Goggles & Side Curtains

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At about the beginning of World War I, local chambers of commerce and other promotional groups, appraising the growing importance of the travel dollar, joined in the work for better touring conditions. Associations whose total assets often consisted of a map, a letterhead, a few cans of paint, and the spirit of boosterism were formed to direct traffic to one highway rather than another under such catch phrases as “Tightening the Union” or “See America First.” Highways were endowed with names that sounded like advertising slogans, which in fact they were, e.g., the Dixie Trail. Many a northern investor hit the Trail to Florida to view the glamorous building lots he had purchased in the land of flowers, oranges, sunshine, and, all too often, swamps. Distinctive bands of paint on telephone poles kept the tourist on his route, pleasantly reminding countless dreamers that they were tooling along in the tradition of the frontiersmen who followed blazed trails through the primeval forest. Main arteries, designated by variegated combinations of stripes and symbols, included the Midland, the Alfalfa, the Cornhusker, the Arrowhead, the Rocky Mountain, the Sunshine, and the Red Ball routes.

“Follow the painted poles,” a friendly native would say to a perplexed motorist. “They’ll take you right into Chicago!”

“Follow the painted poles?”

“Yes—a white band, with a red streak around the middle. ‘R’ stands for right turn, ‘L’ stands for left turn, and look out for the cars!” The last was a reference to the sobering fact that in those days there were hardly any railroad over- or underpasses.

As the utility poles became decorated with more and more insignia—sometimes there were as many as eleven represented on one pole—the situation became chaotic. Detours were still poorly marked, and feeder roads caused confusion since they carried the same markings as the main route. Finally, there were not enough color combinations to serve the needs of The O.K. Short Line, the Blue Grass, the Cannonball, and all the rest.

In many parts of the West there were no poles to paint. In 1914 one traveller reported finding the information he needed crudely daubed on a five-gallon gasoline can beside the road. In Colorado an auto tourist discovered his directions painted on the bleached skull of a buffalo. An inquirer at Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was headed for Los Angeles, received these instructions: “Follow the mountain range eighty miles south to a stick in the fork of the road with a paper tied to the top. Take the ruts that lead off to the right.”

The big confusion over road markings was removed by a simple expedient. Roads began to be designated by numbers instead of colored rings of paint. In 1917 a beginning was made when Wisconsin adopted the numbering system in use today. Minnesota followed in 1920, and the plan was adopted in 1925 by the United States government for routes of interstate and national significance, the even numbers running east and west, the odd numbers north and south. Thus the famous red, white, and blue rectangles of the Lincoln Highway faded away as that celebrated route, along with all the other “trails,” lost its identity to the numbered U.S. metal shields that tied the new system together.

Yet many important roads were still unsurfaced. Looking back at the situation that prevailed when the numbered routes were adopted, an official in the Wisconsin State Highway Department has offered these words of consolation: “You knew you were on the right road even though you were stuck in the mud.”

The motorist’s faithful assistant in shaping his itinerary was one or another of the automobile “tour books.” These guides had been issued since the early years of the century by motor clubs, advertisers, or established publishers such as Rand McNally & Co., most of whom were already sophisticated in the techniques of mapping. An Official Automobile Blue Book (“There’s one in nearly every car”) was distributed by the American Automobile Association from the middle of the first decade until the twenties. A compilation of road information between important points like Rochester, New York, and Buffalo, the Blue Book was perhaps the most famous and widely used specimen of this genre of touring literature, which traced its ancestry back to the modest bicycle map.

A trip into unfamiliar territory required homework. The adventurer studied his manual, debated the choice of routes, weighed data on road surfaces, and noted prominent landmarks. He knew that mechanics were scarce: if the machine broke down, the only resource might well be a village blacksmith who could, hopefully, weld a broken spring or solder a leaky radiator, but who would scarcely be up to penetrating the mysteries of a balky carburetor float. The driver expected to patch his own tires and pump them up with his own hand pump. Gasoline could be looked for at a general store, drug store, or dry-cleaning establishment. It was drawn from a wooden barrel out back somewhere and was poured through a funnel from a one-gallon measure. Windshields were not wiped. Air was not free. The only rest room was the bushes.