Waiting rooms for hitchhikers - lost innovation from 1939

In October, 1939, Popular Science covered a Michigan gas-station owner's friendly "waiting rooms for hitchhikers."
Performing the role of the good Samaritan to the nation-wide fraternity of automobile hitch-hikers, the owner of a service station in Albion, Mich., recently established a hitchhikers’ depot hard by his row of gasoline pumps. Nailed to a tree, a large sign visible to approaching motorists at a good distance, identifies the spot, while a painted hand, with the thumb outstretched in the traditional manner, does the spade work for tired hikers.


  1. Hey – I think you mean “hitchhikers,” not “hitchhiker’s” up there in the title: hitchhiker’s is the singular possessive of hitchhiker.

  2. You’d make a lot of money running the towel concession.
    You see, the money isn’t in the towels, but in the nutritive solution for dipping the corner into.

    THAT’S where the money is.

  3. That’s very cool about Slug Lines, I’d never heard of that.

    What ever happened to hitchhiking? It’s still common in other societies, but has somehow become completely unthinkable in the US. I’ve never seen any meaningful evidence of hitchhiking’s supposed danger, just anecdotes. Seems it was a casualty of the same attitude which made us afraid to let our kids out of our sight.

    Perhaps we need a “free range people” movement, too!

  4. zikzak: If I had to guess–and I don’t, but I will–bus line owners lobbied to pass anti-hitchhiking laws and at the same time spread those urban legends about psycho hitchhikers and psychos who pick up hitchhikers. Although I suppose that the “ass, gas, or grass” types didn’t help much either.

  5. I think Ted Bundy pretty much “ruined it” for hitchhikers. Not an instance of psychos hitchhiking, but definitely one of a crazy person picking up hitchhikers.

    I’m sure hitchin’ can be both fun and interesting to all those involved, when it goes according to plan, but I’d sure hate to find the exception to the rule. That’s probably the space in my brain that’s “my mom” talking, though.

  6. @9+10, Yeah, that’s the type of thing I’m talking about – these anecdotes that have somehow become so ubiquitous that they become the only representation of hitchhiking. Everyone’s got a story to relate about hitchhiking, but how many of them are firsthand? Ted Bundy killed some people once, and there were once a some people who may have had the (possibly apocryphal?) “ass, gas, or grass” motto, although I’ve never met any of them, nor have the many hitchhiking friends I’ve talked to.

    Sure, hitchiking isn’t guaranteed safe, just as you can meet a grisly end from any other form of transportation. But it seems like, as Bruce Schneier might say, there’s a vast disconnect between the feeling of security and the existence of security when it comes to riding in a car with a stranger.

  7. That’s what ten years of “Great Depression” will get you.

    I hitched plenty when I was in college– only one problem– being picked up by a drunk driver. He got me there pretty quick though! (Mainly because I changed my destination to “that 7-11 at the junction of route 44″ in order to get out before he crashed or got arrested).

  8. there’s a vast disconnect between the feeling of security and the existence of security when it comes to riding in a car with a stranger.

    Especially if, by stranger, you mean your parents.

  9. @#12: “and there were once a some people who may have had the (possibly apocryphal?) “ass, gas, or grass” motto, although I’ve never met any of them, nor have the many hitchhiking friends I’ve talked to.”

    Not apocryphal, common to 18-wheelers in the ’70s and ’80s. The whole bumper sticker reads:
    “Ass, gas, or grass – nobody rides for free.”

    A declaration of terms AND an acute philosophical observation all rolled into one! The fact that today such a bumper sticker would get you stopped by the police just makes me nostalgic for more rational times.

  10. When I was in Cuba this past winter, we saw many, many hitchhikers. Our tour guide on the Havana trip claimed it was the number one national sport. They also have a government paid position called ‘the Yellow Man’, whose job it is to put hitchhikers on government vehicles traveling in the same direction as the hitchers. Not only not gone, but now government supported – at least, in Cuba.

  11. I wrote a section about hitchhiking for the “Worldchanging” book.

    Several nations encouraged the practice. The Soviets issued coupon books to riders; truckers who picked you up got a coupon. Don’t know what they were good for; maybe if you saved up a hundred you got a Hero of People’s Transportation Medal.

    One high-tech alternative: cell phone-mediated hitchhiking networks. Everyone who wanted to participate would register, and have their photo and address on record. You could text in a request or your availability and then meet your ride or rider at a designated spot.

  12. Here on Maui, Hitchhiking is a viable means of transportation. It is not uncommon to see a pickup bed full of people that were thumbin it.

  13. My father was in the Navy, stationed at the end of his career at Moffett Field in Mtn View, CA. For many years, well into the 1980s, there was a what looked like a bus stop at the Moffett exit from Hwy 101, but I learned it was a place to give uniformed service men a ride.

    It was in fact quite common for service personnel to hitch rides all over the country while on leave, and Dad has a few stories about trips back home helped along by truckers and regular citizens when he didn’t want to spend the money to sit on Greyhound. There were even signs urging people who saw men in uniform to “Give Them a Lift!”

    Too bad that trust — even in our own soldiers and sailors — is long gone.

  14. In Fort Collins, Colorado, in the 70s, we had an organized “Community Car Pool” with a card you could hold up. It didn’t do me much good, but it was a nice idea. Seems to have withered away. Can’t say when, at this distance.

  15. #19, when I was a kid in Grand Forks, ND, they had the same thing for the Grand Forks Air Force Base. If you ever saw one of them, you picked them up. Good guys.

    I don’t think they were traveling cross-country, though. Just into town, that sort of thing.

  16. Re: #17, I’ve had great luck with craigslist rideshares. As long as you’re going from one metro area to another you usually have a few options and you can get a feel for people from their post.

  17. In New Zealand (Wellington) in some of the hillier suburbs, the council has put up Hitching posts. Which are essentially like the bustop signs, but with (HITCHING POST)

  18. Most people don’t think about this, but “spade work” is actually a racist term dating from when whites would refer to African-Americans as “spades.” I think most modern people think of it as referring to hard garden work. Nope.
    Just something to keep in mind!

  19. I suspect the British usage predates that considerably; in said usage “spade work” being the shoveling of the foundation excavations.

  20. David Friedman wrote about a very similar type of unregulated share taxi type service called “Jitney Transit” in his book “The Machinery of Freedom” (in the chapter called “99 and 44/100ths percent built”, a reference to the fact that the infrastructure is already there). It basically consists of stations throughout a city where people in need of a taxi can wait, everyday drivers can pick them up at will. He elaborates on how such a system would work, safety issues, everything you could imagine. It’s worth getting the book just for that chapter (although I say that about every chapter).

  21. @#15: I’ve always remembered the phrase as “gas, grass or ass..”. Google hits of the six permutations:

    gas grass ass 24400
    gas ass grass 863
    ass gas grass 21800
    ass grass gas 4000
    grass gas ass 1220
    grass ass gas 147


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