And Now Introducing . . .The Interstate Highway System!

2,000 American soldiers killed.  On December 7th 1941 people were delivered the shocking news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As the U.S mourned the loss of the soldiers they also found out a shocking piece of news; car production was to end for awhile- no set date: just awhile.

Attack On Pearl Harbor,_Hawaii_which_initiated_US_participation_in_World…_-_NARA_-_295977.jpg (public domain)

Imagine that the car your family had at the time would be irreplaceable for the next 8 years.  For some families this meant being stuck with old janky cars that were providing the bare minimum of transportation, and had the constant need of maintenance.

Having the same car for many years wasn’t uncommon, this held true until the post-war consumer culture appeared.  So when the war came to an end, the automobile industry announced the production of new cars.  And at this very moment people began to crave cars.

The cars were hot off the press, rolling quickly off the “assembly line.”  Post-war had the economy in good spirits, and the people hungry for the freshly made cars.  Hence why there were waiting lists for the new cars.  Many people signed up to wait for the new Ford 2 door Sedan; if you were placed high on the wait list- you could get your brand spankin’ new Sedan in 1948.

Many were eagerly driving the new cars, the economy was finally in a good place, the war was over.  Car culture was on the rise.  The automobile served as a way for kids and adults to commute to school, and work, opening doors to the world of travel.

And it was President Dwight Eisenhower who saw the automobile’s ability to adventure and travel as a necessity in the United States.  Eisenhower was stationed in Germany during WWII and had been intrigued with their high-speed road system.  When returning back to the U.S Eisenhower took immediate action by presenting the idea of the Federal Aid Highway Act (FAHA).  He presented this idea in terms of a “crucial safety measure,” that in the event of a nuclear attack it would allow people to escape areas quickly. (public domain)


FAHA would add up to quite a hefty total: 50 billion dollars.  The act involved building multiple lane highway systems, and had to meet all of the safety precautions and requirements in order for the system to function.   Eisenhower convinced the people that it wouldn’t take that much of a financial toll on them as 90% of the costs would be paid by the federal government and the remaining 10% was to be covered by the state government.

Johnson signs Federal Highway Act (public domain)

The act was passed June 29th of 1956, and construction of the system began immediately.  Within 5 months the highway link in Topeka Kansas was paved, and they continued construction across the country.  The goal of FAHA was to have the 41,000-mile system finished in 16 years.  It ended up taking 27 years as the last link was placed in Los Angeles, CA in 1993, ending with a grand total of 42,000 miles.

Mapped Plan of Interstate 95 (public domain)

The rise of car culture served as a precedent for the need of the Interstate Highway System.  This system allowed people to escape traffic jams, travel further distances in less time, it served as an overall convenience.  The working class greatly appreciated the highways.  People were able to drive into the city easily, and the interstate was easy to navigate.

West Entrance on U.S Highway 56 and 54, Tucumcari, NM,_west_entrance_on_U.S._Highway_66_and_54,_Tucumcari,_New_Mexico.jpg (public domain)

Interchange along U.S Highway 21, Byesville, Ohio (public domain)

Driving was now promoted to society; whether it be go drive to a destination or a simply take a cruise on the highway.  The newly licensed youth responded happily; they could cruise more than just the town loop.  The teens now had the ability to cruise “wicked quick” on the interstate to whatever destination they pleased, giving them a real taste of freedom. (public domain)

Society cringed at the thought of rebellious youngin’s flying down the interstate, pushing 90 mph – it was dangerous.  Speed limits were set, and billboards read: “drive to arrive alive” and “speed kills” to promote safety and awareness.  The convenience outweighed the dangers, people were finally able to get from point A —> Point B, quick and easy.

U.S Route 1 (public domain)

It made traveling a huge hit to young adults and families, as they traveled state-to-state seeing various landmarks.  The idea of car travel was heavily and happily promoted through automobile advertisements; “enjoy some great family bonding and fun” “Road trip to see some of the greatest sites at Yosemite National Park”.  The Interstate Highway System created a new world of accessibility.

– Halli Bair Published (4/14/15) updated: (4/24/15)


Bureau of Public Roads. “The Video Gallery.” Road Films. Federal Highway Administration. April 2015.

History Network. The Interstate Highway System. April 2015.

U.S Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. History of The Interstate Highway System. April 2015.

University Of Vermont. History and cultural impact of the Interstate Highway system.

Weingroff, Richard. “Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System.” Public Roads. Federal Highway Administration. 2015.

Young, Nancy, and William Young. 2004. “Trailers, Mobile Homes, Station Wagons, Campers, And Recreational Vehicles.” In Popular Culture of The 1950’s, “258-264”. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group. April 2015.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *