can use your Marriott Rewards Points, well, you may adore the book somewhat less.

Speaking of which, David spent a fortune self-publishing this thing, plus hundreds of hours on the road, researching oddball accommodations and their owners, as well as amassing a collection of motel ephemera, decades-old brochures, postcards and matchbooks. All of which explode in living color.

"In terms of theme-based marketing, there's nothing like California," David says. Her face lights up when talking about cheesy motel signage from 55 years ago. "We had it all. We had the desert, we had Hollywood, we had Disneyland and all the storybook themes, we had the space race. So the only other state that has such eye candy diversity is Florida. They would be the second best, but California is number one."

Anyone with a smidgen of respect for high camp will understand that the book is not a vanity project. David doesn't care if she becomes famous. Her dedication to the subject matter is righteous and it comes through on every page.

"I just want to have a conversation about this," she tells me, her face still animated. "I mean, this is cool stuff. There's four pages on vibrating beds in there."

Which brings us to Magic Fingers. If you're old enough to remember, guests would put a coin into a ridiculous machine on the nightstand, and the bed would start doing its thing. Fifty years ago, there was even a travel guide to all the motels with Magic Fingers. David owns a copy of the guide, pictured on page 145.

"I paid seventy-five bucks for it," she says, adding that before Magic Fingers existed, Pulse-A-Rhythm vibrating beds were the norm. According to David, Motel California is the only book ever to document these technologies. She adds: "The thing about Pulse-A-Rhythm beds is that they promised a cure for pretty much everything. And the FDA came along and said, 'Unh unh uh' and made them pull all the devices off the mattresses and put them out of business. So after Pulse-A-Rhythm, Magic Fingers came into play."

David also learned that the Sundown Inn of Morro Bay still has a Magic Fingers bed. She even stayed the night to sample the goods.

"The woman thought I was nuts," David says. "But I needed to try it out. I can't just write about it. My Masters is in cultural anthropology and sociology. I gotta try the bed."

Heather David
Meet and Greet, Book signing
Antiques Colony
1881 W San Carlos St, San Jose
Sunday, November 26, 1-4pm