I feel like I was just transported to a time 40+ years ago. A time when things were simpler. Not easier, just simpler.
In the mid-1970s, a man named John Margolies became concerned that the roadside attractions he came to love during long road trips would one day be replaced. A more modern, “larger” world focused on materialism would displace the simple wonders of a bowling alley, a diner, or even a general store.
Mr. Margolies was absolutely right.
Fortunately for us, Margolies decided to begin taking photographs during his trips. He captured everything from gas stations to motels to ice cream shops and everything in between.
Even better, Margolies didn’t do this for his personal gain. He did it as a service to humanity. More than 11,000 of his photographs are now part of the Library of Congress where we’re free to use and love them.
Or, in this case of this article: take a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Enjoy the photos I curated below – I know I did!
Official photo credits: John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Thinking of a gas station today comes with a lot of negative thoughts. High prices, the weirdo hanging outside the door, and the fact that you swear you just filled your tank.
But the gas stations of the 70s hit me a little different. Driving was still new, the roads weren’t so crowded, and I didn’t have to drive as far. But we all know the 70s brought some serious oil problems!
Most of these gas stations below had already seen their final days, but I remember them really well.
How Much Was Gas In The 1970s?
When the 70s began, the national gas average was 36 cents. Of course, much like today, that decade came with its own shocking oil crisis. By the end of the decade, it had reached 86 cents!
That’s about $3.52 in 2022 dollars. As of this writing, it’s about $3.70 but it wasn’t long ago it was approaching $5.
Burgers, fries, and a milkshake? I could go for all three right now.
Fortunately, diners – or at least a version of them – still exist across America, but not quite like in the 1970s.
They were a cultural staple all througout the post-WWII era.
What Kind Of Food Did Diners Serve In the 70s?
While the menu would of course vary, some staples of diners in the 70s included:
- Ham Sandwiches
And obviously, the classic: a chocolate milkshake with whipped cream and a cherry.
How Much Did It Cost To Eat At A 1970s Diner?
While it varied depending on your location, a sandwich would run you around $1. Usually, a combo was around $2.
But what about that beloved milkshake?
It could cost you anywhere from 25 to 50 cents.
I don’t know how or why drive-in theaters ever went away, but so many people still love them to this day.
There’s something magical about pulling up to a gigantic screen in a field, adjusting your radio knob, and enjoying a movie… or two.
Let’s take a look at some drive-in theaters Margolies captured during his travels.
How Much Did A Drive-In Theater Cost?
First, we can go back to May of 1933 when the first drive-in theater opened in New Jersey. The initial cost was 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person – but it wouldn’t exceed $1, so load everyone up!
By the time the 1970s rolled around, it didn’t seem to change that much given the time difference.
The average was around $1.55. That’s around $11 or so in today’s money.
What Are The Best Drive-In Movies?
Quite a few movies did well at the drive-ins during the 70s. Some of them include:
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- Walking Tall
- Smokey and the Bandit
- Gone In 60 Seconds
- Dirty Harry
It goes without saying that horror movies often stole the show.
Before chains like CVS and Rite Aid took over, local drugstores were the go-to place for prescriptions and other health-related needs. I’m sure you remember them!
Thinking back to being sick, there was a comfort about the local drugstore.
What Happened To Drugstores?
While plenty of drugstores still exist across the country, more than 1000 have closed their doors since 2003.
Even worse, ones that didn’t close were mostly bought up by CVS, Walgreens, and other chains. But much like they were the ones in control, the drugstore landscape is changing again.
These chains are now shutting down their stores in droves as online options by Amazon and other corporate giants make it even easier.
Perhaps the local drugstore will return! (Yeah right)
Okay, yes I know bowling alleys exist but let’s be honest… they aren’t what they used to be. Once inventions like automatic pinsetters came around and replaced “pin boys,” the industry really took off.
The bowling alley was and still is a great place to socialize. But let’s go back in time.
When Was Bowling Most Popular?
Bowling enjoyed a golden age from around 1940 til the end of the 1970s. In fact, there were more than 9 million members of bowling leagues.
It took a backseat to other hobbies, but – much like movie theaters and other weekend activities – it has made a come back. Between disco balls, cocktails, and other gimmicks, it has grown again.
How Much Did It Cost To Bowl In the 1970s?
As with everything else, it depends where you lived. But in the mid-70s, it was reasonable to bowl for around 50 cents per game. Some others have reported renting an entire lane for 4 hours for around $5-7.
Now it can cost as much as $5 per game to bowl. Of course adjusting for inflation, a rise is to be expected.
Ice Cream Shops
If you didn’t get ice cream at a diner, you probably swung by an ice cream shop. Just about every town across America had an ice cream shop or two, and now we’re all left with nostalgic memories and a bigger belly.
What Happened To Ice Cream Shops?
Like everything else, chains came along and put them out of business. When a corporation can mass produce or purchase ingredients in bulk, the product becomes much cheaper – and the locals can’t survive.
As much as I enjoy a Dairy Queen blizzard, it’s to blame!
How Much Did Ice Cream Cost In The 1970s?
An ice cream cone would set you back around 15 cents in the 70s. Maybe 3 cents if you wanted a double, and who didn’t?
McDonald’s was offering a Tripple Ripple ice cream cone for just 20 cents in 1972. Too bad their ice cream machines never work.
Although roadside motels often get a bad wrap in movies and for their cleanliness, they’ve always been a staple of American travel.
I’ve stayed in some very hospitable and friendly motels!
Let’s take a look at a few from the late 70s and early 80s.
How Much Were Motels In The 70s?
Well, if you go by Chico above, around $15 a night. With trailer space!
In the early 70s, it was reasonable to get a motel for around $6 per night. But as inflation skyrocketed, those days disappeared quickly.
Chains such as Motel 6 came along to offer rates as low $19 for years to come. Today, you might want to avoid any motel offering that rate unless you like cockroaches.
What Amenities Did Motels Have In The 70s?
This is one area where I’m not sure it’s gotten much better. Some of the TVs in today’s rooms look like they were purchased in the 70s!
Usually, a motel had a small television, radio, and alarm clock in the room. A coffee lounge and sometimes a bar would be in or near the lobby.
With time, things change. It always has and it always will.
As new technology replaces humans, our thoughts fill with nostalgia. While it can feel overwhelming, much of the change has come with great improvements.
We are more connected to each other – in new ways – than ever before.
And thanks to people like John Margolies, we will always have cherished memories of the past.
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