Highway Hostesses: Cleaning America’s gas station restrooms

Highway Hostesses: Cleaning America’s gas station restrooms

By Chuck Woodbury
Editor, RVtravel.com

Before we traveled with our RVs, most of us traveled in cars. If you are older than 60, you likely recall long road trips with overnight stays in motels that were actually called motels — not hotels or motor inns or other fancy names.

And what you also remember are those times as you rolled past Burma Shave signs in your Ford Country Sedan that you needed to respond to the call of nature. This was expressed most urgently by little freckled-face Billy, who would wait until his bladder was about to pop before yelling, “I GOTTA GO!” to which Mom would say, “Billy, you will have to wait,” to which Billy would say, “But, Mom, I’ll pee my pants!”

Today such a crisis means locating a McDonald’s, convenience store or maybe a rest area if you happen to be on a road important enough to warrant such a public luxury. But back in the old days, it meant stopping at the next “service” station.

In the late ’30s the average service station restroom was suitable for only the most germ-defying motorist — no place to “rest” for sure, especially for the dainty ladies. It was a filthy never-never land of bacteria and brake fluid, a home for the motoring brave, but mostly the desperate.

But businessmen, always seeking a competitive edge, wisely figured that if they built a cleaner restroom, the motoring public would come. Phillips 66, for one, went a step further: It hired a brigade of perky, traveling nurses, outfitted them in capes, and sent them adrift in cream-colored Plymouths to sling Lysol from coast to coast. These caped crusaders of cleanliness were dubbed Highway Hostesses. Their goal: “Hospital Clean Restrooms.”

HIGHWAY HOSTESSES would visit each of Phillips’ stations at least once a month. At each stop they would inspect potty rooms as well as provide suggestions about how the station could be more appealing to motorists, especially the “feminine motoring trade.”

On the highway, a hostess would stop to provide assistance when she found a car in trouble. This could range from summoning help to repairing a mechanical defect to rendering first aid. During the summer, a Highway Hostess would carry ice water to refresh thirsty travelers.

These 20th century Florence Nightingales of the road actually performed some heroics. One helped save a child from drowning. Another administered first aid to five members of a Negro baseball team that had rolled its car near Kansas City.

Thankfully, we RVers of today carry our potties with us, so we needn’t mingle with unfamiliar bacteria. This is a very good reason to travel by RV — especially a motorhome where you can simply walk back from the cab to do your thing while Dad or Grandpa tries his best to avoid potholes.

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