- Historic Sites
Unfolding The Nation
Wherever you go in search of history, there’s a good chance the first thing you reach for will be a road map. And road maps have a history too.
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
Another difficulty with the guidebooks was that landmarks on the order of Mike’s Place were not permanent. So, in the 1910s, a number of guidebook makers took the sensible step of making their own landmarks. In the middle of the decade, the Goodrich tire company began putting up guideposts, described as follows in one of their books: “Erected for the express purpose of guiding motor travel. This sign is made of porcelain enamel in three colors, erected on 4-inch oak posts, ten feet long. Each post is thoroughly creosoted and planted three feet into the ground.” The company’s guidebooks then supplied directions keyed to the markers.
Roads had no names or had at best local, unofficial ones that changed as you went from one town to another.
The guides were useful, but they could not hold sway for very long. As new roads were built, the books, which had gotten more unwieldy every year, simply could not cover all the possible routes. It was time for the road map.
Maps designed exclusively for autos had been produced at least as early as 1900, the date of a series of pocket maps put out by George Walker of Boston, which can be found in the map collection of the New York Public Library. His maps are in perfect condition, printed in delicate colors and handsome typography, beautifully bound and backed with stiff gauze covers, and—miraculously, considering the legendary difficulties later generations of drivers have had with the task—effortless to fold.
There was no shortage of other maps produced in the following years, many of them published by the American Automobile Association, founded in 1902. (In the early teens the AAA began putting out what later became known as Trip-Tiks, elongated, horizontal strip maps customized to guide members on their travels. It provides the same service today.) But there was one drawback in using maps for directional guidance at this time: roads had no names or at best had local, unofficial ones (Lincoln Highway, Dixie Highway, Post Road) that changed as you went from one town to another. How were these roads to be identified on maps?
A solution to this problem was hit on by John Brink, a draftsman on the staff of Rand McNally. In 1916 the company ran a contest, offering a hundred dollars to the employee who suggested the best new map product. Brink suggested road maps specifically designed for motorists. To deal with the route-naming difficulty, he proposed that Rand McNally take the Goodrich trail markers one step better and put up posts that numbered major routes, which would then be correlated with the maps. Brink, named head of Rand McNally’s new Blazed Trails Department, put his scheme into practice in 1917, when his Illinois Auto Trails map was published. The next year Brink used his summer vacation to blaze the route from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Cincinnati.
In his diary he recorded his method: “I started out for the field with my car loaded with 400 cardboard signs (coated to resist the weather), ten pounds of broadhead tacks, and a magnetic hammer, not to mention a pair of overalls. Commencing at Kalamazoo, I worked south, and in nine working days, reached Richmond, Ind. l had blazed 180 miles of road, tacking up 355 signs that consumed 22 pounds of tack.”
Brink’s idea might have been too good. It so clearly made sense that now dozens of civic organizations, auto clubs, state road departments, and map companies began blazing trails, with the confusing result that some roads were marked by as many as a dozen contradictory signposts. Clearly, government intervention was called for. It started to arrive in 1920, when Wisconsin became the first state to number its roads; by 1924 twenty-one other states had followed its lead. By the end of the decade, 75,884 miles of “U.S. Routes” were in place, the precursor to the Interstate Highway System of the 1950s.
A map innovator perhaps the equal of John Brink was an advertising man named William B. Akin. In 1913 the Gulf Refining Company erected, on a Pittsburgh street corner, the nation’s very first drive-in gasoline service station. In the fall of 1913, Akin suggested that Gulf print up some maps of the county’s roads and give them away to customers as promotional tools.