IV. Rise in Popularity


“Sixty-six, of course, has always stood for a whole class of roads. The Okies didn’t all take 66, they also took U.S. 54 and U.S. 80. Tourists took a number of roads to California. But 66, perhaps due to its mellifluous (and quite accidental) numbering, is the road that named the myth.”

Phil Patton, Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highways, 1986.

The popularity of Route 66 increased after World War II as drivers were drawn to the allure of the road that they had heard as the Okies fled the plains during the Dust Bowl–portrayed in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939)–but in a more positive light as well. In 1946, Bobby Troup wrote the song that was to become the anthem of the Chicago-to-Los Angeles journey, “Route 66,” though it was his wife Cynthia who first uttered the now-famous phrase “get your kicks on Route 66.” The Beats, most notably Jack Kerouac, took to the road as well, and despite the fact that little of Kerouac’s travels took him along 66, the road became synonymous with the kind of journey narrated in On the Road (1957) (Fitch 1992, 189). By the1960s, television was joining the bandwagon: CBS created the series Route 66 (1960-1964), which dealt with the changes taking place in American society and the role of cars in teenage culture.

Cars had been, for the most part, unavailable to teenagers during World War II, and even if someone was lucky enough to have a car, the imposition of gasoline rationing in 1942 made long distance trips virtually impossible. After the war, there was an abundance of cars, easy access to cheap gas, and more disposable income. Young men and women took advantage of all that the open road had to offer, and business owners responded by marketing themselves both to appeal to teenagers and to make having a a car a necessity rather than a luxury. As the teen auto culture expanded, its essential components–drive-in restaurants, movies, bowling alleys–were located on the outskirts of town, not close to the neighborhoods where people lived (Fitch 1992, 176).

Route 66 had been seen as the path to opportunity during the Depression, as well as in the post-war era. Southern California had a strong economy, and many people decided to relocate there following the end of the war (Fitch 1992, 176). California drew more and more people south along the now famous road as they sought success in sunny California. Families packed up and moved west, and, once again, many of them traveled along Route 66, stopping to see the sights as they went. All along Route 66, businesses opened that catered not only to teenagers, but to families by offering low prices that translated to large volumes of business. In addition to food and movies, Route 66 offered freedom, with campgrounds, cheap hotels, and a sense that you were still on Main Street, allowing travelers, young and old, with our without families, the opportunity for inexpensive, safe, entertainment.