Birmingham's Tourist Courts
by James L. Baggett

As automobiles became affordable and reliable in the early 20th century, many Americans ventured out on long vacation trips into areas of the country not served by rail. Finding few places to stay, early auto travelers often slept in their cars or camped in tents. Enterprising residents along highways rented camp spaces in their yards or rooms in their homes. Towns and cities opened green spaces for camping, and some provided amenities like toilets, showers, drinking water and fire wood. By the 1930s, tourist courts lined American highways. Offering the comfort and privacy of small one-room cabins, tourist courts were a significant step up from sleeping on the ground or in the back seat.

Tourist courts declined while motels, with more plush rooms and swimming pools, became the preferred affordable lodging for travelers. Many courts held on, and some survive today, but by the late 1940s tourist courts were often seen as dilapidated and seedy places used for illicit rendezvous. In the Birmingham area, several civic groups, including the Jaycees, the PTA, and the Women’s Chamber of Commerce led a campaign in 1947 to regulate and clean up tourist courts. The county health officer reported that at many local tourist courts, the “’tourists’ remained only a short time.” Homewood was the first local community to regulate tourist courts, passing ordinances requiring that all guests sign a register and cabins be rented only once per night.  

Additional Reading: 

Flowers, Raymond, 100 Years on the Road: A Social History of the Car. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.  

Heimann, Jim, California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001. 

Hollis, Tim, Dixie Before Disney: 100 Years of Roadside Fun. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.


Web site of interest:


This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Birmingham Public Library Archives, recognized internationally as one of the largest and finest municipal archives in the United States. With more than 30,000,000 documents, maps, architectural drawings, works of art and 400,000 photographs, the Archives preserves the raw material of Birmingham history and makes it available to students, scholars and the simply curious.

Running throughout this year, “Timepiece” is a Birmingham Magazine monthly feature on Birmingham history that will highlight items from the Archives’ collections.