Before GPS, road-tripping Americans canvassing the country’s freshly paved roadway system in the early part of the 20th century had to rely on gas station maps to find diners and other pit stops. Alternately, they could just keep their eyes peeled for one of the thousands of unique buildings that were designed so speeding motorists could easily identify what they had to offer.
Along the famous Route 66, writes author Richard Ratay in his road trip memoir Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, were “colossal fiberglass ‘people attractors:’ giant hotdogs, guns, pies, cow heads, ice cream cones, and other items associated with the goods each proprietor was hawking.” Other places tried to stand out to passing tourists by offering variations on the “world’s biggest” motif, like the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, Illinois.
These giant donuts, whales, tea pots, and other distinctive stops were shot for decades by photographer John Margolies, who made it his life’s work to capture these stucco slices of Americana before they disappeared. The Library of Congress first began acquiring portions of Margolies's archive in 2007 and started digitizing those images after Margolies died in 2016. The result of their efforts is an expansive—and totally free—online scrapbook of 11,710 color photos.
Born in 1940, Margolies took frequent road trips with his parents. An architectural critic, he began photographing the roadside attractions in 1969, continuing the work through 2008. While many of these places have shuttered, their creative exteriors live on through Margolies’s lens. You can browse the rest of the collection at the Library of Congress website.
All images courtesy of the John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.