As the US highway system began development in the 1920s, road trips became common. With more people traveling for work and more families vacationing the need for overnight accommodations grew. People wanted to stay in a place that was both inexpensive and easily accessible from the highways. This led to the roadside motel, which was often small and family owned.
If you stayed overnight in a motel before the late ’90s, you most likely received a key connected to a large metal or plastic key fob. The initial purpose for these tags, which were primarily made of a heavy metal, were so guests wouldn’t forget to the return them.
Key tags often disappeared, though, as many people took them deliberately as souvenirs – a bride and groom might have kept one to put in a scrapbook. Some kept them so they could later return and enter the room again. Another problem was that many motels issued skeleton keys which could be used to open several locks.
Some tags would have imprinted messages offering a reward for return. In later years, many included a “postage guaranteed” imprint alongside an address so all you had to do was drop a key in a mailbox and the USPS would deliver it back to the motel.
The introduction of the electronic key card offered more protection for guests and their valuables and a more cost-effective method for larger lodges to “rekey” locks as guests checked out.
Old-fashioned key rings are gaining new attention as a collectible item. The value, however, is primarily determined by the collector himself, rather than an industry. Many who collect vintage key tags search for ones that hold sentimental value rather than for financial investment.
There are still motels that use the traditional key and tag. These are mostly small, family-owned units in small towns and rural areas, where the investment of an electronic system isn’t justified. If you stay in one of these, you’ll likely find wall-tiled bathrooms, window unit air conditioners and aged furniture. They are often, however, a great testament to travel during the ’50s and ’60s. Just don’t forget to return your room key to the front desk on your way out.