Unfolding The Nation


On Thanksgiving Day in 1895 the Chicago Times-Herald sponsored a fifty-four-mile road race from Jackson Park to Waukegan and on to Lincoln Park. The prize was five thousand dollars. The eventual winner, a man by the name of Frank Duryea, had at least two advantages over his competitors. First, unlike some of them, he was driving a car propelled by gasoline. Second, Duryea had noticed that the paper had published a rough plotting of the course, and he’d had the good sense to rip it out and use it. He thus made not only money but history. By virtue of his action the Times-Herald illustration transcended newspaper graphics to become the first American automobile road map.

The distinction is significant only in retrospect; at the time its effects were nil. After all, what need was there for road maps when, even in 1900, there were a mere eight thousand registered automobiles in the entire country? But as the century shifted into gear, things changed. By 1910 almost a million cars had been registered; by 1915 more than two million. With this new popularity came innovations in the superstructure of motoring, innovations that, considering their improvised character, proved to be surprisingly durable. In 1908 came the first concrete road, a mile-long stretch of Detroit’s Woodward Avenue. Almost immediately motorists from hundreds of miles around made pilgrimages to drive on it. This was a year after the first pedestrian safety island, in San Francisco, and three years before the first painted dividing line, in Michigan. In 1914 Cleveland introduced the first electric traffic signal, and Buffalo put up the first no-left-turn sign in 1916.

Previously motoring had been a form of on-the-edge recreation, something like hang gliding today. Now it was transportation, and motorists needed guidance on how to get where they wanted to go. The roads in a good many urban areas were already mapped, thanks to the bicycle craze of the 1880s and 1890s. But bicycle maps were next to useless to motorists. Cyclists could negotiate mountain trails, pedal their way through alleys or, in an emergency, carry their vehicles across streams; motorists could not. Something new was needed.

As it happened, that something did not—at least at first—turn out to be the road map. Starting not long after the turn of the century, various concerns—tire companies, automobile associations, newspapers, car manufacturers, and resorts—began issuing road guides, in bound, folded, or pamphlet form, each spelling out one or more specific routes. For every turn along the way there was a precise mileage reading, which the motorist was to find on his odometer. In a book put out in 1898 by the White Company, for example, Route 56 is a 110-mile journey from South Bend to Chicago; the driver is told to get ready at mile 80.3, and “at the next corner turn left passing ‘Mike’s Place’ on the right.” Publishing the guide was hardly a civic-minded gesture on the part of White, a manufacturer of steam cars. Not only is the book filled with advertisements, but almost every route in it ends at a branch of the firm.

Something new was needed. That something did not—at least at first—turn out to be the road map.

These early road guides generally included a map or two, but they were not to be relied on. As the Hartford Rubber Works, a tire concern, admitted in its Automobile Good Roads and Tours, published in 1905, “A very thorough preliminary search showed that there were no maps which could be used as a basis for this work…. Much has been willingly left to geographical sense, and the tourist’s own constructive faculty.”

There was considerable variation in the books. In one or another you could find promotional claims (“That the White raises less dust than any other car was proven beyond question in the ‘Dust competition’ held last year by the Royal Automobile Club of England on the Brooklands race-track”); useful advice (“Look out for auto-trap [speed trap], especially in the thinly settled part of town”); and even navigational tips that suggest the precarious nature of motoring early in the century. One book gives detailed instructions, complete with a sketch of the Big Dipper, on how to find “true north.”

A major innovation in the guidebooks was the use of photographs of key points along the route; some included a picture of every turn. (Early examples show a car making the maneuver in question, while later ones, their authors’ having learned an important lesson, showed the turn from the perspective of the driver.) An obvious problem for the compilers of photo guides was that if the enterprise wasn’t to take an intolerable amount of time, at least two researchers were needed: one to drive, and one to take odometer readings, pictures, and notes. Andrew McNally II, son of the founding partner of Rand McNally & Company, solved this problem by enlisting his bride; the Rand McNally Chicago to Milwaukee Photo-Auto Guide of 1909 is a record of their honeymoon trip.